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08 Jun, 2009

Lady of Shalott setting was less than magical

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The beautiful model who posed for the Victorian artist John Waterhouse as The Lady of Shalott, one of the country’s best-loved paintings, was in reality perched in a shrubbery in a small courtyard down a narrow lane in north London – not afloat in a fairy boat draped with sumptuous tapestries.

As the Royal Academy prepares for the first major Waterhouse exhibition in a lifetime, teasingly little is known of his personal life, even though he was adored by critics and the public.

But the studio where he worked survives, and is now the home of textile artist Pauline Caulfield. The Caulfields rented it because it was cheap, and only then learned of its illustrious history. They replaced the iron stove installed to keep Waterhouses’s half-naked mermaids and nymphs warm, but the north-facing roof windows still give perfect working light.

Later residents of the studios included illustrator Arthur Rackham, musician and conductor Sir Henry Wood, and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who left a drawing on his kitchen wall.

Art historians have identified the shrubbery outside the front door as the setting where Waterhouse sketched the doomed Lady of Shalott, heroine of Tennyson’s romantic poem. The 1888 painting was one of the founding gifts from Sir Henry Tate to the Tate gallery, and has always been one of its bestselling postcards.

Almost a century late, the Royal Academy is celebrating Waterhouse, who trained and later taught in its schools, and exhibited at the summer show for more than 40 years. He died in 1917 with the first world war raging.

There was no memorial exhibition until 1922, when many of his best works were scattered, and the advent of impressionism, cubism and surrealism made his medieval maidens look old-fashioned.For a period his pictures were almost unsaleable, but in recent years his reputation has come roaring back. His St Cecilia, originally sold in 1913 for a then eye-watering £2,415, was sold again in 2000 to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Art Foundation for £6.6m – still the record for a Victorian painting.

• J W Waterhouse, the Modern Pre-Raphaelite, Royal Academy, June 27-September 13

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