The Story Behind The Lady of Shalott

by Christie Cluett 20. February 2015 13:22

Many people are familiar with John Waterhouse's 1888 painting The Lady of Shalott, which hangs in London's Tate Gallery. But what's the story behind this iconic oil-on-canvas, which regularly tops polls to find Britain's best painting? Read on to find out.

Lord Alfred Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott

Waterhouse's inspiration for The Lady of Shalott comes from Lord Alfred Tennyson's Arthurian-themed poem of the same name. The poem, first published in 1832, is about a woman who lives alone in a tower on the island of Shalott, upstream from King Arthur's castle at Camelot.

Because of a curse, the Lady must stay in her tower and weave pictures of the outside world by looking only at the reflection in a mirror. One day she catches a reflected glimpse of the knight Lancelot, who is so handsome she cannot resist looking at him directly through the window.

Smitten, the Lady leaves her tower and rides a boat down to Camelot, in an attempt to meet Lancelot, singing 'her last song' along the way. But as a consequence of her curse, the Lady tragically dies before she gets to Camelot and sees Lancelot again.

John Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott

John Waterhouse's The Lady of Shallot follows a theme evident in many of his other artworks, in that it focuses on the plight of a beautiful and tragic woman. But rather than trying to convey the entire story of The Lady of Shalott, Waterhouse's painting illustrates the following lines from part IV of Tennyson's poem:

                                              

Poem sourced from: Poetry Foundation.

However, John Waterhouse's Tennyson inspired works didn’t end in 1888, as the artist would go on to paint a further two episodes from The Lady of Shalott poem.

In 1894, he painted the Lady when she first looks at Lancelot from the window. Then, in 1915, Waterhouse painted the Lady as she sat weaving at her loom. These paintings are hung at the City Art Gallery in Leeds and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada, respectively.

Plus, according to Waterhouse's official biographer, Anthony Hobson, the artist owned a copy of Tennyson's complete works and covered every blank page with pencil sketches for paintings

Pre-Raphaelites


                                         

Above: Ophelia, a painting by the leading Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir John Everett Millais, based on a character in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Image from: Yvonne


The works of Tennyson were a favourite amongst the Pre-Raphaelites – a group of English painters, poets and critics that flourished in the mid-nineteenth century. The Pre-Raphaelites sought to reform art by rejecting the mechanistic approach to painting, which had remained popular because of renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Raphael.

Many art critics have commented that, in many ways, Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott is similar in style to works by the Pre-Raphaelites. For example, the pose in which Waterhouse paints the Lady and the clothes she wears are typical of what you might expect to see in a Pre-Raphaelites painting.

However what really sets Waterhouse's classic painting apart as an ode to the Pre-Raphaelite tradition is its use of symbolism to convey the story. For example, there are three candles on the boat but only one is lit, which symbolises the life of the Lady nearing its end. In addition, the Lady's mouth is slightly ajar to suggest that she is singing 'her last song'. 

The Landscape and Model

 
                                            

Above: An example of the beautiful Somerset landscape that may have provided John Waterhouse with inspiration for The Lady of Shallot. Image from: crabchick.


Although the landscape that served as Waterhouse's inspiration is unknown, the artist liked to visit both Somerset and Devon often. As such, many critics believe that the lush countryside of both counties influenced Waterhouse's depiction of the landscape in the The Lady of Shallot.

John Waterhouse always used models in his work, as it helped him to capture the shapes and positons of the figures in his paintings. Some believe the model that Waterhouse used for The Lady of Shallot is his wife, Esther Kenworthy Waterhouse. Others, however, believe it to be a woman called Jennifer Flora, who modelled for the artist regularly throughout 1888.

Do you fancy owning a piece of original art with its own unique narrative? Visit our homepage, and then use the search tool on the right to find an artwork that matches your taste and budget.

Feature image credit: Helena

Tags:

Comments are closed




Own Art makes buying art easy and affordable - spread the cost of your purchase over 10 months with an interest free loan. Find out more

News and information

Contact us

  • ArtGallery.co.uk
    Millennium House
    Brunel Drive
    Newark
    NG24 2DE