“archaistic bric-à-brac” - John William Waterhouse

6 April 1849, the Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse was baptised in Rome.

“You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm — we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish — ourselves who consume: we are the mildew, and the flame.“ (John Ruskin)

John William Waterhouse: "The Lady of Shalott" (1888)

It is not without irony that the son of the two English painters William and Isabella, living in Rome, of all the places, was baptised on Raphael’s birthday, while, on the same day, the first exhibition of works by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood took place at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and quite bewildered the public. There was nothing bewildering though, that young John after the family’s return to England aspired to be a painter as well, he enrolled at the Royal Academy himself and began creating works á la mode of the 1870s, along the lines of his paragons Alma-Tadema and Leighton, “l’art pompier”, or academic art – with the same love of classical, Greek and Roman sujets – small wonder – and an occasional Shakespearean and Biblical motif – and was quite successful with it. Waterhouse would show his work almost every year during the Academy’s Summer Exhibition until his death.

John William Waterhouse: "Ulysses and the Sirens" (1891)

By the end of the century, Waterhouse gradually chose paragons from elsewhere and while Symbolism was all the rage and the visual arts began to ramify into all kinds of schools and styles, he began to create more and more along the lines of the then already outdated Pre-Raphaelites and gave, along with others like Ford Madox Brown, James Archer or, to a certain degree, Aubrey Beardsley, the movement some sort of a revival. And while an Edwardian wilderness overgrew the Victorian age and critics like Roger Fry despised their approach and everything that was not modern and French as “parochial, illustrative failures“ dealing in “archaistic bric-à-brac”, Waterhouse created scenes between dream and reality, allegorising sex and obsession and death with close-mouthed, austerely beautiful female figures as centrepieces, drifting to either their own demise, or, alternatively, that of their males, nevertheless lending the image of the femme fatale the respectability of academic art Waterhouse could never quite shed.

John William Waterhouse: "Lamia and the Soldier" (1905)

Depicted above is John William Waterhouse’s first version of the “Lamia and the Soldier” from 1905, once the beautiful Queen of Libya who became a child-eating demon, mother of Scylla, half woman, half snake and finally a blood-sucking succubus, entering English literature as a topic via Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholia” and Keats’ eponymous narrative poem from 1820. Waterhouse’s Lamia retains her serpentine qualities by a snakeskin wrapped around her arm and waist. The painting was forgotten after the artist’s death in 1917 and was sold in the 1950s at Christie’s, unattributed as “A maiden kneeling before a knight…” for 32 guineas and is now privately owned.

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