Lady Godiva

Famed for her naked ride through Coventry, Lady Godiva has inspired many artists and storytellers, but how much of the legend is true? According to Anglo-Saxon legend, Lady Godiva or Godgifu rode through the streets of Coventry covered only by her long hair in protest of the taxes imposed by her tyrannical husband. Today it is uncertain whether this event really occurred or if a pagan myth became medieval propaganda. Nonetheless, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry owns dozens of artworks on the subject, suggesting Lady Godiva is one of the most popular figures in ancient British history.

It is difficult to write of Lady Godiva’s life to any degree of accuracy since much remains uncertain. According to records, Godiva married Leofric, an Earl of Mercia, who established a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043. Evidence suggests that Leofric and his wife, whose name meant “gift of God” in Old English, donated generously towards religious establishments and they are listed as benefactors of several monasteries. English monk and chronicler John of Worcester, who died in c.1140, wrote about Coventry, “He and his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of St Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession.”

Leofric had nine children, including Ælfgar, who succeeded him as Earl of Mercia. Whether Lady Godiva was the mother of these offspring is unknown but records state she was a widow when she married Leofric at Ely Abbey. Godiva allegedly encouraged her husband to construct the monastery at Coventry, at least according to the 13th-century monk Roger of Wendover (d.1236) and appeared on the deeds of land belonging to other religious buildings. Reports of Godiva’s generosity are abundant, particularly in the form of jewellery, which she donated to the people of Coventry, Evesham and St Paul’s Cathedral. Unfortunately, all traces of these gifts became lost after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Lady Godiva lived for some time after the death of her husband in 1057. Her name appears on a survey taken shortly after the Norman Conquest, which lists her as the only woman to remain a major landholder. Yet, her name is missing from the Domesday Book compiled in 1086, suggesting she died before the “Great Survey”. The whereabouts of her body are still under debate. The Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham, a medieval chronicle about Evesham Abbey between 714 and 1539, insisted Godiva rested in the Church of the Blessed Trinity, which no longer stands. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography disagrees, saying, “There is no reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband at Coventry.” Leofric’s burial took place at St Mary’s Priory and Cathedral.

The surviving documents from Lady Godiva’s lifetime mention nothing of her alleged naked ride through Coventry. The story first appeared in writing in the 13th-century book Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History), created by Roger of Wendover and continued by other medieval historians. According to the story, Lady Godiva felt sorry for the people of Coventry, who suffered under the oppressive taxes imposed by her husband. Given the records of Leofric’s generosity, this claim is suspect. Nevertheless, in the tale, Godiva appealed to Leofric to lower the taxes, but he refused. Godiva continued to plead until her husband, growing weary of the argument, agreed to her request, but on one condition: Lady Godiva must remove all her clothes and ride a horse through the town.

If the legend is true, Leofric did not expect his wife to take him at his word. Yet, according to the typical version of the story, after issuing a proclamation instructing everyone to stay in their houses with their windows closed, Lady Godiva rode through Coventry with only her long hair to protect her modesty. Roger of Wendover’s record, on the other hand, states people filled the streets to watch Lady Godiva. Presumably, the outcome remained the same, and Leofric lowered the taxes.

Not included in early accounts of the legend is the character of Peeping Tom. He first appeared in written narratives during the 18th-century but the people of Coventry included Tom in verbal and dramatic versions of the story much earlier. When Lady Godiva instructed “all Persons to keep within Doors and from their Windows, on pain of Death”, everyone obeyed except a tailor named Tom. This “Peeping Tom” could not resist looking at the naked woman and, according to the historian Paul de Rapin (1661-1725), was instantly blinded by God. Other writers suggest the Coventry natives blinded the man for his insolence.

