John William Waterhouse – Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

John Williams Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron, 1916, Oil on linen, 101 x 159, National Museums Liverpool
John Williams Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron, 1916, Oil on linen, 101 x 159, National Museums Liverpool

Tristram and Isolde with the Potion by John William Waterhouse c1916

It is hard for us in 2013 to judge the enormous impact of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels published over an eighteen-year period from 1814 onward, except to say it was more than considerable. Rousing tales of derring-do fuelled a huge Gothic Mediaeval revival in England, one that had been growing slowly for a century in the cradle of the aristocracy.

Sir Walter made young girl’s thrill to the thought of gallant knights, loyal chieftains and faithful lovers, and he spurred young men on to romantic gestures and dashing deeds in both love and war.

Then there was English poet Sir Alfred Tennyson’s ballad The Lady of Shalott, which was first published in 1832. Revised in another edition in 1842, the poem was based loosely on medieval sources as well as alluding to the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, a character who appeared in a 13th century Italian novel Donna di Scallota.

These works were all about a new kind of Romanticism one that had a huge influence on the invention of pre-Raphaelitism with the legendary English King Arthur and his vision of a ‘Camelot’ as one of its main themes.

Today the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were desperate romantics inspiring change founded in 1848 are still drawing wondering crowds to their romantic images, even though the brotherhood flourished for only a few brief years, recalled by Dante Gabriel Rossetti later, as ‘the visionary vanities of half a dozen boys’.

Their paintings have, during the twenty first century, become an emblem of a type of dashing joyous buccaneering, with their emotive subjects, ‘crystalline colours and eyeball challenges’.

They defined one of the most distinctive moments in English art history and inspired many others who came after. They included the painter John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) whose images provided a continuum for the pre-Raphealites love of religious and narrative subjects, although using his own painting technique and style.

His works would be more correctly viewed as a type of ‘romantic classicisim’.

He interpreted his own view of the marvelous mix of history, legend and poetry so loved by the pre-Raphaelites, others artists and the public, all of whom became caught up in the wonderful web woven by their fantasy world.

It was also a knee jerk reaction to the ugly side of the Industrial revolution. It was pure escapist entertainment in the days before television and the movies.

Exciting archaeological discoveries also being made at the time had everyone yearning for true love and wanting to escape everyday drudgery.

They longed to belong to a society and culture whose origin went back into the mists of time where life seemed so much simpler and far more beautiful.

Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse c1888 courtesy Tate, London

Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott is not only a conflict between art and life, she is a mesmerizing image of the tragic figure of a beautiful woman sailing on the raging river of life.

She is both vulnerable and doomed and the figure of the lady in a barge became one of the most popular of all Victorian images. As she sailed towards Camelot the poor darling froze to death trying to reach Sir Lancelot, reinforcing the idea of dramatically dying for love as being something very special.

Windsor by Moonlight by Henry Pether courtesy National Trust UK

The whole romantic medieval movement gained great momentum when the young Queen Victoria had come to the throne in 1837. She motivated all the young women of her age, especially when she fell in love and married the dashing Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840. There’s was a love story made in heaven.

By mid century Windsor Castle was at the centre of The Romantic Movement and when viewed by moonlight in 1850 painted by Henry Pether (1828-1865) it gained a fairy tale quality, its irregular silhouette and varied towers seen standing strong against the skyline.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert dressed to attend a fancy-dress ball c1842 by Sir Edwin Landseer – The costumes worn by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were designed by Vouillon and Laure with the guidance of Planche.

John William Waterhouse was born in 1849 at Rome where his English painter parents were living in the year the Pre-Raphaelites were all making their big splash at London.

His family arrived back home together when young John was just five years of age moving to live nearby to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Having artistic parents who encouraged his abilities for John William Waterhouse was tantamount to ensuring that he would become an artist too.

In medieval costume, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set a role model for stylistic preference one that prevailed in one form or another throughout the nineteenth century.

Prince Albert himself was very influential. He believed painting should provide an accurate record of a particular person or event in a commemorative sense, and therefore be morally uplifting or spiritually reassuring and artists of his day had difficulty in living up to these ideals all the time.

He believed strongly, as did the Queen, in the honour, integrity and the sincere steadfastness of their Knights of the realm.

Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the inspiration for the mediaeval strand of the pre-Raphaelite movement.

Jane Morris as La Belle Iseult 1858,

His work especially  influenced his friend William Morris, leader of the Arts & Crafts Movement whose wife Jane one of his main beauty queens.

Morris memorably said “The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future, which we are now helping to make”

All his life Morris tried to recreate the idyllic, almost medieval life; self sufficient, financially secure, practical in close contact with nature.

He was both inspired and supported by the art critic John Ruskin, whose thoughts had a profound influence on Victorian attitudes.

In 1861 Morris & Company was founded to produce home furnishings of good design and craftsmanship.

Morris tried to make his vision of beauty, an actual part of everyday life. He saw modern mechanical industry destroying ‘mans natural purpose and sense of life’

Morris’s ideal of womanhood exemplified his treasured image of the medieval damozel at work upon the hangings of her castle bedchamber.

Just to confuse matters or make them more succinct, whichever way you choose to look at it, Coventry Patmore wrote a poem called “the Angel in the House” about his wife Emily.

Bevvy of Beautiful Women in The Strand Magazine 1908

She became a heroine after bearing him six children by succumbing to tuberculosis in 1862.

Patmore described her virtues and the heart tugging work became so popular every Victorian Gentlemen wished his wife to perfectly emulate Emily, as well as be endowed with her beauty and innocence of manner.

