«She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through 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

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott (1842)


Whether it is from Lord Tennyson’s famed ballad, or from John William Waterhouse’s iconic painting that still adorns Tate Britain’s hall, everyone has heard the tale of ‘the Lady of Shalott’. The story itself originates in Mort Artu or “the death of King Arthur,” which forms part of the 13th-century Prose Lancelot. It tells the tragic death of a beautiful maiden, Elaine d’Astolat, who falls desperately in love with Lancelot, whose heart belongs only to Queen Guinevere.

The ancient tale was granted new life by the poet Lord Tennyson, who enriched it by giving Elaine a spindle, a magic mirror, and a mysterious curse that is never explained.

Passing from Tennyson to the Pre-Raphaelites, the story is reincarnated in various forms, painted or sketched by several members of the Brother- and Sisterhood. The theme was hugely popular; Waterhouse alone executed three paintings, drawing from different stanzas of the ballad: The Lady of Shalott (1888), The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot (1894), and “I’m Half-Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott (1915).

The lady is framed in a mirror – so what we see is not her but her reflection, no more real than the painted sun and moon looking upon her from the ceiling, all to symbolize the falseness of her world, where, unloved, she lives a life of solitude.

The mirror as an element in art history has first appeared in Jan Van Eyk’s oil painting «The Arnolfini Portrait» (1434). This work of art is considered one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art: for the first time, a simple corner of the real world had suddenly been fixed on to a panel as if by magic…

Later, in 1656, in Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas a mirror is depicted again and its reflexion.

It seems that the painters of the Preraphaelites group have been largerly influenced by Van Euyk’s painting having painted mirrors in many of their artworks: The awakening conscience, (William Holman Hunt,1853), Take your son sir!, (Fold Madox Brown, 1851), Lucrezia Borgia, (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860/1), La Belle Iseult, (William Morris, 1858), Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor, (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1861), A youth relating tales to ladies, (Simeon Solomon,1870), Il dolce far niente, (William Holman Hunt, 1866),  the portrait of Margaret Burne-Jones (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1880), to mention but a few…

The exhibition Reflexions: Van Euyk and the Preraphaelites which is currently on show at the National Gallery in London, demonstrates the secret bonds between theNetherlandish painter and the Preraphaelites and how the latter have been influenced by Van Euyk to integrate the mirror in their paintings.

At the images above, four different versions of the theme by John William Waterhouse (image n.1), Minje Su (n.2),  Elisabeth Eleanor Siddal (n.3) and William Holman Hunt (n.4). See (and listen) also Loreena McKennitt’ s Lady of Shalott inspired by the poetry and iconography of the famous lady  here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxFF03IbIlY

Where: at the exhibition Van Euyk and the Preraphaelites, National Gallery, London

When: 16/11/2018

What: The Lady of Shalott (paintings, poetry, song)

(More info: http://oxfordstudent.com/2017/01/25/lady-shalott-post-pre-raphaelite-endeavour/)