Many historians dispute the reality of Godiva’s naked ride and relate the incident to a pagan fertility rite where the participants led a maiden to “Cofa’s Tree”, from which Coventry got its name. The history of this ritual is undetermined, but a similar tradition, known as the “Godiva Procession” began in 1678. A woman dressed in flesh-coloured clothing reenacted the Lady’s legendary ride, while a grotesque wooden effigy represented Peeping Tom. In an 1826 article by W. Reader, Tom wears a style of armour dating to the time of Charles II (1630-85).

There are many alternative tellings of the legend of Lady Godiva. One suggestion is she did not ride naked but rather in her underwear. At the time the event purportedly took place, the Church instructed penitents to prove the purity of their soul by publically appearing in their “shift”, a sleeveless white garment. At the time, seeing someone in their underwear was akin to nudity. The name of Peeping Tom also differs between storytellers. A 17th-century letter, for instance, suggests his name was Action or Actæon, Lady Godiva’s groom.

In 1586, the County of the City of Coventry commissioned Flemish artist Adam van Noort (1561-1641) to produce a painting of Lady Godiva. The artist, famed for teaching the influential Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), depicted Godiva as a voluptuous woman with long golden hair sitting upon a white horse. In the background, which the novelist Dame Marina Warner (b.1946) describes as a “fantastical Italianate Coventry”, a figure peers out of an upstairs window. This could be the earliest reference to Peeping Tom.

Adam van Noort’s painting is the earliest artwork of Lady Godiva, but the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum contains many more on the theme, which Warner described in an article for The Times as “an oddly composed Landseer, a swooning Watts and a sumptuous Alfred Woolmer.” The majority are by Victorian artists who took inspiration from Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem Godiva, published in 1840.

A painting of Lady Godiva by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Collier (1850-1934) portrays Godiva as a romantic heroine rather than an Anglo-Saxon woman. Her slender body is typical of the Pre-Raphaelite style, as is the red-tone of her hair. Despite her nudity, Lady Godiva conceals her modesty by the placement of her arms and riding position. Traditionally, women rode side-saddle, but Collier depicts Lady Godiva sitting astride her horse. She appears young and shy, although no one is on the street to see her pass by.

In contrast to the nude woman, Collier decorated the white horse with a silk cape and decorated reins. Although Lady Godiva wears no jewellery to mark her as a member of the upper class, the luxuriousness of the horse’s “clothing” indicates her wealth. These elements add to the romantic heroine appearance of Godiva and emphasise her purity. Leofric did not expect his wife to agree to his challenge due to the shamefulness of the task, but there is no sense of humiliation in this painting.

Marshall Claxton (1811-81), a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, painted Lady Godiva as she mounted her white horse to ride naked through Coventry. Similarly to Collier’s painting, the horse is covered with an ornate red blanket, indicating Godiva’s wealth. Claxton painted the lady from behind, wrapped in a white sheet from the waist down to protect her modesty. Although the legend usually indicates Lady Godiva removed all her jewellery, Claxton’s Godiva wears a gold crown on her head and a gold armband.

Whilst there is no one else in the painting, Godiva glances over her shoulder as though fearful of being caught. The dog in the painting, is the “barking cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem, but the small animal is also a symbol of marital fidelity. Nudity is often associated with sexual relations, but in this story, nudity is a sign of purity.

Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922) took inspiration from a different section of the story. The English painter decided to depict the moment Lady Godiva pleaded with her husband to abolish the taxes. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum does not own Leighton’s painting but rather a copy by Frank Albert Philips (1831-1905). Nonetheless, it shows that Leighton paid close attention to Tennyson’s poem and tried to make the painting historically accurate. He dressed Lady Godiva and Leofric in authentic clothing, or at least what he believed Anglo-Saxons wore. Leighton also made the setting look convincing, basing it on medieval English architecture.


Alfred Joseph Woolmer (1805-1892), on the other hand, did not attempt to make his painting historically accurate. Inspired by the 16th-century artist Titian (1488-1576), Woolmer used rich colours, emphasising the animal furs and silks of Godiva’s clothing as well as the sunset in the background. The half-dressed Lady Godiva, who Marina Warner describes as “sumptuous”, takes on the appearance of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, thus presenting her as an object of desire. This is a stark contrast to the woman in the story who wished no one to see her ride through Coventry.

