The Lady of Shalott by Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901). 1861. Albumen print from two negatives, 12 x 10 in. (30.4 x 50.8 cm.). Unsigned. The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas (ace. no.964:057:068)Helmut Gernscheim Collection.
The Lady of Shalott by Henry Peach Robinson is unique, for it is the only known photograph that illustrates this subject so popular in painting and book illustration. Robinson, the leading art photographer of the 1860s, was the first to illustrate the work of Tennyson, and as he stated, he believed that he followed Pre-Raphaelite principles in doing so. "I made a barge, crimped the model's hair, PR fashion, laid her on the boat in the river among the water lilies, and gave her a background of weeping willows, taken in the rain so that they might look dreary'" (quoted Masterpieces of Victorian Photography, 21).
Robinson, who illustrates the poem quite accurately, only deviates from it in spelling the inscription on the boat "Ye Ladye of Shalott" (it should read "The Lady of Shalott"). When it was first exhibited, in Manchester, the critics criticized various details. One objected, for example, to the writing on the boat: "No maiden distraught with such feeling could have executed such an inscription" ("Exhibition of Photographs"). Another critic, who did "not like the boat, which is not a boat but a punt," could not understand why the Lady lay at the stern of the boat. How could she turn around in it after casting off? Finally, he noted that the boat did not show any evidence of movement in the water "Photographic Contributions").
These petty objections demonstrate that the critics failed to realize that they were looking at an illustration and therefore approached it as if it were a scene from daily life. Since other artists before Robinson had taken liberties with Tennyson's poem, one is surprised that the critics would not allow the photographer any dramatic license. They clearly believed that a photograph must not deviate from the literal depiction of nature.
Despite Robinson's efforts to create an imaginary scene, the result is a photograph so naturalistic that it looks more like a scene of a theatrical production than an imagined view. The viewer cannot willingly suspend disbelief and imagine that he or she sees the Lady on the river. Rather, the viewer sees a model lying in a boat merely pretending to be the Lady of Shalott. Robinson, who brought Tennyson's strange vision down to the level of the mundane, realized his failure to depict the weird and unearthly in a photograph. "It was a ghastly mistake to attempt such a subject with our realistic art and ... I never afterwards went for themes beyond the limits of the life of our day" (quoted Masterpieces of Victorian Photography, 21). The photograph exemplifies the limitations of photography as an illustrative medium. Despite its somewhat comical appearance, the photograph sincerely attempts to illustrate the poem, and in so doing it suggests the emerging importance of photography as a serious art form.
"Exhibition of Photographs at Manchester." British journal of Photography 8 (1 October 1861): 345.
Masterpieces of Victorian Photography, 1840Ñ1900, from the Gernscheim Collection. London: Arts Council or Great Britain, 1951.
Neuringer, Miriam. Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts. Ed. George P. Landow. Brown University: 1985. p. 139.
"Photographic Contributions to Art: 'The Lady of Shalott.'" British journal of Photography 8 (15 October 1861): 356.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. A Dream of Fair Women and Other Poems. London: Grant Richards, 1900.
Last modified 24 August 2016