The Lady of Shalott, 1886-1905: Approaching 'Eternal Truth'
Throughout this discussion I have argued that when Hunt exhibited his final version of The Lady of Shalott — which proved to be the last picture he ever painted — there was a great deal more at stake than there had been when he drew his first version of it half a century before. Not only was Hunt fighting to assert his ascendancy over Rossetti as the 'true' Pre-Raphaelite, and over Tennyson as interpreter of the Lady of Shalott, but he was also belatedly attempting to rectify what he regarded as two great injustices: his hitherto unacknowledged joint status as Victorian England's greatest religious painter, and as the 'true' disciple of John Ruskin, Hunt's acknowledged idol and model interpreter of 'eternal truth'. These factors converge in spectacular fashion in Hunt's 1905 painting of The Lady of Shalott and its accompanying catalogue note.
In his analysis of the numerous religious pictures painted by Hunt after his fourth and final visit to the Holy Land in 1893, George Landow quotes a letter from Hunt to the Reverend Robert St John Tyrwhitt, in which he expresses his 'increasing bitterness at his lack of encouragement from the religious establishment':
Why is [it] that I have been so persistently overlooked all my life by the very people who as Christians should have employed me? I know no other artist who is so outspoken [320/321] and declared a follower of our Lord than myself. I don't boast of my excellence — only of my earnestness. I from the beginning of my career offended the great influential worldly ones by my rifusal to make any compromises and I lost much fortune and much opportunity of showing my full powers to advantage. No one can illustrate Christian history and teaching who does not believe. I was 23 when I began, and — from poverty — 26 when I finished 'The Light of the World' and then in the whole 35 [years] since I have never had an honour, and never a commission offered by the Church ... but in the place of myself who was the very originator of modern Art reform, every first and second hand follower of mine has been sniffed out and honoured. (ALS 19 November 1889; Bodleian Library MS Eng lett. e. 116. Cited by Landow, 1982).
Hunt dates his career as a neglected religious artist from 1851 — the year after he first drew The Lady of Shalott — when he began painting The Light of the World. The introduction of religious symbolism in Hunt's work after 1851 is also apparent in secular subjects such as The Awakening Conscience, and the Moxon Lady of Shalott, with its depiction of the Crucifixion, which represents Christ as the antithesis of the Lady of Shalott: the personification of passive but redemptive self-sacrifice. The proliferation of Christian ideas both in Hunt's final painting of The Lady of Shalott, and his detailed discussion of it, can thus be seen not only as a development and extension of those introduced on a small scale in 1837, but also as Hunt's final attempt to gain recognition as a religious painter, indirectly, through the reworking of a successful secular subject.
Hunt's intermittent, but nonetheless painstaking efforts over the 19-year period during which he painted his third The Lady of Shalott to invest it with symbolic significance can also be seen as a final attempt to come to terms with the ideals of Ruskin after 1880, as Hunt understood them. The fullest account of the complex relationship between Hunt and Ruskin is given in George Landow's detailed analysis of their correspondence (Landow, 1976-77), but here I am only concerned with material which bears specifically on the deeply significant Ruskinian dimension of the third Lady of Shalott.
Landow shows that Hunt was first inspired to use typological symbolism — a dominant feature of the 1905 Lady of Shalott — by reading the passage in Modern Painters 2 (1846) in which Ruskin interprets the prefigurative symbolism of Tintoretto's San Rocco Annunciation.23 Understandably, when Ruskin subsequently applied the formidable critical skills Hunt had so admired in Modern Painters 2 to the exegesis of his Light of the World and Awakening Conscience in The Times in May 1854, Hunt must have felt that he had been publicly 'called' by Ruskin to spearhead the revival of sacred art in Victorian England.
