Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Lady of Guildford...

For my Masters in Literature, my thesis was on Pictorial Tennyson, or a discussion on how illustration and fine art illuminate his poems.  Obviously, a fairly large amount was available on a certain Lady of Shalott, you know, the woman in the boat...

Elaine John Atkinson Grimshaw
Dying in a boat, floating off towards Camelot...hang on, who's that in the boat with her?  Oh yes, this isn't your actual Lady of Shalott but the Lady of Astolat, an unfortunate girl called Elaine, who died for the love of a man with shiny thighs...

Elaine and Lancelot Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale
Once upon a time, in a land where ladies wore pointy hats with scarves coming out the top and tables were round, there lived a lovely girl called Elaine.  Her dad, Bernard of Astolat (Bernard? I ask you...) decided to have a tournament and all the likely chaps of the country turned up, apart from Lancelot who was washing his hair.  Lancelot finally turned up late, like the diva he was, and looked fabulous.  Elaine begged him to wear her token for the tournament.  Lancelot said 'Sorry Babe, my best mate's wife is out there and I can't act like I fancy anyone else.'

Obviously, she fell in love with him, utterly.

Elaine and Lancelot Arthur Dixon
He agreed to fight in disguise, and when he was injured Elaine begged to nurse him back to health, while no doubt sighing in a smitten manner.  She did indeed tend him back to his former strength at which point he said 'Thanks for that, how much do I owe you?'

Elaine was somewhat disenchanted by this, and no doubt did a bit more sighing.

Lancelot left with some vague murmur of 'Sure, I'll call...' but after ten days of waiting, Elaine decided dying was a far more dignified exit than waiting for the telephone to be invented and then finding out he still won't call back.

Elaine Briton Riviere
Before she popped off, she left very specific instructions and in accordance she was rowed down to Camelot clutching a lily in one hand (in case anyone was wondering) and a letter of explanation in the other.  After he heard the contents of her letter, Lancelot felt a bit guilty and paid for her funeral.  He might have been cheating and shallow, but he had some manners after all.

The reason for my sudden interest in Elaine was occasioned by flicking through 'Country Life' (it arrived at my place of work and I always check out the deb and the picture of the week) and it was this rather gorgeous painting...

'The Dead Steer'd by the Dumb Went Upward With the Flood...'  (1904) Ernest Normand
Oh, sigh and swoon, what a lovely picture!  Rather than having just one lily in there with her, she looks like a mobile branch of Interflora, with a couple of decent candles and Bob the Boatman for company.  So I got to thinking about how Elaine is often the poor relation when it comes to 'Arthurian women who die in boats', even though she is the original.  Inspired by her appearance in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Tennyson wrote her story in his Idylls of the King, and also used her as source material for the doomed maiden, The Lady of Shalott.  Often the iconography in illustrations of the two tales is similar, take for examples the above picture and this rather well known image of that Shalott woman...

The Lady of Shalott (1888) J W Waterhouse
The imagery of guttering, snuffing candles reflecting departed life, the luxurious fabrics, the shape of the boats.  Of course, poor Shalott didn't have Bob the Boatman, so had to do all the casting off and stuff herself, lucky old Elaine could snuff it in the comfort of knowing that there was staff available to do the rowing.
Elaine Edward Reginald Frampton
 Illustrations of Elaine follow one of three patterns.  A bit like her sister, the Lady of Shalott, her story seems to have three moments.  Whereas Shalott is either 'Half Sick of Shadows', 'Oh look, shiny thighs!' or 'Oops, I'm dead in a boat', then Elaine seems to be either snuggling up to Lancelot (and who wouldn't? I don't care if he's feckless and has the moral depth of a puddle), mooching around wondering if he'll ever love her (clue: he won't), or 'Oops, I'm dead in a boat'.  I love the above image from Frampton (who I think sounds like a Prog Rock star...) as it is so delicate and yet so powerful.  Elaine looks at Lancelot's shield, which she is keeping safe for him, and she is holding a beautiful cloth.  I love the warmth of the floor as compared to how ghost-like she seems.

Lancelot and Elaine (William Warder and May Princep) Julia Margaret Cameron
Julia Margaret Cameron did a marvellous set of Elaine photographs, including the above, which is a nice 'Elaine and Lancelot' moment.  It is what she excelled in; beautiful images of bygone, mythical years, full of romance and emotion, and slightly silly hats.

The Death of Elaine Julia Margaret Cameron
'Come, people of Camelot, gather in strange helmets and what might well be your pyjamas!'  This equally might be Lancelot saying the Lady of Shalott has a nice face, but I suspect the beardy type at the end is Bob the Boatman.

Elaine Emma Sandys
Possibly the best known and enigmatic of Elaine images is this one by Emma Sandys.  What point of the story is illustrated?  The angle is a little odd, is she lying down?  Is she dead in the boat?  It is an image of deep riches, the pearls glinting and the head of the skin behind her just peeking out.  What exactly is her left hand doing?  Is she thinking or is her ear itchy?  Strange and beautiful...

