After my visit to Kensal Green Cemetery, me and my brother went off to the center of London. I basically dragged Peter with me ‘cos I wasn’t going to London and not going to see Waterhouse’s work (Pete would have gone to the pub for the day if he’d had his way). So first off, I went looking for The Mermaid in the Royal Academy at Burlington House. I’ve always had a soft spot for this picture because it was one of the first I’d seen of Waterhouse’s and I think it was one of the first I’d had a go at drawing. Although I could do better nowadays, I was pleased with it at the time (I think I was 20). I put it up in an exhibition that the hospital I worked for had organized to show some of the talent that workers had for art. I put it up with another picture I did of Ellen Terry (Choosing by George Frederic Watts). They both got stolen. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I suppose I was a little flattered as they were the only two taken.
Anyway, to cut a short story even shorter, The Mermaid wasn’t there ‘cos it was taken down for the time being for some photo exhibition. Arrrggghhhh! Oh well, maybe next time.
I’ve been to Tate Britain before and seen The Lady of Shalott and Saint Eulalia. I remember not having a great deal of time to look at them when I went last, so I made a point of only really looking at those two pictures (though I did look for Millais’s Ophelia which, unfortunately, had been taken down as well). My brother has little interest in art and sat bored after about 5 mins so, again I felt a bit pressed for time.
First off, you come to Saint Eulalia, painted in 1885. Here’s the story behind the painting from the Tate’s own website:
St Eulalia was martyred in the fourth century, aged twelve, for refusing to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Two executioners tore her body with iron hooks, and held flames to her breasts and sides until she was suffocated by the smoke. According to the account given by the Spanish poet Prudentius, which Waterhouse quoted in the exhibition catalogue, a white dove emerged from Eulalia’s mouth at the moment of her death and a miraculous fall of snow descended.
It’s a beautifully painted picture and I think, for me, one of what I call his ‘transition’ paintings. His main body of previous work was classically oriented, whereas his later work (maybe even beginning the following year with The Magic Circle) definitely was influenced by impressionism. Saint Eulalia I think, mixes the two. Also from that point on women, often like Saint Eulalia in tragic or forlorn circumstances, became the focal point of his work. As with Hylas and the Nymphs when I visited that a few months ago, I was struck by something that you simply don’t see in images reproduced in books: this time it was the amount of cracks in the paintwork. I know Waterhouse is known for this ‘craquelure’ effect on his paintings, caused by not allowing the paint to dry properly before adding another layer.
The Lady of Shalott
Pushed for time, I didn’t spend as long as I would have liked with Saint Eulalia; I wanted to spend more time with The Lady of Shalott, about five paintings away.
First off, I’ll start by saying that this painting seemed by far the most popular there, certainly in that room. Amongst the many there the only painting I remember other than Saint Eulalia was Leighton’s Flaming June which I believe is considered one of the most popular victorian paintings around: it didn’t seem so the day I visited though, and I must admit to not being a fan of the picture myself – too unnatural looking for me.
Secondly, because it was so popular it was hard at times to get a proper look at the thing. There was one of those big seats directly in front of it where about four people can sit and ruminate over the painting which was usually occupied. I like to get up close and look at the brush work and the colours but I could only do this in snatches. One thing I noticed with The Lady of Shalott that is not readily seen in printed images is on one part of the painting, directly below the candle at the front of the boat with the flame that is about to be extinguished: there are reeds sticking out of the water that must have been part of a previous design or were part the finished composition that he decided to paint out.
I could have looked at the thing all day and wanted to take it home and stick it up on my wall so I could look at it whenever I wanted (I suppose most people feel that way). It’s such a beautiful thing though it’s tragedy is keenly felt. You wish you could take her by the hand, lead her to a high place and raise her chin to the sky and tell her ‘there’s so much more to life than this pain‘, and her doom would be avoided. But she is forever frozen in that moment of hopeless despair, eyes reddened with tears. A similar sense is conjured with his paintings of Ophelia as well.
There were two other paintings by Waterhouse at the Tate: Consulting The Oracle and The Magic Circle. I believe there are some sketches there as well. None of them were on show (they weren’t when I came to the Tate about five years earlier either). It’s kind of frustrating to think of them being within the same building but you can’t view them. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to wait for the upcoming exhibition.
Well, The Lady of Shalott was hard to leave behind but bored brothers do not a relaxing visit to an art gallery make. Anyway, there was always Killing Joke to look forward to.
I’m outta here,