Certainly that is what Hunt told Ruskin when he wrote to him in 1880:
...I hope you wilt never have any doubt that I always wish to remember you as my first soul's friend, and I am anxious the more to say it because I have been in my awkward sense of honour and pride hitherto prevented from saying it distinctly ... When I was about getting to my manhood I had read most of the easy skeptical books and was a contemptuous unbeliever in any spiritual principles ... At this time a rather exalted but light minded fellow student who had himself been converted tried hopelessly ... to turn me to Romanism ... he lent me your Modern Painters ... It was the voice of God. I read this in rapture and it sowed some seed of shame, and I then managed to get the Stones of Venice. I had already painted things that I recognized now as good workmanship — considering the little chance I had of practicing but after I set myself to the task with a purpose instead of without. All that the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood had of Ruskinism came from this reading of mine. (rpt. in Landow, 1976-77, p.377)
Qualifying Hunt's grand claims about his introduction of 'Ruskinism' to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is the belatedness of his revelations. Indeed, Hunt registers this fact in the first sentence quoted: in 1880 lie finally tells Ruskin that he was his 'first soul's friend', in the 1840s. What underlies this telling sentence is the fact that — unlike Millais, Rossetti or Burne-Jones — and despite his high hopes, the young Hunt was never adopted and patronized by Ruskin. One of the major ironies of the history of Victorian art is that Ruskin never recognized, in terms of either critical or financial support, that Hunt's repeated, exhausting trips to paint religious subjects in the Holy Land were undertaken to conform to principles of truth to nature which Hunt understood Ruskin to have laid down. Thus, for example, as Landow points out, when Hunt completed six years' difficult work on The Finding of the Saviour of the Temple (1980), a painting 'which embodied Ruskin's programme for a new sacred realism, the critic had lost his religious belief ... [so] the one person who should have appreciated it was no longer interested' (Landow, 1976-77, p.105). Not surprisingly, this unwitting neglect of Hunt by Ruskin contributed greatly to the sense of betrayal by the religious establishment which Hunt felt throughout his long career as a religious painter.
If the date of Hunt's 1880 letter to Ruskin indicates that their intimacy bad developed very belatedly, then its content reveals a correspondingly great desire to make up for lost time. Indeed, subsequently the Hunt-Ruskin relationship revived and intensified. In 1882 a reconverted Ruskin accepted Hunt's invitation to visit his Chelsea studio, and on seeing Hunt's progress on The Triumph of the Innocents (1887), wrote to Mrs Severn: 'I had an entirely happy afternoon with him ... because ... I had seen, approaching completion, out and out the grandest picture he has ever done, which will restore him at once, when it is seen, to his former sacred throne ... Of course my feeling this made him very happy ... ' (rpt. in Landow, 1976-77, pp.379-380). Hunt's happiness and his hopes must have been at their height when, early in 1883, Ruskin be an gathering [321/322] material on his work for his forthcoming lecture on Hunt and Rossetti, to be given when he inaugurated his second period of tenure as the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford with a series on The Art of England.
There is no written record of Hunt's response to the lecture Ruskin gave about him in March 1883 but, although he must have been almost completely happy with it, the content of Ruskin's second Art of England lecture given shortly afterwards, in May 1883, must have devastated him, as I hope to demonstrate. I have argued eleswhere that Ruskin used his first lecture, 'Realistic Schools of Painting: D. G. Rossetti and W. Holman Hunt', to dissociate himself publicly from the recently27 dead Rossetti. Partly as a consequence of this, Hunt is eulogized at Rossetti's expense. For, in claiming that Rossetti had 'no actual belief' in either the Vita Nuova, the Morte d'Arthur or 'the Old and New Testaments', Ruskin directly contrasts him with Hunt, to whom 'the story of the New Testament, when once his mind entirely fastened on it, became ... not merely a Reality, not merely the greatest of Realities, but the only Reality' (Ruskin, vol.33, p.271). Furthermore, Ruskin promised his audience that when Hunt's Triumph of the Innocents was completed it would 'both in reality and in esteem, be the greatest religious painting of our time'.
However, Hunt would have been extremely disappointed by one aspect of this lecture; Ruskin's only concession to Rossetti, prior to demolishing him:
Rossetti's great poetical genius justified my claiming for him total, and I believe, earliest, originality in the sternly materialistic, though deeply reverent, veracity, with which alone, of all schools of painters this brotherhood of Englishmen has conceived the circumstances of the life of Christ. (Ruskin, vol.33, 270)
This concession would have rankled deeply with Hunt, for reasons outlined at the beginning of this study. In particular, he would have resented Ruskin's controversial attribution ofprimacy in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to Rossetti as a religious painter. Indeed, the complete absence of Millais from Ruskin's implicitly 'definitive', revised history of Pre-Raphaelitism, combined with its highly improbable pairing of Rossetti with Hunt, indicates the remarkable degree to which, even by his own standards, Ruskin was distorting art history to serve the latest turn of his ideas, in the 1880s.
