WATERHOUSE, John William
(b. 1849, Roma, d. 1917, London)

The Lady of Shalott

Oil on canvas, 153 x 200 cm
Tate Gallery, London

Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott depicts a scene from Alfred Lord Tennyson's 1832 poem of the same title, in which the poet describes the plight of a young woman isolated under an undisclosed curse in a tower near King Arthur's Camelot. It is typically Pre-Raphaelite in that it illustrates a vulnerable and doomed woman and is bathed in natural early-evening light. The lady is portrayed staring away from the crucifix, which sits beside three candles. During the late nineteenth century, candles were often used to symbolise life: in this image, two have blown out.

According to legend, the Lady of Shalott was forbidden to look directly at reality or the outside world; instead she was doomed to view the world through a mirror, and weave what she saw into tapestry. One day the Lady saw Sir Lancelot passing on his way in the reflection of the mirror, and dared to look out at Camelot, bringing about a curse. The lady escaped by boat during an autumn storm. As she sailed towards Camelot and certain death, she sang a lament. Her frozen body was found shortly afterwards by the knights and ladies of Camelot, one of whom is Lancelot, who prayed to God to have mercy on her soul. The tapestry she wove during her imprisonment was found draped over the side of the boat.

Waterhouse painted three different versions of this character, in 1888, 1894 and 1916.

Tennyson's verse was popular with many of the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters, and was illustrated by such artists as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Maw Egley, and William Holman Hunt.