Saturday, 18 June 2011

Fascination with The Lady of Shalott

John William Waterhouse

Alfred Tennyson was only 23 when he first published The lady of Shalott and said he got the idea from a 14th century Italian novella, Donna di Scalotta. Hunt and Rossetti were both inspired to illustrate the haunting poem, which tells how the tragic Lady of Shalott must remain in a tower, separated from the outside world and under a spell that means she dies when she escapes.

Abandoning Shalott, her mythical island, the Lady steals a boat and finds time to write her name on the bows before drifting down the river to Camelot to find love. Sadly the curse means she dies before she arrives and is found (too late) by the gallant knight Sir Lancelot.  It is this scene which Dante Gabriel Rossetti chose to illustrate, where all Lancelot's has to say on finding the body is "She has a lovely face".   Rossetti wrote in a letter to Hunt that "illustrated editions of poets, however good are quite hateful things" but this didn't seem to stop him as he made numerous preparatory sketches before he was happy with his woodcut.

Rossetti: The lady of Shalott (Woodcut)  Credit The Rossetti Archive

Hunt’s painting of The Lady of Shalott was his last work, completed at the age of 87 and captures a very different moment – when the mirror cracks and the spell is broken.

Hunt: The Lady of Shalott 
The theme of unrequited love and unattainable women prepared to surrender everything is an enduring concept – but the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's fascination with The Lady of Shalott has to be seen in the Victorian context. Tennyson's trick is to leave the reason for the curse a mystery and defines the ideally vulnerable Victorian woman who pays the price for her ambition.

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