Thus, having classified Hunt and Rossetti together as Pre-Raphaelite 'realists' in his first Art of England lecture, in the second, 'Mythic Schools of Painting: E. Burne-Jones and G. F. Watts', Ruskin went on to argue that, with the advent of Burne-Jones, Pre-Raphaelitism had evolved from its initial, 'sternly materialistic', 'realistic' phase, to its present, visionary, and therefore superior, 'mythological' one. Only in this second lecture did Ruskin's new conception of the history of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and of the hierarchy of its artists, become completely clear: Millais had never existed; Rossetti had originated 'realistic' Pre-Raphaelite religious art, but — incredibly — had never actually believed in the great 'Reality' he depicted; Hunt succeeded Rossetti and exceeded him in actual belief, but the sccond-generation Pre-Raphaelite, Burne-Jones, was a greater artist than any of his predecessors.
For Burne-Jones was now believed by Ruskin to have fulfilled the promise he had once seen in the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of being the true successor to Turner. Accordingly, Ruskin claimed that Burne-Jones was a
... modern painter of mythology ... invested ... with a deeply interesting function ... to realize for us, with a truth then impossible, the visions described by the wisest of men and embodying their most pious thoughts and their most exalted doctrines: not indeed attempting with any literal exactitude to follow the words of the visionary ... but only bringing the resources of accomplished art to unveil the hidden splendour of old imagination... (Ruskin, vol.33, 296)
Having been granted almost total ascendancy over his oldest rival, Rossetti, in Ruskin's first lecture, Hunt would have been devastated that Ruskin should have snatched the laurels from him two months later, awarding them instead to his latest Pre-Raphaelite protégé, Burne-Jones. Thus in May 1883 Hunt's world was suddenly destroyed by the highest earthly authority he knew, John Ruskin: realistic religious art was no longer the repository of 'eternal truth'; mythological art had replaced it.
The deep traumas and complications surrounding Hunt's relationships with the religious establishment and Ruskin at this late stage of his career may help to account for the long gestation period, and great complexity of his final "magnum opus" — The Lady of Shalott — which, significantly, was not a religious painting, though it incorporates strong religious elements. For, although Hunt continued to paint numerous religious subjects between the 1880s and the end of his career, undoubtedly the single most important product of this period was the one which he staked his entire reputation: The Lady of Shalott.
The exceptional length and density of the content of Hunt's 1905 catalogue entry for The Lady of Shalott do, I think, make the painting's strategic importance abundantly clear:
1. Tennyson, in the poem of 'The Lady of Shalott', deals with a romantic story which conveys an eternal truth, based on the romance of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The name of the lady and the events recorded are the invention of the poet.
2.The progressive stages of circumstance in the poem are reached in such enchanting fashion as [322/323] to veil for the casual reader the severer philosophic purport of the symbolism throughout the verse.
3. The parable, as interpreted in this painting, illustrates the failure of a human soul towards its accepted responsibility. The lady typifying the Soul is bound to represent faithfully the workings of the high purpose of King Arthur's rule. She is to weave her record, not as one who, mixing in the world, is tempted by egoistic weakness, but as a being 'sitting alone'; in her isolation she is charged to see life with a mind supreme and elevated in judgement. In executing her design on the tapestry she records not the external incidents of common lives, but the present condition of King Arthur's Court, with its opposing influences of good and evil. It may be seen he is represented on his double throne, the Queen is not there, and he is saddened by her default; but he is still supported on his right and his left by the virtues.
4. At his right hand Charity is sheltering motherless children under her aegis, while justice and Truth are on his left.
5. The knights below are bringing their services. Sir Galahad is offering on his shield the cup of the Holy Grail, which alone pure innocence and faithfulness have enabled him to attain; parts of the web which are not yet completed would reveal the true services of other knights, but on the left of the embroidery the Lady has already pictured the vainglorious Sir Lancelot, who brings no offering but lip-service, kissing his finger tips.
6. The Lady's chamber is decorated with illustrations of devotion of different orders: on one hand the humility of the Virgin and her Child, and on the other the valour of Heracles who, having overcome the dragon, is seizing the fruit of the garden of the Hesperides while the guardian daughters of Erebus are dead in sleep.
