|The Lady of Shalott by J W Waterhouse, 1888, Tate Modern, London|
The first and best of three versions he made of this subject.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his poem, The Lady of Shalott, based on medieval legends of King Arthur, in 1833 with a revised version in 1842. The story is that the lady was a prisoner in a tower on the island of Shalott which was situated in a river leading downstream to Camelot. We don't know who she was or why she was being punished but she could only see images of the world in her mirror. She weaved these images into a multi-coloured web but was under threat of an unknown curse if she looked upon Camelot or any of it's people. One day she saw and fell in love with Sir Lancelot, a Knight of the Round Table and her fate was sealed. We see her floating down toward Camelot and to her tragic demise.
The painting is an interesting mix of both symbolism and realism. The palette (range of colours used) is very autumnal as is the low-cast light level. I have sampled some of the these colours below to illustrate this point.
The artist has succeeded in maintaining a balance between realism and what we might call 'other-worldliness'. Her unkempt hair and the untidy reeds in the foreground along with her expression symbolises her despair. She could also be said to symbolise the position of women in Victorian Britain - she is not in control of her destiny. Waterhouse has kept a sense of realism with his clever use of depth in the background landscape and the surface of the water. As she emerges from the dark woods behind her she is brightly lit so she remains the focus of our attention. To her left you can see some steps leading down to the water, which I think she has just walked down to begin her fateful journey. There are three candles on the far side of the boat, only one of which is still burning and toward the bow of the boat is a crucifix, all of which symbolises her impending untimely death. Draped over the side of the boat is one of her tapestries, a direct reference to Tennyson's poem.
In summary, we have a realistic scene of a 'fairy-tale' woman heavily symbolic of both the time in which it was made and of faithful reference to Tennyson's poem.
Below are Waterhouse's two other paintings of this subject. In both works we can see her tapestry loom and, in the background, the mirror, her only view of the world until she looks at Lancelot.
Having just got back from a long weekend in France I'm feeling all Frenchified and I am listening to Françoise Hardy:
La maison où j'ai grandi (click to listen).
I used to be in love with her - probably still am. My wife understands....
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