Issue Number: 103
As the RA stages a major survey of John William Waterhouse’s work, Frank Whitford evokes the world of the 1888 Summer Exhibition, the year the celebrated artist’s most famous painting The Lady of Shalott was unveiled
Paul Cox’s illustration, with apologies to W. P. Frith who painted A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, evokes the Summer Exhibition of 1888. It recreates Gallery VI, where Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott hung, and includes William Gladstone, Sir Frederic Leighton, Tennyson, Oscar Wilde and Walter Sickert. The paintings are a representation of what hung there, according to the 1888 Summer Illustrated.
Monday 7 May, 1888 was chilly; but as they made their way to Burlington House on foot, or by smart, horse-drawn fly or carriage, or by omnibus, on the opening day of the 120th exhibition of the Royal Academy, visitors were no doubt hoping summer had finally arrived.
According to the official report, the weather was ‘much finer than that experienced for many weeks past’. Sadly, disappointment loomed. The weather was about to deteriorate again. June would be the dullest month since records began. In July in southern England it even snowed.
Newspaper reports about the cold, snow and floods abounded, although there was another story that quickly overtook them in importance as 1888 progressed. Gruesome murders of prostitutes were being committed in the dark, insalubrious alleyways of Whitechapel, perpetrated by some fiend, surely male, whose use of the scalpel implied a surgical or anatomical training, and whose glee at the floundering performance of the police was expressed in the notes with which he taunted them. The killer signed himself ‘Jack the Ripper’, and to this day no one knows who he was.
Speculation about his identity continues – one recent theory came from the crime writer Patricia Cornwell. The murderer, she declared, simply had to be Walter Richard Sickert, best known for his paintings of squalid goings-on in Camden Town.
Sickert’s near contemporary, John William Waterhouse, would have been an even more
bizarre candidate. Sickert, 28 in 1888, showed nothing at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of that year. Waterhouse, then 39, was represented by just one work, The Lady of Shalott of 1888 (page 39). To judge from the considerable press coverage of the show, it was far from being one of the main attractions, although it is now Waterhouse’s best-known picture and one of a handful of Victorian paintings that are still familiar to everyone.
At Tate Britain, where The Lady of Shalott has resided since it was presented by Sir Henry Tate in 1894, more postcards of it are sold than of any other painting. With hindsight, it is the most outstanding work of the entire 1888 exhibition.
Sadly, there is no record of what visitors thought about Waterhouse’s painting as they strolled through the galleries, the men in wing collars, frock coats and top hats, the women in full-length dresses with high collars and wasp waists. Perhaps they agreed with the few critics who chose to mention The Lady of Shalott.
At best, the commentators were mildly disapproving. None other than George Bernard Shaw, then also an occasional art critic, thought the painting failed ‘in the relation between the landscape and the face’, while the editor of the Magazine of Art, M. H. Spielmann, complained about a style that was too French. ‘Not that there is any lack of invention or drawing’, he conceded, ‘but the French flatness of tones takes much of the quality out of the colour,’ adding that ‘one is robbed of all sympathy for a lady so stiff of attitude and back.’
An anonymous writer in The Graphic was similarly disappointed by the lady’s looks. While granting that the picture was‘romantically conceived, and wrought in every
part with elaborate care’, he opined that, ‘it would be more agreeable to contemplate if the wan and weary face of the lady were more beautiful, and her attitude more graceful.’
We can only imagine Oscar Wilde’s view of the exhibition. He tended to go to special visitor days at Burlington House (and Frith included Wilde’s portrait in his large A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881). He was also writing reviews at the time for, among other papers, the Pall Mall Gazette, taking a Whistlerian line in favour of ambiguity and suggestiveness in painting. In other words, he would probably have hated The Lady of Shalott.
That year’s hanging committee, under the chairmanship of the RA President Sir (as he then was) Frederic Leighton, plainly thought more highly of the painting. It was reproduced full-page in the exhibition catalogue, the ‘Illustrated’, which appeared for the first time that year, and, more indicative still, was given a prime position on the wall of Gallery VI. Number 500 in the catalogue, the painting shares the space with 97 others in the gallery.