7. The mirror stands as the immaculate plane of the lady's own inspired mind, or, if you prefer the interpretation, the unsullied plane upon which Art should reflect Nature as opposed to bald realism, and so far she has obeyed, but seeing the happiness of the common children of men denied to her for the time wavering in her Ideal she becomes envious, and cries, 'I am half sick of shadows'.
8. In this mood she casts aside duty to her spiritual self, and at this ill-fated moment Sir Lancelot comes riding by heedlessly singing on his way.
9. Fascinated by his reflection in the mirror, she turns aside to view him through the forbidden window opening on to the world below.
10.Having forfeited the blessing due to unswerving loyalty, destruction and confusion have over-taken her. The mirror 'cracks from side to side', the doves of peace which have nested in her tower find refuge from turmoil in the pure ether of the sky, and in their going extinguish the lamp that stood ever lighted, her work is ruined; her artistic life has come to an end. What other responsibilities remain for her are not for this service; that is a thing of the past. It was suggested to me that the fate of the Lady was too pitiful! I had Pandora's Box with Hope lying hid, carved upon the frame.
11. Unwittingly, the traitor Lancelot, imparts consolation in his final words "... She has a lovely face; God in His mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott" (Hunt 1913, II, 401-402)
This elaborate text attempts to lay two formidable ghosts — Tennyson and Ruskin — finally to rest, by assimilating, adapting, and thus appropriating substantial amounts of their ideas, and by reworking to this end, for one last time, the powerful Victorian ideology of the fallen woman. All this is done in the name of 'eternal truth', the Ruskinian battle cry of the belated Victorian sage.
I have argued that Hunt's first Lady of Shalott served Tennyson devotedly, but that the second — with the eventual, belated, support of Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — began to challenge him. Finally, with the simultaneous appearance of the third Lady of Shalott and its accompanying exegesis, Hunt marshalled an apparently long-planned, completely co-ordinated, and thus devastating, verbal and visual onslaught on the apparently unassailable position which Tennyson held in 1856.
Visually, Hunt's defiance of Tennyson is most immediately apparent in the wildness of the Lady's hair — this being the feature to which Tennyson had so strongly objected in 1856. The introduction of several other Tennysonian references, not present in either the 1850 or 1857 versions of The Lady of Shalott, indicates the escalation of Hunt's response to him by 1905. In 1852 Edward Lear is reported to have told Emily Tennyson that 'if all of Tennyson's poems happened to be burned by a casualty' then Hunt 'might supply their place as I really think he knows all' (Davidson 1938, p.83. Cited in Amor, p.99). Lear's opinion lends weight to Miriam Neuringer's suggestion that Hunt's third Lady Of Shalott has added to its predecessors 'an allegorical program by drawing upon other Tennyson poems, [323/324] including "The Palace of Art"', and the Idylls of the King (Neuringer 1985, p.66). She argues convincingly that
'The Palace of Art' inspired the decorations in the Lady of Shalott's chamber. The paintings that hang in the palace of art represent the great myths including classical ones and those of India, Islam and Camelot. Similarly Hunt included plaques which represented classical myths, Christian stories and secular legends — this last depicted in the tapestry of Camelot.
Although she does not offer any specific textual support for her subsequent argument, Neuringer is, I think, right when she goes on to suggest that Hunt's design for the tapestry may have been inspired by Tennyson's Idylls of the King 'which dwell on the disintegration of Camelot' (Neuringer 1985, p.66).
