The Lady of Shalott (1851). Wood engraving on paper, 9 7/8 x 12 1/4 in. (25 x 31 cm.) The University of California, Berkeley Library. Scanned image and formatting by by George P. Landow. Commentary by Timothy R. Rodgers:by an unknown artist ("Illustrated by a Lady") . Published in Tennyson's
Intended to benefit the Midland Institution for the Blind, the publication of this anonymously illustrated version of "The Lady of Shalott" demonstrates the popularity of Tennyson's poem in mid-Victorian England. Because the poem had become well known by 1852 — the year of the book's publication — the publisher relied on the illustrator to enhance its desirability with aesthetically pleasing illustrations. In order to attract the reader, the illustrator daringly utilized stark, simplified forms in a style reminiscent of both Flaxman and contemporary German Bible illustrations; frozen, theatrical gestures; and balanced, pyramidal compositions to underscore the narrative progression of the poem.
The illustrations feature a straightforward interpretation of the poem undercut by the comically exaggerated features and mannerisms of the main characters. Some later illustrators either ascribed religious significance to "The Lady of Shalott" or employed religious imagery to interpret it. For example, William Holman Hunt and Elizabeth Siddal included images of Christ and the Virgin Mary in their visual interpretations of the poem, thus equating the Lady's secular activities and religious devotion. In contrast, this anonymous illustrator downplays the possible saintliness of the Lady by stressing her physical appearance rather than any religious devotion.
The Lady has a large, pointed nose emphasized by a weak chin, neither of which features is usually associated with Victorian representations of pubescent martyrs. Furthermore, the Lady's mock-medieval Italian princess's attire evinces her inappropriate worldliness.
The superficiality of the Lady's existence appears in the illustration that shows her launching her boat. She stands, oblivious to her impeding death, on the bank, surveying the surrounding fields with regal calm. Such an illustration, which fails to convey the Lady's psychological conflicts, portrays her as an unknowing victim — hardly the heroic figure of Tennyson's poem. In the illustration following that part of the poem that tells of the launching of her boat, the dead Lady floats down the river in her boat with a hooded personification of death hovering overhead. Although the transition between the illustration of the Lady launching her boat and that of her lying dead in her boat is unnecessarily abrupt, the illustrator maintains a consistently secular interpretation of the poem by depicting a cloaked figure of death rather than such Christian symbols as angels, thus reminding the reader of the Lady's earthly existence and aspirations. Throughout the remaining engravings the illustrator maintains a secular, humorous interpretation of the poem that corresponds to an initial, casual reading of Tennyson's words.
Clearly, the strength of the engravings derives from the graceful depiction of outlined forms visually balanced in pyramidal compositions enlivened by theatrical gestures and satiric portrayals. The illustrator successfully involves the viewer in the cartoonlike genre scenes, thereby producing a book that should have been, one hopes, both of financial benefit to the Midland Institute for the Blind and of aesthetic benefit to the reader.
Rodgers, Timothy R. Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts, Ed. George P. Landow. Brown University: 1985. p. 126.
Tennyson, Alfred. The Lady of Shalott. Nottingham: R. and M. H. Alien, 1851.
Last modified 31 December 2006