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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Exhibition: JW Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite
at the Royal Academy of Art, London until 13th September 09

Star rating - 8/10

All things Pre Raphaelite are currently very much in vogue, thanks in no small part to the (over) sexed up drama which has just finished its run on BBC1. We are now all experts in the original Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood of Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais, or so we would like to think. But much less well known is the later work of John William Waterhouse. In fact the current exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy is the first major exhibition of his work in this country since the 1970s.

He was actually painting works inspired by our friends in the PRB a couple of decades after their heyday, although their obvious influence on him is clear to see. Some critics view his works as but a pale imitation of the PRB at their best – a solid craftsman staying with safe subject matters, but these paintings are far from one dimensional pieces.

Drawing on one of his favourite themes, the works of Shakespeare, his ‘Miranda’ from 1875 shows a patient, calm and beautiful girl waiting on a desert island for her lover to come. Waterhouse also used themes from ancient Greek and Roman mythology to inspire many of his works. And his most powerful images are undoubtedly of women.

In ‘Consulting the Oracle’ from 1884, he captures the expressions of the women gathered round brilliantly as ones of terror, and full of tension. In ‘Marianne’ from 1887 he shows how Herod’s beautiful wife looks on defiantly and indignantly as she is condemned to death for an adultery that she did not commit.

But it is for his most famous work, his 1888 ‘The Lady of Shalott’ that he is best known and loved. It is said that this painting was inspired by Millais’ Ophelia, and it is easy to see why the comparisons have often been made. The most powerful part of this image is the desperate expression on his beautiful subject’s face, as she sails away from Lancelot, her love, to her death, unable to beat the curse that lets her see him only in a mirror. As with other of his works, this picture was inspired by the works of Tennyson. The detail in this piece is also striking – the tapestry decorated with chivalrous scenes that hangs from her boat and trails in the water is minute in its detail.

His ‘Circe Poisoning the Sea’ from 1892 shows his clever use of colour as he draws us into the tale with the striking deep lagoon blue shades he uses. His ‘Mermaid’ shows another tragic beauty and again lovely detail on the inside of the shell by her side. His ‘Lamia’ of 1905 shows the snake turned maiden enrapturing the handsome knight Lycius.

But it is for the female beauty that Waterhouse so often portrays that he is so loved. This collection powerfully demonstrates that, far from being the misogynist that he is sometimes labeled as, his appreciation of the female form is awe inspiring’ and he fills his images with admiration, as we are for the painter himself through his works. Yes these works are of the Victorian era, and reflect the tastes of their day, and no they are not really like the works of the PRB – but they are nonetheless still well worth a visit.

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