Woolmer’s paintings typically portrayed the concept of “ut pictura poesis“, which means “as is painting, so is poetry”. He wanted people to interpret his work as they would a poem. Although the image is static, it tells the story of Lady Godiva undressing before her ride through Coventry. No one else is in the painting because she has instructed everyone to remain at home. Unfortunately, Woolmer’s depiction of Lady Godiva evokes eroticism rather than her pious nature.

A plaster sculpture by John Thomas (1813-62), of which the museum owns a miniature copy by Philip Pargetter, depicts the naked woman sitting side-saddle on a horse. Walking on a cobbled ground, the horse, a stallion, is caught mid-step with its head straining forward. The visible veins on its body are suggestive of his exertion.

Upon the horse, Lady Godiva bows her head in modesty, obscuring one side of her face with her loosely braided hair. This meekness gives off an air of piety rather than shame and embarrassment, which along with her youth and natural beauty, matches the Victorian ideal of femininity.

John Skinner Clifton (1822-89) attempted to illustrate a faithful representation of a verse of Tennyson’s poem. “…he laid a tax Upon his town, and all the mothers brought Their children, clamouring, ‘If we pay, we starve!’ She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode About the hall, among his dogs, alone, His beard a foot before, and his hair A yard behind…” Clifton depicted Leofric as a large man with similar hair to his wife in length and colour. His blond beard rests on his chest, and one of his large dogs sits at his feet. Beside him, the pale Lady Godiva stands with a crowd of mothers and children on whose half she pleads.

Clifton used bright coloured paint made from aniline dyes, a relatively new invention at the time. Whilst these colours are historically inaccurate, they emphasise the difference in classes. Lady Godiva and her husband are dressed in rich colours, whereas the poor women and children wear dull, dirty tunics. The vivid dyes also contrast with Godiva’s pale skin, emphasising her beauty and purity.


Lady Godiva’s Prayer by Edward Landseer (1802-73) introduces another character to the story: Lady Godiva’s maid. The scene depicts Godiva sending up a prayer before setting off on her journey. In the background is the spire of St Michael’s Church, the cathedral of Coventry, which unfortunately makes the painting historically inaccurate because the church was built in the 14th century. During Lady Godiva’s life, St Mary’s Priory, of which she was a benefactress, was the only cathedral in the city.

Critiques suggest Landseer took inspiration from Marshall Claxton’s painting of Lady Godiva because there are some similarities. Landseer protects Godiva’s modesty by depicting her from behind, and he included the dog or “cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem. The horse, whilst not white, is draped with material, but this is where the similarities end. Landseer may have added the ermine drape at a later date after Queen Victoria (1819-1901) viewed the painting at his studio in 1866. The artist was the Queen’s favourite, so the ermine likely honours her visit.


The actress Eliza Crowe, better known as Madame Wharton, posed as Lady Godiva for Landseer. In 1848, Crowe played the part of Godiva in the annual Godiva Procession in Coventry, so she was an obvious choice of model.

English oil painter David Gee (1793-1872) produced several paintings of Lady Godiva but based these on the processions rather than Tennyson’s poem. One artwork from 1829 shows Lady Godiva starting on her journey. Unlike other paintings on the subject, the lady wears white, and several people carrying banners follow in her wake. The identity of the actress in this painting is unknown, but presumably, she is a woman. In earlier processions, a boy played the role of Lady Godiva.

Gee’s paintings reveal the Godiva Processions were popular events attended by crowds of people. The processions often became rowdy and, on several occasions, ended with riots. Whether the legend is true, the people of Coventry take great pride in their history. Processions still regularly take place in the form of a carnival on Dame Goodyver’s Daye. Coventry also organises a Godiva Festival, offering three days of music, food and drink, and a funfair.

