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The Lady of Shalott (c.1886–1905)
by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)

Medium: oil on panel
Dimensions: H 44.4 x W 34.1 cm

Hunt's image takes inspiration from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem of the same name. Based on Arthurian legend, the Lady of Shalott is confined by a curse in a tower near Camelot and unable to leave or even look out of the window. Her only glimpse of the world beyond is from a reflection in the mirror, and these are the scenes she relentlessly weaves on her loom to occupy her in captivity. Hunt chooses to paint the moment in the story when the sight and sound of Sir Lancelot draw her to the forbidden window, and the 'mirror crack'd from side to side' as a tragic curse takes its effect.

What else tells us that she was pulled to the window unexpectedly? What else in the scene is disturbed? Will she ever make it to Camelot?

The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott

Manchester Art Gallery

 

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the figure and what's going on in the background and around her.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version by clicking here.

 

 

Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • How has the character and identity of the figure in the painting been expressed?
  • Are there any other clues or symbols that tell us something about her personality or identity?
  • How is the Lady of Shalott feeling at this moment in time? Does she look peaceful, relaxed, content? Troubled, busy, worried? How do you know?
  • What are the elements and objects that make up her world?

Suggested activity: a picture's worth a thousand words

Remove the painting from display. Whilst it's not visible, ask your students to work in pairs to write down as many words as they can think of to describe the picture, including details they can see and words that describe what the figure might be thinking and feeling. Give them around five minutes to do this.

Once time is up, display the painting again and discuss the words they jotted down as a class. What words were most common? Were any unusual or new to some of the class? What do these new words mean? Are there any features of the painting that the class didn't describe? Why might this be?

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Figures – Expression, Gesture and Symbols & Attributes

Composition (e.g. movement, repetition of shapes)

Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.

 


Comparison activity

Compare The Lady of Shalott with Henrietta Mary Ada Ward's 1861 oil painting The Princes in the Tower.

In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Figures, Space and Colour.

 


Cross-curricular activities: Art & Design / English

The romanticism and symbolism of Alfred Tennyson's lyrical ballad 'The Lady of Shalott' has inspired a number of artworks, which makes it a strong example of how literature can influence art.

Extend into an Art & Design lesson by using a text your students are reading, or have read, in class as a source of inspiration for an artwork. Encourage them to select a scene or a description of a specific character and to use the details found in the text to inspire the composition, colours and techniques in their own work using materials you have available in class. You may even wish to create a pop-up picture book scene as a class using a collage of their drawings.

Alternatively, extend into an English lesson by using an artwork to inspire your students to create their own poem or story. On Art UK, you can filter artworks to select from by topic, including Literature. If you wish to keep the focus of the lesson tight, then why not use The Lady of Shalott and The Princes in the Tower as the basis for their story or poem? They could use the words gathered from the earlier suggested activity to inform their work.




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