As was usual in those days, the hang was claustrophobically close. All of the exhibits were arranged cheek by jowl, their frames touching (some on all four sides). Some were ‘skied’, hung so high up that they were best viewed through opera glasses (perhaps the sort advertised that summer in The Graphic for 16s. 6d, together with other advertisements for a guaranteed cure for obesity, and a ‘hygio-Electric Belt’, said to be the answer to everything from lumbago to nervous or organic derangement).
Viewing The Lady of Shalott required no optical aid, however. It’s a big picture – more than six feet wide – and it was hung more or less in the centre of the long, uninterrupted wall of the room. It was ‘on the line’, its lower edge close to the dado rail that ran around the gallery eight feet above the floor. The Lady of Shalott therefore enjoyed the most enviable position in the room. What’s more, it must have grabbed the attention of every visitor who, obliged to enterthe exhibition through the central hall and past the sculpture gathered there, couldn’t avoid seeing it through the doorway straight ahead.
By 1888, Waterhouse’s career had begun to take off. Born in 1849 in Rome to artist parents (who might conceivably have first met in the RA’s galleries), he studied sculpture at the RA Schools but then quickly turned to painting. He first participated in the Summer Exhibition in 1874 and he was included nearly every year until 1917.
In 1885 he showed his painting of the Christian martyr St Eulalia, half-naked and spectacularly foreshortened in the Roman snow (page 40). This was enough to secure Waterhouse’s election as an ARA (Associate of the Royal Academy, a category of membership that no longer exists).
Thanks largely to the Summer Exhibitions, from which sales of his work were brisk, Waterhouse’s finances were strong, enabling him to marry, in 1883, and to move into a large studio. Even public collections abroad now wanted his work, and his painting of the Hebrew martyr Mariamne (1887) won medals at theworld’s art fairs in Paris, Chicago, and Brussels.
Waterhouse clearly liked to pluck at the heartstrings by depicting suffering women, and his growing public was touched. The Lady of Shalott – the title and subject of which were taken from Tennyson’s poem of 1832 – is yet another example of a doomed female shown at a critical moment. A stanza from the ballad was printed in the catalogue. Tennyson drew, not for the first time, on Arthurian myth, which was fashionable in Victorian Britain and often exploited by artists – in 1888 there was another Arthurian painting in Gallery VI, C. E. Johnson’s Sir Galahad.
Shakespeare, or rather Millais, also had a part to play in Waterhouse’s choice of subject, since the combination of beautiful woman, nature and water is most famously present in Ophelia (1851-52), which, significantly, was publicly shown in London again in 1886. Waterhouse himself produced no fewer than three versions of his own Ophelia, the first in 1889 (and two more of The Lady of Shalott).
A ‘fairy woman’, Elaine of Astolat (hence, by magic, ‘Shalott’), is imprisoned in a tower on an island up-river from Camelot. Cursed to be confined to her room forever, reflections in a mirror providing her only view of the world outside, she spends her time weaving a tapestry of what she observes in the glass. Then she glimpses Sir Lancelot riding by, and the result is a ‘mirror crack’d from side to side’. She falls helplessly in love and is lost.
Compelled to leave her tower, she follows Lancelot in a boat without oars, floating ‘down the river’s dim expanse, Like some bold seër in a trance’. As ‘the broad stream’ bears her ‘far away’, she dies. Waterhouse shows her embarking on her voyage, an expression of helpless longing on her face, the tapestry, ‘a magic web with colours gay’, hanging over the starboard side. All about is an idyllic English landscape of willows and water meadows.
In 1888, no fewer than 356,118 visitors paid a shilling (equivalent to £5 today) to see the 2,077 works in the Summer Exhibition before it closed on 6 August. The show – and the Royal Academy – basked in the respect and admiration of the English establishment and of the public at large. No other exhibition of work by living artists – and there were very few such shows in any case – could begin to compete with it.
All of the newspapers and periodicals published substantial reviews, and many of the paintings sold, a few for astronomical sums. The most popular pictures were engraved, the prints decorating middle-class living rooms from Bayswater to Birmingham. Some were even bought to be included in advertisements – the firm making Pears’ Soap, the pioneer of this tactic, was at its irresistible best in 1891 when it bought and adapted Millais’ Bubbles. In 1888 a far less ingratiating image showed a monkey about to bathe a cat.
