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Art theme: history paintings

History paintings relate important stories and – perhaps confusingly – the category includes religious and mythological stories alongside historical scenes. Often these works contain an important message and the size of the work (its scale) can be significant as a result.

Contextual background for teachers

The Lady of Shalott (1886–1905)
William Holman Hunt (1827–1910)

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

William Holman Hunt's painting 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 has painted 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?

Look, describe and discuss

Open a full-screen version of the zoomable image in a new window.

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.

You can start by showing the whole image, and then use the zoom feature to explore details of the painting. Or you might like to start by using the zoom feature to show a detail from the image, and then zoom out to see more.

Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best to not give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

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?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

Use The Superpower of Looking Kit to ask questions about the artwork.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You may like to introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers at this point.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage. 

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.


  • Make your students sit with their backs to a window, holding a hand mirror, and record in their sketchbooks the scene outside – like the Lady of Shalott uses a mirror. Challenge them to do this without turning round!
  • Students could weave their own simple tapestries thinking about use of colour. This PDF from the Countryside Classroom website gives a step-by-step guide for a weaving activity.



  • Listen to this piece of music by Edward Elgar, one of the most famous English composers of the early twentieth century. Composed in 1907, There is Sweet Music is set to words written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

  • Listen to the poem The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This dramatic reconstruction imagines Tennyson himself reciting the poem to an audience.



  • Get your students to touch balls of wool or woven fabric.



  • Does the story have a happy ending or not? Ask students to imagine and share what they think will happen to the Lady of Shalott when she leaves the tower.
  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for 'tower'.

Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



You have now completed this lesson resource on The Superpower of Looking.

There are more resources in this theme to try – have a look at the 'next lessons' section below.

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