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’ in one form or another. 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 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). It is interesting that he apparently reversed the chronological order of the story, but this must be the topic for another day. For now, I will present – very boldly – my own taking on of the theme.
Minjie Su, The Lady of Shalott
As a medievalist and avid fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, it has almost become a fascination for me to recreate the Lady of Shalott in my own style, which is influenced partly by medieval and Victorian book illustrations, stained glasses, and (of course!) the Pre-Raphaelites, and partly by Japanese manga. It is, first of all, meant to be a literary analysis, an encoding of my interpretation of Lord Tennyson’s poem. The lady is framed in the 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 lily she holds and those on her clothes bring her closer to Elaine d’Astolat, who dies in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur with a lily in her hand, while the threads around her left wrist stand for the binding curse – the reason for her imprisonment. Yet the moment that I have chosen to depict is the very moment when her imprisonment is broken, compelled by love and completely out of her free will. This is the moment when she chooses to turn towards the window, towards Lancelot, even though she knows – conjectured from his shield – that his heart is already taken and she will never be loved back. It is the moment when the maiden hears the footsteps of Death, heralded by a cracking sound of the shattering glass, but it is also the moment she bravely walks out of her illusory world and, however briefly, tastes what it feels to be free.
Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, The Lady of Shalott
©The Maas Gallery (2017)
Moreover, my endeavour is also my tribute to the men and women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle who always inspire me. Particularly, the choice of that moment is a way to commemorate Lizzie Siddal, best known as a favorite model of the Brotherhood – you can still find her visage in John Millais’ Ophelia in the same hall with Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott. Yet Lizzie herself is a talented artist who, among other works, produced a small sketch of the beloved subject in 1853, just one year after her posing as Ophelia and predating both Waterhouse’ and Hunt’s works by decades. The sketch itself is as simple as a draft, but it captures all the important elements in the Shalott story: her gaze, the cracked mirror image of Lancelot riding, and the tapestries she has weaved under the yoke of fate. The chaotic threads imply that her life is about to be thoroughly changed and the curse that has so far bound her is being broken. It is but a pity that she must die very soon; and the picture’s tragic tune is enforced by our foreknowledge of her death. It is also a pity, sadly, that we know of Lizzie’s own untimely death. Just like the Lady of Shalott’s love will never come to fruition, Lizzie’s sketch will never become a grand-scaled painting. Nor would she ever become the person that she probably dreamed to be.
But, as insignificantly as it may, through my little endeavour, I hope that she will be remembered as Lizzie Siddal the artist.