William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, 1886-1905, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford CT.
Finally, after 97 days, I’ve found the perfect expression of the lockdown. I’m beginning to understand how this Lady feels. I suspect we’ve all been going through this for a while now – “I am half sick of shadows,” said the Lady of Shalott. I mean, imagine it, stuck at home on your own for you don’t know how long, faced with an undefined threat, and the only experience you have of the outside world is the luminous image on a single surface. It could be the television, I suppose, or your computer screen. Or it could just be a mirror. At least we know what the threat is, and why we might be socially distanced, or self isolating. The Lady of Shalott did not. I am certainly half sick of shadows, but yesterday the news came that, somehow, museums and art galleries will be able to re-open in a week and a half, and we will be able to see the real things, again, rather than looking at pictures of the pictures…
William Holman Hunt, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, kept going in a similar vein for the rest of his life, his paintings paying close attention to naturalistic detail, and drawing their inspiration from good literature. Among the Pre-Raphaelite ‘heroes’ were the Bible, Dante, William Shakespeare, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and their interest in the romance of the medieval past springs to a considerable degree from his. The Lady of Shalott is a case in point. Like several of Hunt’s later works it took years to complete, had a complex evolution, and exists in more than one version. I am showing you the example in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, as I prefer its symbolism to that of the painting in the Manchester City Art Gallery – I also prefer the richer, deeper, brooding colours.
For his poem Tennyson adapted the Arthurian legend of Elaine de Astolat, written in Italian in the 13th Century as La Damigella di Scalot. Shalott, as it happens, is on the way to Camelot, which proves invaluable for the rhyme scheme, and there, in a tower on an island, a mysterious lady dwells, the victim of an undefined curse.
There she weaves by night and day A magic web with colours gay. She has heard a whisper say, A curse is on her if she stay To look down to Camelot. She knows not what the curse may be, And so she weaveth steadily, And little other care hath she, The Lady of Shalott.
Basically, she is not allowed to look out of her window towards Camelot, and so she spends all her time weaving, her only knowledge of the outside world coming from a mirror, reflecting the world outside. And she weaves what she sees:
But in her web she still delights To weave the mirror's magic sights, For often thro' the silent nights A funeral, with plumes and lights And music, went to Camelot: Or when the moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed: "I am half sick of shadows," said The Lady of Shalott.
By this stage Tennyson has already told us that, ‘She hath no loyal knight and true’, so the sight of newly married lovers must have been particularly galling – and she no longer wanted to live her life vicariously, seeing a reflection of what was going on in the world outside. I suppose we at least have rested safe in the knowledge that there was precious little going on out there anyway. But even for the Lady things were going well, or well enough, until Sir Lancelot passed by on his way to Camelot, the perfect example of knighthood and of manhood – and she could no longer live by shadows, she had to see him, the real thing, and not some pale reflection:
She left the web, she left the loom, She made three paces thro' the room, She saw the water-lily bloom, She saw the helmet and the plume, She look'd down to Camelot. Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror crack'd from side to side; "The curse is come upon me," cried The Lady of Shalott.
…and this is the moment that William Holman Hunt depicts, the moment at which the unknown curse is unleashed. If you don’t know what happens next, I shan’t tell you, although one day I might show you a painting. However, you can read it for yourself. Tennyson wrote two versions – I’ve been quoting from the second version, published in 1842, but I’ll also give you a link to the first version of 1832, both curtesy of the Poetry Foundation. Feel free to compare and contrast.
We see the chaos that ensues when the curse is enacted. The Lady is tied up, wrapped around by the thread which now seems to have a life of its own. She appears almost trapped in her loom, a curious structure, with a circular frame resting on a series of elaborate legs, more like an unconventional museum railing to keep you away from a sculpture. The floor is paved in a geometric pattern fitting these legs – the whole room is defined by the curse, and the Lady has lived her life through its mysterious logic. I do not know how many legs there are, but I’m sure there must be twelve, the weaving governing every hour of her days and nights like a clock face. She is barefoot, but there are overshoes – or pattens – on the floor. Together with the circular mirror in the background, reflecting an unseen presence behind us, these are an unmistakable reference to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from its foundation four decades before this painting was started. There are also irises, used in Christian art as a symbol of Mary’s suffering, their meaning coming from the old name ‘Sword Lily’, and the prophesy, to Mary, that ‘a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also’ (Luke 2:35). Two doves are flying away – they were the mythical birds of Venus, Goddess of Love, and I suspect that this is why Hunt included them. For Noah the Dove represented hope for the new world after the flood, and in the New Testament, the dove represents the Holy Spirit (POTD 89), but I am fairly sure that the dove did not become a symbol of peace until the 20th Century (if you can trust Wikipedia, which I often do, it dates to 1949, and a drawing by Picasso – which I can believe). If they are Venus’s doves, I think that, rather than love being freed, it is put to flight – but read the poem yourself and see! There is also a curious silver lamp. At its base you might be able to make out a crouching monkey – and we have already seen the monkey as a symbol of human baseness and ignorance in POTD 91. At the top of the detail, the lamp has a series of owls – sorry, they are hard to see, but I haven’t been able to find a high-resolution image. The owls represent the wisdom of enlightenment, embodied by the lamp, away from the darkness and ignorance symbolised but the monkeys at the base. Sunlight falls across the floor of the room, and over the weaving, which seems to unravel in front of our eyes. The shafts of light which fall onto the image – the art that the Lady has made from her isolated experience – are significant. To the left of her legs, we see a maiden in profile, and the back of a knight, moving away – surely our heroine and Sir Lancelot. And on the right, a figure bowing next to a golden cup – presumably the Holy Grail, the goal of the Arthurian quest.
