The Lady of Shalott 1850: 'Moment' and 'Movement'
All of the critical approaches to Hunt outlined above identify the absolute value — 'truth' — as the common denominator between, and obsessive concern of, his painting and writings. Thus, it is typical to find Hunt in 1905 saying that his third version of The Lady of Shalott was his interpretation of the 'eternal truth' he claimed was in Tennyson's poem. In order to understand how this final, unequivocal position was arrived at, it is first necessary to consider his earlier treatments of the subject.
Hunt's first Lady of Shalott was a drawing finished in May 1850. Whereas his final version bears the considerable burden of representing his complex conception of 'eternal truth', understandably his first has a less ambitious and more specific function: to illustrate Tennyson's poem 'truly'. In this case truth equates with completeness of illustration, since primarily it is an attempt to show as many important episodes from the poem as possible on one page. As Hunt reports having told Rossetti: the drawing 'was only put aside when the paper was so worn that it would not bear a single new correction' (cited in Bronkhurst, 1984, p.249).
Hunt's anxiety to compress as much of 'The Lady of Shalott' as he could into this drawing can perhaps be deduced from the fact that the shawl which is tied around the lady's waist as she faces the viewer has mysteriously disappeared from her mirror image. This highly uncharacteristic oversight suggests that Hunt was more concerned about the total effect of his illustration than with a relatively minor — perhaps even a decorative — detail of dress. Certainly, compared with its much larger 1905 counterpart, this drawing imports little extratextual material, and its implications are, therefore, correspondingly comparatively limited.
What the 1850 drawing does do, however, is to mark Hunt's debut as a literary illustrator, showing itself to be [315/316] the first attempt of a young artist to do justice to one of the best-known works of England's foremost poet, and also to come to terms with the hallowed tradition of 'ut pictura poesis'. The terms of the debate about the sister arts in which this version of The Lady of Shalott is engaged were subsequently eloquently set out by Matthew Arnold in his 'Epilogue to Lessing's Laocoön', which was probably written in 1864-65. Arnold's poem restates., in Victorian Neoclassical terms, the central thesis of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's seminal contribution to the eighteenth-century debate about the sister arts, which was entitled Laocoön (1766), and provided with the explanatory subtitle: An Essay Upon the Limitations of Poetry and Painting.
In his essay 'On Translating Homer' (1860), Arnold had already lamented 'the mistake of our Pre-Raphaelite School of painters, who do not understand the peculiar effect of nature resides in the whole and not the parts' (Super, 1960-77, p.105). His 'Epilogue to Lessing's Laocoön' reformulates both this complaint, and Lessing's essay, into a simple and prescriptive formula: paintings can only represent one 'moment'; poems represent 'movement' (Arnold's emphasis). Thus the temporal medium, poetry, is the superior one, as the Arnoldian speaker in the 'Epilogue' explains to his auditor:
'Behold,' I said, 'the painter's sphere!
The limits of his art appear
The passing group, the summer-morn,
The grass, the elms, the blossomed thorn —
Those cattle couched, or, as they rise,
Their shining flanks, their liquid eyes —
These, or much greater things, but caught
Like these, and in one aspect brought!
In outward semblance he must give
A moment's life of things that live;
Then let him choose his moment well,
With power divine its story tell ...
Behold at last the poet's sphere!
But who,' I said, 'suffices here?
For ah! so much he has to do;
Be painter and musician too!
The aspect of the moment show,
The feeling of the moment know!
The aspect not, I grant, express
Clear as the painter's art can dress ...
But clear as words can make revealing,
And deep as words can follow feeling.
But ah! then comes his sorest spell
Of toil — he must life's movement tell
The thread which binds it all in one,
And not its separate parts alone.
The movement he must tell of life,
Its pain and pleasure, rest and strife ... (Arnold 1979, pp.550-555)
Significantly, not only is Arnold's characteristic complaint about the Pre-Raphaelites' failure to subordinate the 'parts' to the 'whole' in their pictures inapplicable to Hunt's 1850 version of The Lady of Shalott, but Hunt's drawing also challenges Arnold's Lessingite notion that pictures can only represent one 'moment' but no 'movement'. Certainly, Hunt has anticipated Arnold's advice to the ideal painter to '"choose his moment well"', for his drawing focuses on the scene which he subsequently repeated in all his versions of The Lady of Shalott:
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side,
"The curse is come upon me" cried
The Lady of Shalott (Tennyson 1969, 354-361).
However, this critical moment was so well chosen that it also provide Hunt with the formal device which, when adapted, allowed him effectively to compress the whole poem into his drawing; Tennyson's mirror and its 'magic sights' (I.65). While it is widely agreed that Hunt's use of a convex mirror, surrounded by a sequence of eight satellite roundels showing other key scenes from the poem, is derived from the mirror in Van Eyck's Giovanni Arnolfinl and His Bride [see image in left column] of 1434,15 nevertheless Hunt's drawing also remains sufficiently faithful to the [317/318] major details of Tennyson's poem, and, in Arnold's terms, the whole 'movement' of the story, to bejudged a 'true' literary illustration.
Besides successfully, combining textual accuracy with the strong impression of comprehensiveness given by the simultaneous representation of consecutive scenes in the multiple roundles, Hunt's use of the mirror device achieves other effects which further challenge Lessingite strictures about the limitations of the visual arts compared with poetry. For instance, in both the convex main mirror and the smaller roundels the corresponding images of the Lady and Lancelot are almost the same size, even though the Lady is much nearer to the mirror than Lancelot. This optical illusion of scale is partly accounted for by the convex shape of the main mirror (the shape of the roundels is difficult to judge), and is perhaps indicative of the fact that while Tennyson's Lancelot continually rides 'down to Camelot' (in lines 86, 95 and 104), significantly he never appears to get any further away from the Lady, but rather he becomes more vivid to her in her mirror. Accordingly, in the fourth — 'magic' — roundel (clockwise from the top), Hunt presents a closeup of the bearded Lancelot.
Furthermore, Hunt's versatile use of the mirror device allows him to dramatize vividly the dynamics and contradictory impulses informing the moment of the Lady's ruin. Again, these effects challenge the Lessingite view that the visual arts cannot evoke 'movement'. For, while the image of the Lady facing the viewer appears to be staunchly resisting temptation, with her right arm outstretched in a clear gesture of resistance, paradoxically her mirror image is using that same arm to lean on the pillar to peer around it at Lancelot.
This effect is created because, as the viewer obviously needs to have an unobstructed frontal view of the Lady, there are no pillars in the foreground, yet 'magically' these absent pillars can be seen in the background mirror. The effect of this ambiguous double perspective is to create the strong illusion of the Lady's simultaneous resistance of and eager movement towards Lancelot. For, when the viewer naturally looks behind the foreground figure of the Lady to her reflected image, in the mirror it seems as if she has stepped outside her embroidery frame to watch Lancelot.
This is a highly sophisticated effect which raises important questions for the viewer about the relative status of these two images of the Lady. Which is 'true' — the'real' Lady facing the viewer and resisting temptation, or her shadowy, contradictory, mirror image? If, as I have implied, Hunt's convex mirror is the counterpart of Tennyson's 'magic' one, then the spectator is being placed in an even more privileged position than the Lady, being thus enabled to see her weaker side without suffering her fate. In this sense the 1850 Lady of Shalott attempts to represent the whole 'truth' of Tennyson's poem, in all its rich and dynamic ambiguity.