This inference can be supported by reference to one of the first four of his idylls which Tennyson published in 1859; 'Lancelot and Elaine'. Catherine Barnes Stevenson has shown that 'a tissue of circumstances links "Lancelot and Elaine" with Pre-Raphaelitism' (Stevenson 1981, pp.8-14). She points out that it 'was written during the summer [of 1858] that Holman Hunt visited Tennyson', at Farringford,36 by which time Tennyson had realized that 'the Lady of Shalott is evidently the Elaine of the Morte d'Arthur' (See Ricks, p. 354). This connection seems to have been reversed in Hunt's Lady of Shalott, which appears to draw on the pictorial effects of Tennyson's idyll:
Elaine the fair, Elaine the lovable,
Elaine the lily maid of Astolat,
High in her chamber up a tower to the east
Guarded the sacred shield of Lancelot;
Which first she placed where morning's earliest ray
Might strike it, and awake her with the gleam ... (II. I-6)
The Tennysonian 'gleam' which strikes Lancelot's shield and arouses Elaine each morning corresponds with the dazzling figure of Lancelot which flashes on to the Lady of Shalott's mirror — to such devastating effect. In both poems the 'gleam' is Tennyson's displaced, aestheticized image of the powerful moment of female sexual awakening. Apparently recognizing this, Hunt uses a bright shaft of sunlight — an exact pictorial equivalent of Tennyson's 'gleam' — to expose what he calls Lancelot's 'vainglorious' self-love. Indeed, Hunt's tapestry image of Lancelot 'kissing fingers tips' (paragraph 5), comes from Tennyson's 'Lancelot and Elaine'. Having 'suddenly flashed on her a wild desire' that Lancelot 'should wear her favour at the tilt' (II. 355-35), Elaine gives Lancelot her favour, and he gives her his shield, Elaine's brother, Sir Lavaine, dismisses her, laughing:
... 'Lily maid,
For fear our people call you lily maid
In earnest, let me bring your colour back
Once, twice, thrice,: now get you hence to bed':
So kissed her, and Sir Lancelot his own hand,
And thus they moved away ... (II.383-38)
In Hunt's description of his painting's tapestry, the 'idle and vainglorious' Lancelot is contrasted with Sir Galahad, who, Hunt says, 'is offering on his shield the cup of the Holy Grail, which alone pure innocence and faithfulness have enabled him to obtain'. In Hunt's painting the tapestry's contrasting pair of knights are each picked out by beams of sunlight. As with his treatment of Lancelot, Hunt's technique of illuminating Galahad and the Grail has a Tennysonian prototype. This time it is from the 'Holy Grail' which describes how, when Galahad sits in Merlin's chair, there is a blast of thunder
And in the blast there smote along the hall
A beam of light seven times more clear than day:
And down the long beam stole the Holy Grail
All over covered with a luminous cloud ... (II. 186-190)
Hunt's deployment of imagery from Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott', 'Palace of Art' and Idylls of the King demonstrates three things: first, an extensive knowledge and mastery of Tennyson's oeuvre and his imagery and effects; second, the painter's ability to illustrate more than one moment and one poem in a single painting successfully; and finally, a revelation of what Hunt sees as 'the eternal truth' underlying Tennyson's romantically told story of 'The Lady of Shalott'.
Thus, far from being eliminated in deference to the author's wishes, the severity that so antagonized Tennyson in Hunt's Moxon illustration was subsequently intensified by him, to the point where it becomes the entire rationale of his final, large-scale, colour interpretation of 'The Lady of Shalott'.
Hunt's determination to reveal what he calls 'the severer philosophic import' of 'The Lady of Shalott' can be accurately judged from an analysis of his treatment of Hercules and the Hesperides, whom he has added to his last version of The Lady of Shalott in the relief to the right of the Lady. Since Tennyson suppressed his subtly ambiguous poern, 'The Hesperides', after its first publication in 1833, it is unlikely to have been a source for Hunt's painting. A far more likely source is Ruskin.
Earlier I suggested that Hunt would have been devastated by Ruskin's public defection in 1883 from the support of the kind of realistic religious art to which Hunt had devoted his career, to the service of the kind of mythological art painted by Burne-Jones. I infer this from the fact that in his third version of The Lady of Shalott Hunt suddenly introduces mythological figures, while in the seventh paragraph of his description of the painting his abjuration of 'bald realism' in art recalls Ruskin's injunction, in his second Art of England lecture, to 'the modern painter of mythology' to avoid 'attempting with any literal exactitude to follow the words of the visionary'. [324/325]
The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention
in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806). Click on picture for
a larger image.
The prominence of the painting's bas-relief depiction of Hercules and the Hesperides, as well as its other allusions to mythological details from 'The Palace of Art', discussed above, sugqest that, in response to Ruskin's lecture on mythology in art, Hunt was belatedly attempting to assimilate the use of mythological references to his existing method of using Christian and literary allusions, a system which was itself based on earlier Ruskinian principles. Thus, while introducing mythological figures, Hunt did not entirely abandon the principles of Christian typology he had derived from Ruskin and used since the 1850s. For, as George Landow has pointed out, in replacing the Crucifixion of 1857 with the figure of Hercules, Hunt was choosing a well-known mythic parallel to Genesis 3:15, so that Hercules is represented as a precursor of Christ, who bruises the serpent's head (Landow, Victorian Types, p.137).