Elaine John Melhuish Strudwick
This offering by Strudwick is so damn Burne-Jones it's untrue, I had to check twice.  Look at the bending willow figure as she gazes on Lancelot's shield. It's another mooching shot, as poor, doomed Elaine looks at the shield (they didn't have telly) and sighs.  And sighs. And sighs.

Elaine (1899) William Loudan
Aside from illustrations from collections of Tennyson's work, or possibly illustrated Arthurian tales from the Victorian period, more painters than I expected addressed the subject of Elaine, and her pointless love of a handsome rat-weasel.  I love Loudan's work for its dark beauty and that rather splendid pot of Lilies that remind me of Rossetti's lilies in his Virgin Mary pictures.  Look at that poor lily, on the ground, ready to get stomped on.  I love the smell of symbolism in the morning....

The Lady Elaine the Fair Howard Pyle
I will leave you with this lovely pen and ink Elaine, her enigmatic expression and romantic surroundings.  Poor Elaine.  To add insult to injury, it is rumoured that Astolat, or Shalott, is actually Guildford in Surrey. Well, I guess the shopping isn't bad, but somehow it doesn't have the same ring to it... 'The curse has come upon me' said the Lady of Guildford... and it doesn't rhyme with Camelot, however clambering into a boat and dying seems a tad melodramatic to me.  If it was me, I'd saddle up a horse and ride off to Camelot and give that shiny thigh-ed wastrel a smack.

But then, I'm not from Guildford.  They are obviously more romantic and fragile up there...


  1. Its a story like Ophelia that seems to bring out the best in artists. Great selection and witty commentary.

  2. Loved it! The paintings you included are gorgeous!

  3. Lovely post! Very interesting subject.

  4. Woooow! great paintings and all. I always felt a little sorry for Elaine even though she was a tad silly. They obviously didn't believe in more than one true love (not like modern soaps or tv today where everyone loves everyone at some point. Poor thing. I get her confused with the other Elaine. I had to look them up

  5. Thanks for your comments :) Yes, I think Lancelot should always be approached not so much as Mr Right, but Mr Right Now.

  6. Whoops dead in a boat! Fantastic!

  7. ..and what about Galahad the child of Elaine and Lancelot?? like Tristan and Isuelt the love of Elaine and Lancelot is ill fated.

  8. The love of Lancelot and anyone seemed to be doomed. That boy was trouble. Now, there was I just judging Elaine for carrying the lily if she had popped out a lovechild, but it's a different Elaine. Elaine of Corbenic is the mother of Galahad, yet another squeeze of Lancelot. They actually seem to have been hppy together after she cured his madness after he jumped out of a window naked. Heavens to Betsy....

  9. I often feel that the whole Arthurian situation could have been much improved by someone sensible going around, giving good advice, and the odd slap upside the head when said advice was not acted upon. Who knows, they might even have held it together long enough to keep the Saxons out! Lovely post - nicely witty and some fabulous images dredged up.

  10. I read somewhere that Tennyson admitted that when he wrote the Lady of Shallott, he hadn't heard the story of Elaine of Astolat. Personally I think the two stories are so similar they must be about the same person. A possible summary would be: Elaine meets and has the affair with Lancelot (I think Mallory says that she "weans" him!) and gives birth to Galahad. Guinevere becomes jealous and arranges for a spell to be put on Elaine which forces her to stay in the tower (I'm not sure if I read that bit somewhere or have just made that up!). Eventually she looks down, the curse comes upon her etc. The problem with this version is that in the Lady of Shallott, Lancelot does not appear to recognise her: 'But Lancelot mused a little space; He said, "She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace. The Lady of Shalott." ' Perhaps he was just pretending not to know who she was, or maybe he genuinely didn't remember her. After all to Lancelot, perhaps one swooning damsel in distress is much like another, there were so many of them. He was that kind of guy...

  11. Just returned from a break in Stocks hotel in Sark who's victorian reading room is awash with the aforementioned Country Life magazines and I also stumbled across the Ernest Normand painting . I was as enthralled with the lyric of the title as I was by the majesty of the image. As an Artist myself trying to survive in a contemporary marketplace it was heart-stopping to see such stunning artistry and engaging imagery.....for a good while my heart was somewhere over the other side of the universe. That's what art can do to you and that's what this piece did to me. I've come home today to google the image with virtually no success apart from Kirsty's post so many thanks for that - you old romantic you. What Kirsty didn't mention was that the Country Life magazine article featured the couple who owned it who'd begged stole and borrowed the cash to get it and put it up in their tiny flat - That's what art can do to you!

  12. Thank you Colin, and what gorgeous work you do!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx