John William Waterhouse – The Lady of Shalott (1888, 1894, 1915)

Waterhouse - The Lady of Shalott 1888
Waterhouse – The Lady of Shalott 1888


Took a day trip to Exeter this week, to see the exhibition ‘Art & Soul: Victorians and the Gothic’ at RAMM (the Royal Albert Memorial Museum).

The exhibition is excellent; very well laid out, with captions and wall boards just the right balance between informative and quickly readable. The exhibits are a mix of items with some local relevance to Devon and items more generically relevant to the topic of Victorian gothic art and architecture. Some highlights of the exhibition for me were the copies of John Ruskin’s books (e.g. The Stones of Venice), despite the fact I can never think of Ruskin without thinking about the infamous story of his private life (see Franny Moyle’s Desperate Romantics for the best description of this incident), and the huge tapestry of ‘The Knights of the Round Table Summoned to the Quest by the Strange Damsel’ by Burne-Jones, Morris and Dearle. The latter is rarely publicly displayed, so worth making the effort to go see it.

The Knights of the Round Table Summoned to the Quest by the Strange Damsel
The Knights of the Round Table Summoned to the Quest by the Strange Damsel


The painting from the exhibition that has prompted this week’s blog, though, is an oil sketch of the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse. It’s a preparatory sketch (normally in Falmouth Art Gallery) for his 1894 version of the subject (in Leeds Art Gallery). Waterhouse painted 3 versions of the Lady Of Shalott, in 1888, 1894 and 1915, and for this week’s blog I want to make a quick comparison of the 3 versions.

Waterhouse Lady of Shalott 1894 - sketch
Waterhouse Lady of Shalott 1894 – sketch


Firstly, it’s probably useful to have a quick summary of the story of The Lady of Shalott. It comes from a poem by Tennyson and is well summarised on the Tate website – “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’s first version, from 1888 (shown at the top of this post), is the most famous of his three versions and, in fact, is probably one of the most famous, well-love paintings in the whole of Britain. It’s held in Tate Britain and is, apparently, consistently their best selling postcard. In this version, the lady is floating downstream, about to die, as indicated by the candles about to blow out and her loosening grip on the boat’s chain. She is dressed all in white and has a wistful, melancholic expression, apparently content to meet her fate and die for unrequited love.

The second version, from 1894, shows a much more pro-active lady. She is portrayed in the moment when she sees Lancelot in the mirror and turns to look out. The pro-activeness of the action at this point in the story is aptly captured by Waterhouse in the leaning forwards pose depicted, as though she is about to leave the room, heading in our direction. Still portrayed in a striking white dress, but with an expression that says “Don’t get in my way”.

Waterhouse Lady of Shalott 1894
Waterhouse Lady of Shalott 1894

Finally, the third version from 1915 which is in the Art Gallery of Ontario and is actually titled ‘“I am half sick of shadows,” said the Lady of Shalott’. In this version, the moment captured is before she sees Lancelot, when she is simply sat in the tower, looking out at the world via a mirror. The wistful expression is back, perhaps more wistful than melancholy in this case as she hasn’t yet “ruined her life” by looking out of the window at a passing knight! The tiled floor and mirror hark back to Dutch paintings like those of Vermeer and the dress has changed from white to red.

Waterhouse Lady of Shalott 1915
Waterhouse Lady of Shalott 1915

There are some links between the three versions (or between various combinations of two of the three, anyway). The models dresses are white in 1888 and 1894, but red in 1915. Could this be because in 1915, a year into World War I, innocence has been lost? OR is it related to the fact that the 1894 and 1915 versions use the same model, 20 years apart? Perhaps the virginal white used for the girl in the 1894 version no longer seems appropriate for the mature woman in the 1915 version.

The mirror shown in the 1894 and 1915 versions could easily be the same mirror, large, circular and with a wide border. Similarly, the tapestry shown in all three could be the same although admittedly the 1915 version where the lady is working on it is more similar to the 1888 version shown as a seat cover than either of them is to the 1894 version, where the colours appear different even if the circular (mirror-like) motifs are the same.

All in all, though, I would argue the three paintings are pretty close in tone and in their naturalistic depiction of actual elements of the story. Closely related to each other and similar enough that it would be very interesting to view them all in a row, the last version on the left, the earliest version on the right. It would perhaps be something like an oil painting, graphic novel version of The Lady of Shalott!


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