It is impossible to prove the myth of Lady Godiva. Whilst there is no evidence of the famous ride through Coventry, the legend must stem from some form of truth or story. Coventry do well to honour a woman who may (or may not) have saved their ancestors from extreme poverty, but the legend is likely much altered and embellished since its first telling several centuries ago.

Mentioning Lady Godiva today raises a few eyebrows. She is often associated with scandal and eroticism, which those familiar with the story know is not the case. Lady Godiva is one of several legends that people have passed down through generations, but we cannot rely on them for historical accuracy. Evidence suggests Godiva existed, but did she really ride naked through the city? We will never know.


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Reflections​

Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Organised by the National Gallery in collaboration with Tate Britain, the Arnolfini Portrait painted by Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441) takes pride of place in an exhibition about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although this portrait was painted 400 years before the founding of the group, it had a significant impact on a group of British artists who wanted to break away from the stagnant style of painting of the 1800s. Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites explores the connection between one famous oil painting and the many artists it inspired.

The Arnolfini Portrait was obtained by the National Gallery in 1842, the 186th piece of work added to the growing collection. What made it extra special was the nationality of the artist. Jan van Eyck lived in the Netherlands and this portrait was the first painting the gallery received from this country. Available to public view for the first time, many flocked to see and study the painting, including William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and John Everett Millais (1829-96), the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Jan van Eyck is the most acclaimed painter of the Early Netherlandish School and one of the first to use oil paints – he was originally believed to be the inventor of oil painting, but this has since been disproved. Little is known about his early life, however, from 1432-9, van Eyck helpfully dated all his paintings, allowing art historians to determine his whereabouts and the people with whom he associated. Two other van Eyck paintings are in this exhibition, however, it is the Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes called Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1434), that remains his most famous.

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Van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait

In this exhibition, the portrait is referred to as the Arnolfini Portrait and reveals a man and woman holding hands in a bedroom. This couple has been identified as members of the Italian Arnolfini family, the man possibly being Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini who lived in Bruge at a similar time to van Eyck. From the date of the painting, 1434, it has been determined that the woman was Arnolfini’s second wife.

The figures are dressed in the fashions of the time, which today look rather peculiar. Arnolfini’s dark purple coat or jerkin appears to be made of velvet, but it is his black hat that makes him look rather odd. His wife, on the other hand, is much more brightly clothed in a fur-lined green gown.

Although the foreground characters have now been identified, the purpose of the portrait was lost for many years. This resulted in a large number of theories about the intended subject of the painting. Some believed that it showed a husband and wife, and others believed that it was a promise of future marriage. The theories escalated with the notion that the woman was pregnant, therefore a hasty marriage is occurring in private, however, the old-fashioned costume may be the cause of the appearance of a swollen stomach.

The National Gallery does not pay too much mind to the purpose of the painting, preferring to draw visitors’ attention to the items in the background. Although the room appears to be rather small with plain walls and uncarpeted flooring, other objects suggest the couple is richer than they may initially appear. On the window sill sit a few oranges, which were an expensive fruit during the 1400s, and above the couple hangs an intricate, polished chandelier.

The key element of the Arnolfini Portrait, however, is the convex mirror hanging on the wall behind the couple. Mirrors were considered a luxury at the time of painting, therefore, also hint at the wealth of the Arnolfini family. Within its reflective surface, two male figures can be seen entering the room, giving the painting more depth and sparking more theory about its purpose – some suggested that the figures in the mirror could be witnesses of the marriage.

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The mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait

The mirror itself is quite fascinating; van Eyck has successfully painted the glass to look like a real mirror, but the detail in the frame is even more impressive. Around the edge are ten small circles showing the scenes from the Passion of Christ. Although they are tiny, each scene has been carefully painted fully.

