Hylas and the Nymphs,1896. Photo copyright Manchester City Galleries

Packing An Emotional Punch

3rd July 2009

JW Waterhouse was a second generation Pre-Raphaelite, born in the year that the Brotherhood announced its plans to revolutionise art. A new Royal Academy exhibition devoted to his work has just opened – and it’s a sensual treat, reports Jack Watkins.

The Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse, regularly vies with Picasso’s Weeping Woman as the top selling postcard in the gift shop at Tate Britain. Doubtless, if you asked, it would be a similar story at the Manchester Art Gallery where hangs his Hylas and the Nymphs. This new Royal Academy exhibition, the largest retrospective mounted in his name to date, started out in Groningen in The Netherlands, where it drew an attendance of 143,000, despite the unfamiliarity of his work in Holland, and the size of the locality (Groningen’s population is only 140,000). It’s a testimony to the magical quality of the paintings to reach out to people beyond the normal range of gallery goers.

Yet Waterhouse is not regularly cited among the greatest of the Pre-Raphaelites. He wasn’t born until 1849, the time around which seven artists, among them Holman Hunt, Millais and Rossetti, announced their “revolutionary” manifesto. As an arch Academician – entering the Royal Academy Schools aged 20 and later regularly exhibiting and teaching there – he was in many ways an upholder of the establishment that, at least in the early days, the Brotherhood thought they were breaking away from. It is a success of this new exhibition to show us that what might appear serene, untroubled work, executed in the grand Victorian manner, often, on closer inspection, steams with intensity.

The emotional punch of Pre-Raphaelite painting did not fully seize JW’s attention until he visited a mid-career retrospective of John Everett Millais in 1886. Born in Rome, and entering the Academy at such a young age, JW grew up steeped not just in the classical traditions of painting, but also in the actual artifacts and archaeology of antiquity. The careful rendering of such details is highly apparent in The Favourites of Emperor Honorius. Honorius, it should be said, was the early 5th century emperor unfortunate enough to occupy the throne when Alaric and the Goths were about to launch the famous ‘sack of Rome’, an event that shocked western civilisation. In Waterhouse’s painting, the distracted, indolent emperor sits gazing downward, more intent on feeding his pigeons than listening to the council of his fawning courtiers. The picture is beautifully composed and heavy with symbolism, with a bust of Augustine, a reminder of the Empire’s greater days, in the background.

detail from St Eulalia. Photo copyright Tate, London 2009

This, and others of its type here, are paintings in the grand manner. Consulting the Oracle is typical of the fascination with the Orientalism of the time. A certain staginess often meant that Waterhouse was confused with that other Victorian master Alma-Tadema, though there’s an immediacy about his work (witness both the dramatic foreshortening and the chilly conveyance of bleeding flesh on cold stone slabs in St Eulalia) that lifts them above the usual late 19th century sentimentality.

By the 1880s, Waterhouse had become fully established as a practitioner in the High Art tradition, his work regularly placed in prime positions in the Academy shows. While he was fully acquainted with classical literature, and drew heavily upon it for his subject matter, he also shared a Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasm for the Romantic poets, possessing volumes of Tennyson and Shelley (displayed in the exhibition), which he filled with sketches inspired by the verses. He also became increasingly fixated on depicting females with pale, innocent faces and long flowing hair; although they seem to typify Pre-Raphaelite models, JW lent them a subtle ambiguity… as if they possessed some secret power that would lure men to their doom.

By the 1880s, of course, the movement had lost its radicalist touch, overtaken by developments in France where the work of the Impressionists made Pre-Raphaelite plein air equivalents seem clumsy and stage-managed. Waterhouse appears to have responded by trying to marry the two styles. In A Naiad, for example, a water nymph rises from the lake; the vegetation is rendered with misty imprecision. Then we come to The Lady of Shalott, familiar perhaps, but one of those awesome works that casts a presence across the entire room. No matter what other paintings are close by, however excellent they are, it is to this that the eyes continually return.
To all intents, it seems the Pre-Raphaelite work par excellence – a medieval theme, a flame-haired damsel sailing to her death. For inspiration JW turned to a Tennyson verse about the Arthurian legend and to Millais’s painting of a similarly doomed Ophelia. Yet in deploying the ‘square brush technique’ of the Impressionists, and almost smearing the background detail across the canvas in much more subdued, greyish tones, he seemed to be acknowledging the new ideas about paint application that were enthusing a younger generation of artists in Europe.

His subsequent experiments using this style were less successful. Soon he had returned to the brighter palettes of old, while continuing to depict femmes fatales and maidens in enchanting settings. There has been much scholarly debate about the mysogynistic streak in these works, many of which seem to present women as evil in their very beauty. Hylas and the Nymphs and the smaller-scale, but superb, La Belle Dame sans Merci are works that beg such questions. What is undoubted, however, is his brilliance in capturing what the photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, in a different context, called ‘the decisive moment’, whether in dramatic or psychological terms. The Lady of Shalott and Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses exude a curious hypnotic power over the viewer which goes beyond the surface drama. No-one has ever found conclusive proof that Waterhouse was a member of an occult movement, but his interest in paganism and mythology suggests that it’s likely.

By the early 20th century he had become, of course, a deeply old-fashioned painter. Never attempting anything that could be termed ‘modernist’ – or even subject matter in modern dress – he relied upon a select band of well-to-do patrons as he produced works that seem to hark back more strongly than before to Pre-Raphaelite themes. On his death in 1917, The Times commented on the ‘unique atmosphere’ of his art, its combination of other-worldliness and naturalism. It is this rather eerie quality that still speaks across the decades, and makes an exhibition of what might appear very dated work a real treat.

J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite
is at the Royal Academy until 13 September.
See www.royalacademy.org.uk for more information.

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