In Modern Painters 5 (1860) Ruskin wrote a detailed interpretation of Turner's painting of The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806), explaining that in the myth illustrated by Turner, Hercules personifies 'manly labour' (Ruskin, vol.7, p.403). The theme which dominates Ruskin's reading of Turner's Garden of the Hesperides is 'the troubling of household peace':
... the Hesperian dragon is the evil spirit of wealth, as possessed in households; and associated, therefore, with the true household guardian, or singing nymphs. Hercules (manly labour), slaying both Geryon and Ladon, presents oxen and apples to Juno who is their proper mistress; but the Goddess of Discord, contriving that one portion of this household wealth shall be ill bestowed by Paris, he ... choosing pleasure instead of wisdom or power; — there issue from this evil choice the catastrophe of the Trojan war, and the wandering of Ulysses, which are essentially, both in the Iliad and Odyssey, the troubling of household peace; terminating with the restoration of this peace by repentance and patience; Helen and Penelope seen at last sitting on their household thrones, in the Hesperian light of Age.
We have, therefore, to regard Discord in the Hesperides, eminently as the disturber of households ...(Ruskin, vol.7, pp.403-404)
The values and cadence of Ruskin's reading of the Hesperides myth are strongly recalled by Hunt's reading [325/326] of the iconography of his own Lady of Shalott. The 'troubling of household peace' caused by the Goddess of Discord and manifested in the cuckolding of Menelaus by his queen, Helen, and her lover, Paris, finds its medieval English analogue in the triangular relationship between Arthur, his unfaithful queen, Guinevere, and her lover, Lancelot. When Tennyson reformulated the medievalism of 'The Lady of Shaiott' in The Idylls of the King, the destructiveness of the illicit sexuality represented by the Arthurian triangle brought about the disintegration of Camelot, and was taken to represent his pessimistic judgement on the condition of contemporary England.
In attempting to assimilate the Arthurian ideology of Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Ruskin's interpretation of the Hesperides' myth in his third representation of The Lady of Shalott, Hunt found that the condemnation of illicit sexuality was the strongest common denominator he had at his disposal. Accordingly, the Hesperides are unequivocally cast as indolent precursors of the Lady of Shalott, who herself becomes the universal type of the fallen woman. However, it is here that The Lady of Shalott becomes almost overwhelmed with the contradictory ideological burdens it is carrying and hovers on the brink of deconstruction, like so many earlier Victorian representations of fallen women.41
The need to impose order and meaning on illicit — usually female — sexuality stretched the ingenuity of the — usually male — Victorian authorities to its limits. 'Authority' not only took the obvious form of legislation and medical or other 'official' documents, it also circulated extremely effectively in literature and the visual arts. Hunt's second Lady of Shalott offers a good example of an image that represents the dangers of illicit female sexuality in a manner and iconography so easily recognizable that Tennyson instantly reacted to it. Hunt's third Lady of Shalott intensifies this representation programmatically, but so elaborately and extensively that it draws together so many images of ambiguity and disorder that it cannot control all of them.
The signs of Hunt's desire to impose order on the chaos caused by the Lady's fall are abundant. With his penetrating, misogynous male gaze, the preternaturally dutiful Hercules simultaneously punishes the negligent prototypes of the Lady of Shalott and passes judgement on her with his dreadful stare. Hercules' grim, authoritarian surveillance of the Lady encodes visually the condemnation of her which the spectator is being heavily prompted to make. Images of Galahad's dutiful chastity being rewarded, and the Virgin in her chaste maternal humility, ensure that the alternative, positive values endorsed by the painting are made abundantly clear.
In addition, every image is elaborately explained by Hunt in an explicit attempt to fix visual meaning verbally and to eliminate ambiguity, by using familiar, and therefore authoritative, Ruskinian rhetorical strategies. Hence, the reader-viewer is inducted into the painting bv being told, categorically, that he or she is seeing 'eternal truth', 'the severer philosophic purport' of the symbols which — unfortunately — the 'enchanting fashion of the poem' may have veiled from 'the casual reader' (paragraph 2). Here, the reader-viewer is instructed not to approach The Lady of Shalott casually, while Tennyson is patronized and then dismissed because he encouraged just this approach to it, although earlier Hunt had had at least to acknowledge that 'the name of the lady and the events recorded are the invention of the poet' (paragraph 1).
