J.M. Waterhouse – The Modern Pre-Raphaelite – Royal Academy

I cycled into the West End this morning for the very first time, astonished at how confident I was on most of the busy roads, down Regent Street, through the back streets behind Hanover Square and then onto Piccadilly, where I felt a bit surreal as I cycled into the courtyard of the Royal Academy. I’m not sure why, as I’ve been there many times, the first time being for the Sensation Exhibition in ’96, when I hadn’t long been in my adopted city, but I suddenly got a feeling of whatever the opposite of de ja vu is. Anyway, I digress, I parked my bike alongside what I felt to be the most envy-worthy bicycles – a deep plum and racing green Pashley with a wicker basket – very a la Bloomsbury – and another one I don’t know the name of but that also had something of the literary twenties about it. Carrying my cycling helmet – which I hardly ever wear, tut tut, like it was some sort of new wrist accessory, I went up to the Seckler wing and to the Waterhouse exhibition – the first retrospective of his work since the seventies. I had to remind myself yesterday that I was coming to see John Waterhouse, and not Arthur, he of the Manchester Town Hall and Manchester Refuge Assurance Building, which is now the Palace Hotel and where I once worked as a chambermaid many years ago when it was called The Charterhouse. Anyway, it’s all Victorian, which is where my head has been living what with my novel-in-progress. It also surprised me to learn that this is the first exhibition that actually traces Waterhouse’s artistic evolution. The literature told me that he ‘pursued classical themes with an unconventional flair that embraced both melancholy and theatricality’. Melancholy and theatricality is right. Despite the sub-title of the exhibition, Waterhouse was not of that circle, but was actually born the year (1849) in which the PRB rebelled against the Academy, but ‘Waterhouse did not appreciate their emotional intensity until 1886, when he visited the mid-career retrospective of John Everett Millais’. Waterhouse was also influenced by the French naturalist innovators, and brought to the pot Greek mythology, as well as the home-grown Tennyson, Keats and Shakespeare. It is a heady mix, and one whose result each and every time is devastatingly rich on so many levels. Already having posted about my love of The Lady of Shallot trio of works, I was also very much drawn to Mariamne, (1887) his last and largest history painting, in which the ‘arrogant but dignified’ woman of the title looks back, without so much as a hint of pleading, (although the fact that she looks back could indicate some measure of plea) to the head-bowed Herod, who is listening to the animosity of his sister, who still manages to keep her look of contempt fixed squarely on Mariamne. Behind her sit an unclosed square of apparently old, wise men, yet they too, it is clear, are discussing her or ‘dissing’ her, perhaps talking of her doomed fate. I was also drawn to A Sick Child Brought into the Temple of Aesculapius, (1877), yet whilst that poor sickly child holding the laurel leaves is the main focal point, it was also the girl stood behind what I assume to be her Mother and sickly sister, that I was drawn to, for she is not in the main square with the rest of them, but is on the outside, looking in.
Before I could even see the title the instant I saw it I knew it had to be none other than the intriguing figure of Diogenes in the painting of the same name, him, grumpy looking, in his dark little space, surrounded by the illuminated young women. Yet the accompanying text claimed that Diogenes is not the focal point of the picture but the blonde woman looking in on him is, simply because she is illuminated, but I didn’t feel that at all – Diogenes is in shadow, and because of this it was he who more attentively held my gaze and interest. I could say so much more about it, but it would probably get boring! Go see it for yourself, there’s nothing like seeing some of the what have become heavily circulated images as they really are, and Waterhouse’s pencil sketches on display are also worth the visit.

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