Still, there was a testimonial from Madame Adelina Patti to compensate. ‘I have found Pears’ Soap matchless for the Hands and Complexion,’ she wrote in The Graphic. As usual, Punch devoted several pages of satire, including cartoons, to the Summer Exhibition. Most jokes involved the lamest of puns. Of a portrait by Hubert Herkomer, Punch asked: ‘Who could have done the hair so perfectly?’ ‘Who but Hair-comber?’
The most regular and popular exhibitors included the President of the RA, Sir Frederic Leighton, who in 1888 showed a classical subject, Captive Andromache. Another famous Neoclassicist was Lawrence Alma-Tadema, represented by The Roses of Heliogabalus, a work commissioned by Sir John Aird for an almost incredible £4,000. Millais, meanwhile (by then Sir John) showed a landscape, Murthly Moss, Perthshire. None of these artists had a presence in Gallery VI, however, which in 1888 boasted few names that we remember. Today, apart from Waterhouse, only the French painter Charles Carolus Duran, Frank Holl and Solomon J. Solomon enjoy any sort of reputation.
Looking at these paintings now, most seem cloyingly sentimental, tediously anecdotal, orpatronisingly moralising. Our taste has been largely formed, of course, by the experimental French painting of just this period, above all Post-Impressionism. Indeed, in 1888, the year when G. H. Swinstead showed Rats, Toby! in Gallery VI, together with Faithful unto death: Christianae ad Leones! by the aptly named Herbert Schmalz, in Ostend, James Ensor was working on the vast, turbulently Expressionist Christ’s Entry into Brussels, and at Pont-Aven Gauguin was making Vision after the Sermon, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Meanwhile, at Arles, Van Gogh was painting sunflowers to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom when he moved south to join him (although it was later that year that Van Gogh cut off part of his ear).
We mustn’t allow ourselves to be misled: French painting consisted of considerably more than Post-Impressionism. Far better known at the time on both sides of the Channel was history painting by the likes of Alexandre Cabanel; the sort of Orientalism practised by Jean-Léon Gérôme, and – regarded at the time as cutting edge – the Naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage (an uneasy synthesis of elements drawn from the Barbizon School and Impressionism applied to anecdotal and sentimental subjects).
During the 1880s these works left an indelible mark on English painting, not least on the Newlyn School, then recently-founded. Waterhouse, too, was impressed by Naturalism. Indeed, it provided most of the stylistically French elements that critics discerned in The Lady of Shalott, more particularly the woman’s haunted expression and the broad manner in which everything but the figure is painted.
Since such stylistic traits were new in Waterhouse’s work, The Lady of Shalott can be said to announce a new stage in his artistic career. Until then his development had been, to say the least, eclectic, his work a convincing though inconsistent blend of Orientalism, Classicism, late Pre-Raphaelitism and Romanticism. Though The Lady of Shalott may look like a hybrid of romantic medievalism and French plein air painting, its main strength is the seeming reality of the scene. The landscape is entirely convincing. The boat is stable. The lady is an Arthurian fairy-woman, but she’s made of flesh and blood.
Such intimations of modernism were not enough to sustain Waterhouse’s reputation after his death in 1917. By 1950 his status had nose-dive and his pictures had come to look as
dusty and distressed as all the other High Victorian junk in grandma’s attic.
Now our attitudes to Waterhouse and High Victorian art have come three-quarter, if not quite full, circle again. A major touring exhibition has been organised. Less than a decade ago St Cecilia (above centre), the painting finished in 1895, the year in which Waterhouse was elected a full Academician, sold for £6.6 million, breaking the record for the most expensive Victorian picture.
Some of the works that were first shown in 1888 at the RA with The Lady of Shalott might one day be worth as much, but I have my doubts. For all its Victorian vices, it is a remarkable picture, and certainly the stand-out in the Summer Exhibition of 1888. It can only grow in the public’s estimation. As Victorian art expert Christopher Wood wrote, summing up the strengths and weaknesses of Waterhouse’s masterpiece, he ‘may have had only one song to sing, but he sang it very beautifully’.