Fateful Courses: Atkinson Grimshaw’s Ladies of Shalott

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C19th Painting / Elation / Historical feature / John Atkinson Grimshaw / KatherineCaddy / Painting / Victorian Painting
‘In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower’d Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.
And down the river’s dim expanse –
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day:
She loos’d the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.’
Atkinson Grimshaw created several works relating to Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott during the height of his popularity. These works are among the most atmospheric and emblematic painted by the artist. The landscapes themselves are mystical and searching, ingenious in their own right. The murky brown and golden tones of his ‘Lady of Shalott’ of around 1875 are affected by a characteristic green hue that pervades the sky, as the trees appear to fade into the distance from left to right, offering a gentle sense of perspective and motion. The artist carefully depicted the reeds and lily pads in the foreground, creating a sense that we are almost within touching distance of the travelling boat beyond, containing a lady who does not acknowledge our presence. As with his fairies, Atkinson Grimshaw gives the figure an alluring softness and ethereal demeanour; her hand clutches her breast as with half-closed eyes, she anticipates what lies ahead. She appears to be wearing a golden crown, which melds with her flowing hair and the rich fabrics surrounding her. The narrowness of the boat is constricting, exploring the cautionary aspects of the poem.
The painter chose to depict the fourth and final part of the poem, in which the Lady is said to find a boat and to be taken far away by the stream. His ‘Lady of Shalott’ from around 1878 is less serene than the earlier work, possessing a powerful intensity by the rush of red and orange tones of the sky, reflected in the water below. Atkinson Grimshaw follows a similar formula here, but pushes the emotive and dramatic aspects of the poem through bold, fiery colours and a striking medieval boat. A city is barely visible in the distance, as the artist strives to create a helpless feeling; the boat heads away from civilisation, while the Lady lies with eyes closed, dressed in white, markedly contrasting with the vehement landscape. Her dress overlaps the boat, almost touching the burnt-toned water below, playing with the contrast, alluding to the fate of the Lady.
The artist was fond of this theme, and it must have proved popular, as two paintings of 1877, drawing on aspects of the poem, are highly alike. The first is the most detailed and bold; a ruby cityscape lines the riverside, as Atkinson Grimshaw allows for blue-grey tones paired with white clouds to suffuse the sky. The boat is even more elaborate this time; its dragon’s outstretched wings and spiky head are disturbing and dynamic; the rippling veins of the wings and its open mouth add to its ferocity. A small figure clutches a paddle, guiding the boat. This is an inventive addition to the original plot, changing the narrative and making the Lady appear increasingly forlorn, as the man appears in control of the boat, and her destiny. He lurches forwards, gazing purposefully ahead, while the Lady seems entirely asleep, her white gown and headdress starkly differing from the gloomy male figure’s attire. In the second work the sky is golden with delicate clouds, while the cityscape is less pronounced, as though we are further away from civilisation, and equally, from assistance. The boat and its contents are much the same as within the work above it.
Atkinson Grimshaw’s Ladies of Shalott each appear vulnerable and resigned. The first work discussed is, for me, the strongest depiction of the poem, in that the Lady raises her head to half-look at what lies ahead, creating a powerful and momentary scene. The fact that she is alert, conscious of her surroundings and fate, adds to the painting’s dynamism. These are highly evocative works, demonstrating the Victorian artist’s literary interests and ability to carefully consider popular sources in order to create affecting and memorable paintings. Atkinson Grimshaw named his children after characters in Tennyson’s writing. As a painter who was deeply impacted by Pre-Raphaelite work, he thrived on the climactic and tragic aspects of this poem.
This is the final Atkinson Grimshaw Historical Feature article, marking the end of our first quarter. I have thoroughly enjoyed looking at and engaging with these paintings, and will be sure to feature more of his work in future posts. To view the complete works by the artist, see johnatkinsongrimshaw.org, and BBC Your Paintings, the best existent online resources for images of the artist’s paintings. I also recommend Alexander Robertson’s book, ‘Atkinson Grimshaw‘, which is full of beautiful, highly detailed images and interesting information on the artist.
Noted Works
John Atkinson Grimshaw, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, c.1875, oil on canvas. Yale Center for British Art.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ or ‘Elaine’, c.1878, oil on canvas. Private collection.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, ‘Elaine’, c.1877, oil on canvas. Private collection.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, ‘Elaine’, c.1877, oil on canvas. Private collection.
Katherine April Caddy, 14th April 2014.



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