The Lady of Shalott (William Holman Hunt)

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William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888–1905, Wadsworth Atheneum
Wood engraving by John Thompson, published in 1857, based on Hunt's drawing, 95 × 79 mm

The Lady of Shalott is an oil painting by William Holman Hunt, made c. 1888-1905, and depicting a scene from Tennyson's 1833 poem, "The Lady of Shalott". The painting is held by the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut. A smaller version is held by the Manchester Art Gallery.


In Tennyson's poem, the Lady of Shalott is confined to a tower on an island near Camelot, cursed not to leave the tower or look out of its windows. She weaves a tapestry, viewing the outside world only through reflections in a mirror behind her. The painting depicts the pivotal scene in the third part of the poem: the Lady spies "bold Sir Launcelot" in her mirror. The sight of the handsome knight and the sound of him singing draws her away from her loom to the window, yarn still clinging around her knees, bringing down the curse upon her as "the mirror crack'd from side to side". She leaves the tower to take a boat across the river, but meets her death before she reaches Camelot.


The painting depicts the moment immediately after the Lady of Shalott has looked directly out of her window at Sir Launcelot, as her fate begins to unwind. She is standing within her circular loom, with an unfinished and indistinct tapestry intended to represent Galahad presenting the Holy Grail to Arthur,[1][2] However, the weaving is breaking, trapping her in its threads. She is wearing a brightly coloured bodice over a cream chemise, with a pink skirt. Her feet are bare, with her slip-on pattens nearby, and her long hair has whipped up wildly above her head.

Disturbed from their perch, a pair of doves are flying past a large silver candlestick, while another pair escape through an upper window. Behind her is the large round mirror that she had used to observe the world outside her tower, but it has "crack'd from side to side": the reflection shows Launcelot riding past, and the pillars of the Lady's window. The irises littering the floor indicate that her purity is stained.[2]

To her left is an oval roundel of the adoration of the Christ Child by Mary (representing humility), based on a work by Lucca della Robbia that Hunt owned.[3] The roundel on her right shows a haloed Hercules (representing valour) during his labour to take apples from the garden of the Hesperides, who slept while their guardian serpent (under Hercules's left foot) was defeated.[4] As a study for this detail, Hunt made an actual plaster bas-relief, now in the Manchester Art Gallery.[5] The Hesperides' failure in their duty mirrors the lady’s.[5]

Above the roundels is a frieze of a stylised sky, containing cherubs and haloed female figures guiding planets and a sphere of stars.[6][7] One of the angelic beings stomps on a serpent. The frieze symbolizes harmony and patience, values that Hunt believed the lady should have possessed.[8][6]

The work measures 188.3 cm × 146.4 cm (74.1 in × 57.6 in) is signed with a monogram to the lower left.


The painting is based on Hunt's c. 1857 drawing, which was engraved on wood by John Thompson and printed in the lavishly illustrated 10th edition of Tennyson's Poems, published by Edward Moxon in 1857, which also included illustrations by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Millais, Thomas Creswick, John Callcott Horsley, William Mulready and Clarkson Stanfield. Hunt's drawing and painting were based on earlier sketches, inspired by Jan van Eyck's 1434 marriage portrait, The Arnolfini Portrait.

William Holman Hunt gave the painting to his second wife Edith in 1902. It was put up for auction at Christie’s in 1919, but bought in by the auction house for £3,360. On Edith's death, the painting was inherited by their daughter Gladys in 1931, and then by her adopted daughter Mrs. Elisabeth Burt in 1952. It was sold at Christie's in 1961, bought by New York collector John Nicholson for £9,975; he sold it to the Wadsworth Atheneum the same year in 1961, who made the purchase using from Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund; they were the wives of the brothers George Gleason Sumner and Francis Chester Sumner.

Another version[edit]

A much smaller oil on panel version, c. 1886–1905, 44.4 cm × 34.1 cm (17.5 in × 13.4 in), was left to the Manchester Art Gallery by John Edward Yates in 1934. This version was preparatory study for the larger picture,[1] and it features a number of differences. Notably, the roundels show instead the Agony in the Garden (left) and Christ in Majesty (right). The frieze consists of a row of standing cherubs.[9]


  1. ^ a b "Sin & Salvation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts". Sin & Salvation. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. 2009. Although highly finished, the smaller example served primarily as a preparatory study for the larger picture [...] Her weaving shows Sir Galahad presenting the Holy Grail to King Arthur, while the bas-relief above depicts female spirits guiding and protecting the planets. (Organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada, in association with Manchester Art Gallery)
  2. ^ a b McMahon Bourke, Allyson (1996). "Tennyson's Lady of Shalott in Pre-Raphaelite Art". Dissertations. College of William & Mary. The [tapestry's] details are difficult to distinguish, but Hunt wrote of his intentions: ‘In executing her design on the tapestry, she records not the external incidents of common lives, but the present condition of King Arthur's court, with its opposing influences of good and evil. It may be seen he is represented on his double throne, the queen is not there.’
  3. ^ William Holman Hunt. Walker Art Gallery. 1969. p. 57. medallions on either hand become a Virgin adoring the Child (copied after a relief from the studio of Lucca della Robbia then belonging to Hunt), and Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides (painted from a polychrome plaster relief).
  4. ^ William Holman Hunt. Walker Art Gallery. 1969. p. 58. The Lady's chamber is decorated with illustrations of devotion of different orders: on one hand the humility of the Virgin and her Child, and on the other the valour of Heracles who, having overcome the dragon, is seizing the fruit of the garden of the Hesperides while the guardian daughters of Erebus are dead in sleep.
  5. ^ a b "The Garden of Hesperides (Relief Panel)". Manchester Art Gallery. It is one of the devotional images which lines the lady’s chamber and depicts the valour of Hercules, who, having overcome a dragon, seizes the fruit of the Garden of the Hesperides whilst its guardians were asleep. Hunt likens the sleeping guardians to the Lady of Shalott, also found in dereliction of their duty.
  6. ^ a b Skelly, Julia (2017). The Uses of Excess in Visual and Material Culture. Taylor & Francis. p. 89. ISBN 978-1-351-53974-6. Hunt designed the roundel plaque of Hercules [...] based on a Greek bas relief c. 400 BC in the British Museum, then had it made by E.B. Broomfield, who studied in Florence for eighteen years. He made another relief of the floating female figures guiding the planets. The roundel on the far left is from a Renaissance terracotta Hunt owned. [...] a haloed Hercules that was a type of Christ and symbol of valor and determination, and females moving the planets, “beatified spirits ... to incite her to patient service” and duty.
  7. ^ Richard, Stemp (2020). "The Mirror Crack'd". The semi-circular section beneath the vaulting is decorated as a stylised sky, with [...] a globe with sparkling dots representing the crystalline sphere of the fixed stars [...] (fixed, as opposed to the wanderers, or ‘planets’, that is).
  8. ^ McMahon Bourke, Allyson (1996). "Tennyson's Lady of Shalott in Pre-Raphaelite Art". Dissertations. College of William & Mary. Behind the Lady's head, a frieze of cherubs also reminds her of her female duties. An angel on the right steps with her foot upon a red serpent – just as Eve should have done. The frieze as a whole depicts the music of the spheres and indicates the social harmony that results when women observe social boundaries and serve God as they should.
  9. ^ "The Lady of Shalott". Manchester Art Gallery.