‘Jenny Haniver’ is the mysterious name given to grotesque composite fish-creatures made by sailors. They were conventionally made from skates or rays, presumably because these are among the most anthropomorphic sea-creatures easily obtainable from a boat – compare Jean-Baptise-Simeon Chardin’s haunting still life ‘The Ray’ (below), where the dismembered fish hovers in the background like a lacerated human soul in torment.
Jenny Hanivers overlap thematically with ‘strange fish’ – curiosities from the sea displayed at fairs and markets for money. Strange fish might be either outright composite fakes or bizarre fish believed by their exhibitors to be genuine – in The Tempest Trinculo mistakes Caliban for one such, in the process evoking a contemporary English consumer culture of exotic objects:
A strange fish! Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lazy out ten to see a dead Indian.
Jenny Hanivers also have obvious connections to mermaid fakes – many ‘sirens’ were made from sewing a monkey corpse to a fish corpse, or indeed assembled from the ground upwards like craft objects (as with the talismanic merman at London’s Horniman museum, which seems to have had a religious significance). This strain is the less Pre-Raphaelite image of the mermaid in history.
Where exactly Jenny Hanivers get their bizarre name is not clear – in The Fabled Coast (previously reviewed on this website), Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood give the term’s origin in ‘Jenny’ (as in female, like a ‘Jenny Wren’) and ‘D’Antwerp / D’Anvers’ (‘from Antwerp’, where they were supposedly manufactured). Wikipedia gives an uncited emendation as ‘jeune d’Anvers’, so they are not gendered, but rather precisely aged. But it’s still not entirely clear what their purpose was – clearly they had a commercial value, since they were made in a trading port and (presumably) sold to sailors as souvenirs; perhaps they also had uses as low-level fakes giving credence to sailors’ yarns. I think, with their evident strangeness, they also have something of the talismanic about them – in a harsh natural environment like the sea, you need all the help you can get.
Jenny Hanivers tie together many of the ideas running through this project – they are hybrids (albeit man-made) and they speak to an ancient tradition of myth and legend surrounding mermaids, mer-creatures and the sea. They also appear to have had a commercial value, which is a telling point in the light of our last trip to Deptford Creek (a key trading port), as well as in some of the discussions we’ve had about the commercialisation of the mermaid in the twentieth century. It’s interesting, too, that they appear to have been gendered as female. I thought I’d have a go at making some.