The Domestic cares of the household were always kept hidden from a Victorian gentleman; he expected a warm welcome when he came from his wife and children in a flutter of excitement to see him, comforted by the thought there was a cosy fire to warm him; a neat plain dinner with soup, a joint and two or three removes to accompany it.

The Aesthetic movement in the last half of the nineteenth century in England also drove Victorians forward to create a new kind of art, one that filled the second half of the century with both beautiful, and thought provoking works.

They were heady times. Scholars define the movement itself as having only spanned forty years, however it inspired and motivated many of them to imagine the future.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse 1894 courtesy City Art Gallery, Leeds UK

John William Waterhouse studied sculpture briefly, before moving on to painting, prolifically producing 188 canvases that are still known about today.

As a young man Waterhouse couldn’t help but be influenced by all the ideas of his day. His artworks as he progressed became known mostly for their reinterpretation of ancient Greek mythology, as well as the Arthurian legend which was all about England’s own past.

He expanded his mind and horizons by traveling extensively in Europe, particularly to Italy where he refined and grew his painting style improving his technique.

Like many other artists of his day Waterhouse was entirely captivated with the beauty of women.

He responded to a photograph of a group of women in The Strand Magazine in 1908 at the height of the elegant Edwardian era by saying…

I am Half-Sick of Shadows, said the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse 1916

…“If I had to select one of these ladies,” said Mr. Waterhouse, “as a model for painting, I should have no hesitation about my choice. The lady of my preference, indeed, reminds me very much of one of my models. … she sat only for the face. The face, as in this photograph, is so singularly beautiful that I was very sorry to lose the opportunity of painting it…”

During the last decade of the nineteenth century John William Waterhouse exhibited annually at the Royal Academy and although the style he championed had now more or less fallen from fashion and favour, his works were still surprisingly well received.

They were beautifully detailed, defined by their unerring sense of composition and his ability to choose that moment in the narrative of a story that he should capture, one that can engage our attention and give us cause for contemplation.

He completed three images altogether inspired by the Tennyson poem of the Lady of Shalott, all of which heavily drew their inspiration from the works of the Pre-Raphaelite’s, although his style and technique was very different to theirs.

One work depicts the Lady of Shalott at a point where imprisoned in a tower she is awaiting rescue and turns to look at the hero of the King Arthur stories Sir Lancelot and was captivated. This was completed in 1894.

The third work of the Lady of Shalott that Waterhouse painted was entitled ‘I am half-sick of shadows’. She was not completed until 1916 and is pictured in her tower at her loom, where she is busily weaving the threads of her own destiny.

His sister Mary, according to Dr John Physick, great-nephew of Waterhouse, was reputedly the model for the Lady of Shalott. All was going well for her until she abandons her art for reality.

Gather ye Rosebuds While Ye May by John William Waterhouse 1909 courtesy Odon Wagner Gallery, Toronto

She was fantasized by the Victorian literary world, who were also inspired by the ‘pleasures of the imagination’, which had been an eighteenth century enlightenment concept all about men and women actually experiencing great emotions of taste.

The phrase was first coined by Archibald Alison, a Scottish retired cleric of the Church of England who indulged his dilettante taste writing elegant fragments and well turned sermons.

His essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste published in Edinburgh in 1790, was destined to impress many men of refinement and cultivation.

John William Waterhouse’s art we would have to say was entirely distinctive and completely Victorian in both its attitudes and philosophy.

His woman were all viewed as beautiful enchantresses, standing high on the pedestals men wanted to put them on to better worship them.

His favourite device was creating a unique tension between the main figure of his work and any others on view, whether they are a man or woman or a group of people.

Waterhouse painted primarily in oils and little is known about the models that posed for his images, which still provoke and beguile with their rich imagery, ravishing colours and romantic themes. He was especially fond of recording a woman who epitomised the idea of the ‘English rose’.

One of his most wonderful images, and I would have to say a favourite of mine, is his depiction of St Cecilia.

She is shown close to death with angels playing instruments in recognition of her being the patron saint of music.

It was an immediate success when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895 inspired by another poem of Tennyson’s ‘The Palace of Art’.

His depiction of St Cecilia stays close to Tennyson’s brief description, but adds symbolic poppies as emblems of sleep, and also of death, as St Cecilia was a martyr.

Lady and the Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse 1902

By the end of the 19th century as a direct result of the successes of the industrial revolution, ideas of romance and chivalry and medieval hospitality were giving way to a more manageable conception of domestic pleasure.

John William Waterhouse’s “The Crystal Ball” reveals a lady in a red dress apparently weaving a spell with the aid of a book and a skull. It was shown alongside a more spiritual picture* by the artist at the Royal Academy in 1902.

During the first decade of the 20th century Waterhouse’s works would become entirely outmoded a fact he surprisingly did not foresee, mainly because the style he had initially evolved over a number of decades had remained virtually unchanged, while the world around him had changed dramatically as modernity at last gained a solid foothold.

A Tale from the Decameron by John William Waterhouse 1916

However it did not deter him completing what many consider today are some of his best works, including the fabulous ‘A Tale from the Decameron’, inspired by the writing of Renaissance artist Giovanni Boccaccio.

Written in about 1350 during the outbreak of the plague in Florence, this marvelous piece of prose relates the story of 10 young people (3 men and 7 women) who fled into the countryside to escape the ravages of the disease.

Each member of the group took it in turns to be ‘king’ or ‘queen’ for the day choosing activities including storytelling by each member of the group.

Over a ten-day period 100 different stories are told covering a myriad of themes and motifs including wit, love, fortune, deception, sex, religion, cruelty and death.

John William Waterhouse died in 1917 from cancer one of his last works ‘The Enchanted Garden’ left unfinished on his easel.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.