The Great Sea Snake

Tamsin Rosewell, 2015

Roud 1093
Version by Kings of the South Seas, 2014

This is a painting of a song by a The Kings of the South Seas entitled The Great Sea Snake. It tells a story that dates back thousands of years; the story of explorers finding what they believe to be an island and settling there, not realising that the ‘island’ is the back of a sea monster. In most versions of the story everything goes well, sometimes for many years, until they build a church; at that point the ‘island’ objects and dives to the depths of the ocean destroying the settlement and drowning its good Christian worshipers. There are medieval manuscripts that have illuminations illustrating this story. The earliest version of the story written dates to 2nd Century AD, but probably retells a tale that is very much earlier indeed. The fabled creature is known in literature as the aspoidochelone and is variously described as a giant snake, a whale or a vast turtle – or sometimes just a monster. In some stories the monster emits the sweet smell of a thousand flowers that lure animals and sailors onto its shores, so that they can be drowned and then devoured. Medieval Christian texts turn the story into a moralistic allegory where the false paradise represents Satan who deceives all those he devours – hence the addition in many tales of a church.   

I adore this song for its storytelling and most particularly for the treatment it was given by the Kings of the South Seas. Their version is like a patronising kids bible story retold in 1930s jazz, with something of The Coasters thrown in for good measure. I wanted to painting to be an unholy combination of medieval illumination, and jazz-age art. I have always enjoyed the work of Archibald John Motley and John Held, with its odd and energetic fluidity, jarring colours and art deco shapes. There is a strong element of a tall-tale in this song – sailors would return from voyages with these stories and, as the rest of us didn’t really travel much at the time, who was to say they were not true? If they said they had seen it, who would have the more superior knowledge to dispute it? I wanted to painting to reflect this too somehow, so I tried to ensure that while the image hangs together, nothing is quite the right size for its place. The song is richly coloured; to me it is a very dark red and marbled in texture, like porphyry stone, and streaming through it are rivers of a rich and clear emperor purple. I really struggled to get the right marbled texture that I could see so clearly in the music; after several experiments I used a powdered compound called Alum, and sea salt. This stopped the colour from settling in a consistent coverage and gave the sea snake a mottled pattern like very old leather. The sea green colours in the snake are not at all what I see in the music, but I wanted to ensure that the overall effect of the painting was not just an amusingly chaotic sea scene. The Great Sea Snake became a study in complementary colour; the blood red and the sea green placed alongside each other and the purple and gold all sit quite uncomfortably and ensure that your eye never really feels rested in any one spot. You don’t move around the painting in an elegant and controlled fashion as you would looking at, for example, Titan’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’ in which you are moved carefully by the artist from one part of the scene to the next and on up to the heavens. Your eye dances about the painting trying to take everything in.

The song is full of fascinating little details. There are references to Pitcairn Island, to houses all built neatly in a row, a handsome church and to the people keeping oxen pigs and sheep – so all of that had to go into the painting.  I wanted to have Dutch houses on the back of the sea snake, with their distinctive wiggly roofs and tall, slim structure; it was the Dutch whaling industry that grew most rapidly from 1614 onwards, and from which many of the images of whaling from this period survive. Having painted Dutch houses, I then realized that the ship anchored nearby needed to be a Dutch Whaler of the same period. I based my ship an image of a Dutch Whaler of c1765 called The Baleniera Olandese that I found at with the help of the National Maritime Museum.

There is a reference to Pitcairn Island in the song, so I decided to cover one of the ‘islands’ formed by the snake in references to Pitcairn. Pitcairn was discovered by Europeans in 1767 and although it has only a small population now – about 50 islanders – they are all descendants of the mutineers from the Bounty and their Tahitian companions. Pitcairn is known for its very rich honey; if you ever get the chance to try it do, but be warned it is powerful stuff – not to be spread liberally on crumpets! The flowers of the island are glorious and exotic, as you might imagine. I contacted Kew Gardens research and the Government of Pitcairn Island to find out exactly what flowers I should be painting onto my small off-shore snake-island, and what arrived back was a 20 page document of all the flora and known fauna of the islands. The honey however, is made largely from the nectar of  Passion Flower, Guava and Roseapple flowers, Frangipani and Mango Flower. So those were the plants that I painted on to the island, along with some traditional bee hives. The island’s only church is Seventh Day Adventist, so I based my church on one from the early period of this denomination.

I’ve played that album hundreds of times and it still makes me smile. I was going to paint The King of the Cannibal Islands first, but this song popped into my head with such a clear image and clarity of colour that I changed my mind.

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