However, Hunt's attempt to produce the definitive verbal-visual representation of 'eternal truth' begins to crack in certain strategic areas, for example, when Hunt tries to 'fix' Lancelot's role. Earlier I suggested that in 1850 and 1857 Hunt adopted Tennyson's subtly equivocal portrayal of Lancelot by presenting the archetypal seducer of Arthurian legend as unwitting agent of the Lady's downfall. In 1905, however, Hunt is in a dilemma, because having followed the Idylls of the King so closely in the imagery of the Lady's tapestry, he can no longer cast her unambiguously as being solely responsible for the destruction of Camelot.
Nevertheless he does still try extremely hard to blame the Lady exclusively; most obviously when he interprets the line: 'I am half sick of shadows', as the sign that 'she cast aside her duty', immediately before the 'ill-fated moment Sir Lancelot comes riding by heedlessly singing on his way' (paragraph 8, my emphasis). The highly calculated ordering of the sequence of events described here, and the strategic use of the adverb 'heedlessly', operate to fix the blame unequivocally on the lady while clearly absolving Lancelot. Yet, in the last sentence of his commentary Hunt betrays the strain of sustaining this polarization of male and female by commenting: 'Unwittingly the traitor, Lancelot, imparts consolation in his final words ... ' although the contradiction of Lancelot's unwitting treachery could be regarded as a witty paradox if the word 'traitor' is taken to refer to Lancelot's betrayal of Arthur with Guinevere, rather than any betrayal of the dead Lady, the syntax and context of the sentence militate against this reading. Thus Hunt's rearguard defence of the Victorian double standard collapses in confusion when he starts saying that Lancelot has treacherously — but accidentally — betrayed the Lady who is solely responsible for the disintegration of Camelot.
This simply does not add up, and I wish to conclude by noting two other flaws in Hunt's final conception of 'eternal truth'. The first is his response to the suggestion he says was made to him, 'that the fate of the lady was too pitiful': having 'Pandora's Box with Hope lying hid, carved upon the frame'. Pandora and Hope are an [326/327] extremely unlikely pairing, inspiring about as much confidence as Dickens's rewritten, 'happy' ending to Great Expectations in which Pip ends up with renewed expectations, foreseeing no shadow of parting from Estella! For, while Pandora's fatal opening of her forbidden box clearly makes her another classical precursor of Hunt's disobedient Lady of Shalott, it is difficult to see how either lady is connected with the concept of Hope, and Hunt's failure to explain the connection, by pretending that it is self-evident, is so uncharacteristically reticent as to betray the fact that he had no idea either how the painting could possibly be constructed as hopeful.
The final irony is that the integrity and 'authenticity' of the painting, which was supposed to represent Hunt's definitive vision of 'eternal truth', was actually impugned by The Manchester Guardian, and plans for a popular subscription to raise money to buy it were abandoned because, at the opening of the exhibition of 'The Collected Works of William Holman Hunt, OM DCL', Hunt announced that because of his failing eyesight he had used the help of an assistant to finish The Lady of Shalott. Consequently, when Hunt's commentary on the painting was reprinted posthumously in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, his widow appended the following, sadly indignant, statement of her husband's:
Contrary to my previous custom and the practice of painters of the past and present, I had (consequent upon my failing sight) the help of an assistant in completing my painting. Such practice had never as far as I know been cause for disputing the authenticity of a work, and I certainly made no secret of the fact nor of the name of the artist [Edward R. Hughes], my assistant; but to my astonishment when, after strong pressure, I had lent the picture for exhibition, a writer in the Manchester Guardian cast ignominious doubts upon the picture as not being my own work! Had the writer had the least justification by knowledge of my studio practice ... he would have known that the picture had been on my easel for over fifteen years. I may add that the writer of the surprise article I refer to, suggests that this picture is not strictly Pre-Raphaelite, whereas to any person with understanding of the fundamental meaning of the word (as fully discussed in this book), must see that the entire treatment is in accordance with P.R. principles, nor could any painting of mine better illustrate it (Hunt 1913, vol.2, p.402).