Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Top 5 Pre-Raphaelite ‘Waterlogged Maidens’

Dinah Roe

Top 5 Pre-Raphaelite ‘Waterlogged Maidens’ Which one tickled Joe Queenan?

Humorist and Pre-Raphaelite hater Joe Queenan recently wrote an article about the benefits of laughing at paintings in museums. Leaving aside the merits and demerits of his argument, I was interested by his singling-out of ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s waterlogged maidens’ for ridicule. What struck me was that I was unable to identify which paintings Queenan meant, and after a brief search, it became clear that Rossetti didn’t paint any waterlogged maidens. Unless I am very much mistaken, which I’m willing to admit.

Aside from Burne-Jones, I couldn’t think of many Pre-Raphaelite painters who were consistently interested in watery scenes. But I did come up with these top 5 paintings. Which one do you think Queenan was thinking of / laughing at?

1. John Everett Millais. Ophelia (1852)
One of the most famous of Pre-Raphaelite pictures (see image above) this one shows the tragic drowning of Shakespeare’s mad Ophelia. While the story of Lizzie Siddal falling ill after posing for Millais in a bathtub is well-known, attention should also be drawn to the early Pre-Raphaelite interest in ‘truth to nature’; Millais took his portable easel into the outdoors to capture the details of an authentic natural scene. He probably painted the landscape from the Hogsmill River at Ewell in Surrey. Click here to read about the Tate Britain’s research into the real-life location.

2. John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott (1888)
While neither an original Pre-Raphaelite Brother nor a member of Pre-Raphaelitism’s second wave (like Burne-Jones and Morris), Waterhouse paints in a style which is clearly inspired by Pre-Raphaelitism, from his bright colour palette to his reliance on symbolism and attention to detail. This painting bears comparison with Millais’s Ophelia, not only on the grounds of subject-matter (woman from literature dying in / on a river), but also treatment. Her natural surroundings are as vital and vibrant a part of the picture as the Lady herself, a vision which is loyal to the Tennyson poem that inspired it. Notice how the tapestry she has woven drags in the water.

3. Edward Burne-Jones, The Depths of the Sea (1886)
Where Shalott and Ophelia die watery deaths, Burne-Jones’s mermaid isn’t about to be disposed of so easily. With a look of creepy bliss on her face, she drags her human lover to his death. What’s interesting about this picture is that we are presented with a doomed, ‘waterlogged’ man rather than a maiden. This was the only picture Burne-Jones ever showed at the Royal Academy. See margin image.

4. Edward Burne-Jones,The Sea-Nymph (1881)
Burne-Jones’s Sea Nymph seems on the surface less aggressive than his Depths of the Sea mermaid, until you look closely at the way she is wielding her catfish. Her stance is not unreminiscent of the way Bruce Lee might hold his nunchucks before a battle. After an iron dealer named William Connal put it up for sale at Christie’s in 1908, the painting disappeared from public view, and was presumed lost. To everyone’s surprise it resurfaced in 2005, having been purchased in 1908 by an art agent acting on behalf of a relative of Connal. It was held in the family for all that time. It sold for £1.8 million.

5. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Water Willow (1871)
This was painted at Kelmscott Manor, the house Rossetti originally co-owned with William Morris. Morris’s wife (and Rossetti’s lover) Jane, neé Burden, is the model, and the River Thames can be seen in the background. While arguably not showing a ‘waterlogged maiden’, this is the only Rossetti painting I could think of that features water. And a maiden. There is also Rossetti’s illustration of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ for the Moxon Tennyson, but this is not technically a painting, so I did not include it in the list. Can you think of any other Rossetti waterlogged maidens that might have tickled Joe Queenan’s funnybone?


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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.