John William Waterhouse

The Lady of Shalott

1888

Not on display

Artist
John William Waterhouse 1849–1917
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1530 × 2000 mm
frame: 2000 × 2460 × 230 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894
Reference
N01543

Summary

The picture illustrates the following lines from part IV of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’:

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson’s poem, first published in 1832, tells of a woman who suffers under an undisclosed curse. She lives isolated in a tower on an island called Shalott, on a river which flows down from King Arthur’s castle at Camelot. Not daring to look upon reality, she is allowed to see the outside world only through its reflection in a mirror. One day she glimpses the reflected image of the handsome knight Lancelot, and cannot resist looking at him directly. The mirror cracks from side to side, and she feels the curse come upon her. The punishment that follows results in her drifting in her boat downstream to Camelot ‘singing her last song’, but dying before she reaches there. Waterhouse shows her letting go the boat’s chain, while staring at a crucifix placed in front of three guttering candles. Tennyson was a popular subject for artists of this period, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites. Waterhouse’s biographer Anthony Hobson relates that the artist owned a copy of Tennyson’s collected works, and covered every blank page with pencil sketches for paintings.

The landscape setting is highly naturalistic; the painting was made during Waterhouse’s brief period of plein-air painting. The setting is not identified, although the Waterhouses frequently visited Somerset and Devon. The model is traditionally said to be the artist’s wife. Waterhouse’s sketchbook contains numerous pencil studies for this and the painting of the same title made six years later (1894, Leeds City Art Gallery). This second work shows the Lady at the moment she looks out of the window and the curse is fulfilled. Waterhouse also made sketches of the final scenes in which the boat bearing the Lady floats into Camelot.

The Lady of Shalott is one of the original paintings from the gift of Sir Henry Tate.

Further reading
Anthony Hobson, The Art and Life of J W Waterhouse RA 1849–1917, London 1980, pp.51–6, 183, reproduced pp.54–5 in colour.
Anthony Hobson, J W Waterhouse, Oxford 1989, pp.40–1, 53, 77, 109, reproduced p.42 in colour.

Terry Riggs
February 1998

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Display caption

The Lady of Shalott is a poem by Alfred Tennyson, written 50 years before Waterhouse painted this picture. The Lady of Shalott is cursed and forced to stay in a tower. She is only allowed to look at the world through a reflection in the mirror. One day, she sees a knight, Sir Lancelot, and falls in love with him. She ignores the curse and leaves the tower to find him, which results in her death. Lady of Shalott’s story can be read as a warning about female desire. Victorian society had strict rules and expectations for women that defined ‘acceptable’ behaviour.

Gallery label, July 2020

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