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The picture illustrates the following lines from part IV of Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott': 'And down the river's dim expanse Like some bold seer in a trance, Seeing all his own mischance – With glassy countenance Did she look to Camelot. And at the closing of the day She loosed the chain, and down she lay; The broad stream bore her far away, The Lady of Shalott'.
Waterhouse shows her letting go the boat's chain, while staring at a crucifix placed in front of three guttering candles. Tennyson was a popular subject for artists of this period, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites. Waterhouse's biographer Anthony Hobson relates that the artist owned a copy of Tennyson's collected works, and covered every blank page with pencil sketches for paintings. The landscape setting is highly naturalistic; the painting was made during Waterhouse's brief period of plein-air painting. The setting is not identified, although the Waterhouses frequently visited Somerset and Devon. The model is traditionally said to be the artist's wife.
Waterhouse's sketchbook contains numerous pencil studies for this and the painting of the same title made six years later (1894, Leeds City Art Gallery). This second work shows the Lady at the moment she looks out of the window and the curse is fulfilled. Waterhouse also made sketches of the final scenes in which the boat bearing the Lady floats into Camelot. 'The Lady of Shalott' is one of the original paintings from the gift of Sir Henry Tate.
Further reading: Anthony Hobson, 'The Art and Life of J. W. Waterhouse RA 1849–1917', London 1980, pp.pp.51–56, 183, reproduced pp.54–55 in colour Anthony Hobson, 'J. W. Waterhouse', Oxford 1989, pp.40–41, 53, 77, 109, reproduced p.42 in colour Terry Riggs February 1998
The Lady of Shalott
oil on canvas
H 153 x W 200 cm
presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894