At the top of the painting we see that the room has been decorated with the Lady’s work. The semi-circular section beneath the vaulting is decorated as a stylised sky, with a blue background and the heavenly bodies – the sun, moon and planets, as well as a globe with sparkling dots representing the crystalline sphere of the fixed stars. All of this reflects the medieval understanding of the structure of the universe, in which each of the heavenly bodies was governed by one of the nine choirs of angels, including one which moves the fixed stars on their daily rotations (fixed, as opposed to the wanderers, or ‘planets’ that is). This stylised reality is contrasted with nature itself – a blue sky with clouds seen through an opening at the top of the wall, through which it is just possible to see two doves flying – possibly the same doves at a later stage of their flight, or maybe two others. But all this just avoids the obvious – the most glorious Pre-Raphaelite hair in the most extravagant disarray. It flies out around her as if she is experiencing some form of whiplash, the power and energy of the curse electrifying every extremity of her body. It is wild, and unnatural, and fantastic – in both the contemporary and original sense of the word – and becomes a fabric in its own right.
The tension in her body as she tries to free herself from the thread is remarkable, like some sort of tarantella – a dance supposed to cure you of the bite of a tarantula. Remembering how spiders weave, and trap their prey, what could be more relevant? And remembering how Arachne wove, before Minerva turned her into a spider, another layer of significance is added. Both wrists bend back, the fingers curl, the arms held in front and behind, I cannot think she is doing anything else but dancing to free herself. Notice how the flashes of sunlight just catch the fingers looping the thread. Her body and face are in shadow – far more brilliant is the reflection in the mirror behind her. The Lady’s tower appears to be modelled on a Venetian 15th Century Palazzo, not unlike the Doge’s Palace, or the Ca’ d’Oro – or at least, the window is. In the mirror we see the window with its wide open spaces, and just inside the room we can see, reflected, the lamp, the loom and the weaving, with the light falling across it. And outside, in brilliant sunlight, Sir Lancelot, a Knight in Shining Armour, his sword raised, heading off into the distance, through the landscape described in the first stanza of Tennyson’s poem:
On either side the river lie Long fields of barley and of rye, That clothe the wold and meet the sky; And thro' the field the road runs by To many-tower'd Camelot;
The mirror is framed in a similar way to the two images on either side – more of the Lady’s work – drawing the connection we have made before today about the relationship between mirrors and art: both are forms of imagery, the implication being that a great artist will make work that mirrors the world around us. And I suspect that the Lady of Shalott was a great artist, depicting her world with the honesty of long-suffering experience. However, here Hunt has chosen to represent things she would not have seen in the mirror – they are her own personal reflections. On the left, the image is easy to understand – the Madonna and Child, white against a blue background, with the baby Jesus lying on the grass – it could almost be a glazed terracotta relief by Luca della Robbia, popular, and copied, in Victorian England. On the other side the image is not so obvious – a naked man with a halo reaching up to take an apple. This is not Adam though, there are three women asleep at the foot of the tree. To the left of this youthful, muscular man we see a lion’s head: it is Hercules, with the skin of the Nemean Lion, taking the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides (the sleeping women). But why the halo? Well, Hercules was seen as a type of Jesus (bother – I haven’t talked about typology yet) – let’s just say that he was seen as prefiguring Jesus, in that he was a hero who carried out a number of labours that involved good triumphing over evil. It’s not quite that simple, but let’s not worry about that right now. And of course, being a work of art, it will never be that simple. Even if he is a symbol for Jesus, there are also, inevitably, parallels with the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the forbidden fruit, and the idea of temptation to which the Lady has just succumbed – particularly as this Hercules is such a fit, and handsome, and, let’s face it, naked young man, who just happens to be looking towards the Lady of Shalott as he takes the apple.
In between the images of the infant Jesus and the triumphing hero, we see the far more brilliantly illuminated mirror, reflecting the reality of the world, and the departure of Sir Lancelot. And we see the threads, creating their tracery through the room like a spider’s web. And we see other lines, as if etched across the reflecting surface, signalling the triggering of the curse:
Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror crack'd from side to side; "The curse is come upon me," cried The Lady of Shalott.
Soon, we will be freer to go out into the world to see real things. Please be careful.
Oh, and, if you’re free this evening at 6.00 and are not half sick of shadows, there is still time to sign up for my talk Reflecting on the Power of Art about Diego Velázquez.