Romantic art: The Lady of Shalott


The legend of King Arthur is to English culture what the Ramayana is to Indians. There is much debate about whether he truly existed in the form that he is talked about, though the places that he ruled over – Glastonbury, Tintagel, Camelot etc – still stand, just like ur Ayudhya does. Much has been written about Arthur by various historians, poets and story-tellers, and many painters have taken these works as inspiration to create art.

Perhaps one of the most famous paintings based on a sub-plot of the Arthur legend is that of the Lady of Shalott.

Unrequited or unfulfilled love is a common theme in the mythology of all cultures. In the story of Arthur, Sir Lancelot, his best knight, is in love with Guinivere and she with him, but they cannot be together for their loyalty to the king. Lancelot is loved deeply by another woman, Elaine of Astolat, whose token Lancelot once wears into a jousting tournament, which leads her to believe that he favours her. When he takes an injury from a lance she nurses him back to life, but when she confesses her love for him, he spurns her gently, and offers to pay for her care.

After Lancelot leaves she dies of heartbreak. Her body is placed in a barge and let afloat down the Thames to Camelot.

The painting is based on Tennyson’s poem of the same name, which depicts a lady of Shalott who lives in an island castle set on a river that flows to ‘many tower’d’ Camelot. She sits with her loom, weaving, and only watches the outside world in her mirror, for if she turns and looks at anything, it would bring down a curse upon her. Then she sees Lancelot pass by in the mirror’s reflection, and she cannot resist turning back and looking out of her castle’s window at the caped rider.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
       As he rode down from Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:’
       Sang Sir Lancelot.

After Lancelot passes, not once looking at her, she realizes that the curse has come upon her. She bundles her brocade into a boat and floats down to Camelot, singing a lament as she does so. Before she reaches the castle, she dies.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden wall and gallery,
A pale, pale corpse she floated by,
Deadcold, between the houses high,
       Dead into tower’d Camelot.
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
To the planked wharfage came:
Below the stern they read her name,
       The Lady of Shalott.

In the painting, the impending death of the lady is shown by the three candles in front of her that signify life. Two of them have been blown out by the evening breeze. And the third is fluttering.

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

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