Tuesday, 30 October 2012

William Holman Hunt: The Lady of Shalott



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.

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