Monday, April 07, 2008


And now for something completely different. With all those Allahu Hackbars around a man would forget the things which make life worthwile. Art, for instance. How about this?

John William Waterhouse's painting 'The Lady of Shalott'. Actually the most famous of the three versions he crafted. It's a work inspired by Alfred Tennyson's poem of the same name, which recounts the story, based on Arthurian material, of a noble lady living under a curse in an island castle upstream from Camelot. The curse is that she is not allowed to look directly outside at the world, and can only see what happens there by looking in a mirror. She spends her days weaving a magic web. One day, the mirror shows her a handsome knight in shining armour passing by. It's Lancelot, King Arthur's most famous and trusted Knight (who at some point nevertheless frolicked with Arthur's spouse, Queen Guinevere). Tennyson:

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn'd like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.

Immediately the Lady of Shalott is under the spell of the dashing knight and she rushes to the window for a better view. Behind her, the mirror cracks and she knows the curse's doom will come upon her. She has time to leave her castle and board a small boat upon which she writes her name as 'The Lady of Shalott' and which she then sends downstream towards Camelot, but before she arrives there she dies. When the boat comes to a halt near Camelot, Arthur's Court wonders who this beautiful dead lady may be. In Tennyson's poem, Lancelot exclaims:

"Who is this? And what is here?"
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the Knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."

John William Waterhouse (April 6, 1849 – February 10, 1917) was born in Rome to a couple of artists, William and Isabela Waterhouse, who moved to South Kensington, London, when he was five. Before he entered the Royal Academy in 1870, his father had already honed his natural painting skills. His early works depicted classical themes, in the style of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton, and one, the 1874 Sleep and his Half-Brother Death was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Society of British Artists and the Dudley Gallery. In 1883 he married Esther Kenworthy, an Ealing art schoolmaster's daughter who was herself an artist who had exhibited at the Royal Academy. They would have two children, who both tragically died in childhood. His greatest fame Waterhouse would win as a member of the Pre-Raphaelites, a school which for some reason rejected the classical themes and elegant compositions of the High Renaissance Italian artist and architect Raphael Sanzio and those who were influenced by him. Not surprisingly, Waterhouse exchanged his classical themes for mythological ones, drawing heavily on English and Italian literature. He developed a keen interest for strong female characters, not to say femme fatales.

In 1895 Waterhouse was elected a full Academician at the Royal Academy, and taught at the St. John's Wood Art School. One of his most famous paintings is the one above, The Lady of Shalott, a study of Elaine of Astolat, a figure of an Arthurian legend. This character was the inspiration for Tennyson's poem and, hence, for Waterhouses painting. The reproduction shown does not do right to the sheer beauty of the original, which includes also a very fine study of a waterfall. And the meagre number pixels does not allow to grasp the shock of bright colors nor the abundance of details. But if you find yourself in London one day, you might want to check out the Tate Gallery, where it - this version at least - is exhibited.

A recurring theme in Waterhouses subjects is the character of Ophelia, a Danish noblewoman who figures in Shakespeares famous play Hamlet. The most famous version depicts her just before her death, sitting on a tree branch over a lake, putting flowers in her hair. And just like The Lady of Shalott (and even other Waterhouse paintings), it's about a woman dying in or near water. This work was actually submitted by Waterhouse to obtain his Royal Academy diploma. Curiously, the painting got lost thereafter, only to be found later on in the twentieth century. It is now part of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's collection. It would be followed by versions in 1894 and 1909, and the latter is my personal favorite, see the pic to the left. Just look how that robe is draped, wow!!! Other favorites of mine are "My Sweet Rose" and "La Belle Dame sans merci", the latter based on John Keats' poem of the same name. Belle dame my sorry ass, but look how the light shines on the knight's armour and be stunned! Waterhouse planned another painting in the Ophelia series, to be called "Ophelia in the Churchyard.", but unfortunately he could never finish it because of cancer. He died in 1917, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

Beyond the ordinary pleasures, the false pretensions and the foul developments of today's world, there's an ancient wealth waiting to be discovered. Not to seek for it is a shame.