According to a ten-minute film included in the exhibition ticket price, the Arnolfini Portrait was not appreciated by people at the time of completion. It was not a popular piece of work and often changed hands, being passed from one owner to the next. However, this all changed in the 19th century. The realistic nature of the outcome was highly admired, as well as the pristine condition it was in despite its age. At this time, paintings would often degrade quickly, therefore, many were intrigued by the artist’s technique.

“A picture has just been added to the National Gallery which affords as much amusement to the public as it administers instruction to the colour-grinders, painters, and connoisseurs, who, since the day of its exhibition, have crowded rooms to admire its singularity and discuss its merits. To every one it is a mystery. Its subject is unknown, its composition and preservation of its colours a lost art.”

– Illustrated London News, 1843 (a copy features in this exhibition)

Jan van Eyck used paintbrushes to apply the oil paint to the canvas, however, he also used his finger to help blend the colours together. This may also have helped to produce the smooth finish since no individual brush stroke can be detected.

It was after the Arnolfini Portrait was put on display that three young students from the Royal Acadamy began their revolutionary art movement. Hunt, Rosetti and Millais were disappointed with the High Renaissance method of teaching they were receiving at the academy, therefore, were fascinated with the painting by van Eyck. They decided to revive the techniques used in the early artwork in Italy and the Netherlands of the fifteenth century, produced before the emergence of Raphael and his style of painting. As a result, they named their movement “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”.

Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood only had three founding members in 1848, they quickly added other artists to the group who shared their dissatisfaction with the Royal Academy. They developed rules, which whilst never published, were closely followed by all members of the brotherhood.

  1. To have genuine ideas to express.
  2. To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express it.
  3. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote.
  4. To produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

The Pre-Raphaelites aimed to produce genuine ideas that evoked emotion. They moved away from the popular military victory and classical history paintings in favour of what they thought were more serious subjects. Some of their outcomes had a religious nature, however, they also took inspiration from literature, for example, Shakespeare and Tennyson.

“… absolute, uncompromising truth in all it does, obtained by working everything down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.” – John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Mariana 1851 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Mariana by Sir John Everett Millais (1851)

The Pre-Raphaelites were not only influenced by van Eyck’s style of painting, they were particularly intrigued by the use of the mirror in the background. The National Gallery has focused on this motif rather than the movement in general, with a selection of Pre-Raphaelite artworks that feature mirrors.

One painting that the National Gallery has deemed important enough to use on advertisements for the exhibition is Marianna (1851) by Sir John Everett Millais.

Millais was a thriving portraitist whose paintings of beautiful young women earned him popularity. He had a taste for Shakespeare plays and Tennyson’s poems and often painted scenes based upon them. Mariana was a character in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure but also features in a poem by Tennyson. In this particular scene, Mariana has been sent into exile by her fiancé Angelo after her dowry was lost at sea.

The mirror in this composition does not play much of a role, however, an accompanying drawing in the exhibition suggests that Millais originally intended to include a mirror behind Mariana’s head. However, art critics still link Mariana with the Arnolfini Portrait. They claim that Mariana’s rich blue dress emphasises the curvature of her spine and slim figure in a similar way that the bright green gown in the van Eyck painting amplifies the swelling stomach of the Arnolfini woman.

The National Gallery explores the different ways that mirrors are used in the artworks by Pre-Raphaelite painters. Some painters used mirrors in a metaphorical sense, often to suggest ideas or feelings that could not be conveyed through the main section of the painting. One example of this is William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853).

The Awakening Conscience 1853 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910

The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt

Hunt’s painting shows a wealthy man with his mistress who appears to be in a slight state of undress. She is captured in a position suggesting she is just raising herself up from the lap of her lover. Her facial expression clearly illustrates that something has captured her attention beyond the painting’s frame. This is where the mirror plays a vital part.

Beyond the two figures, Hunt has positioned a large mirror which reflects what those studying the painting cannot see. The mirror is facing a window that looks out into a brightly lit garden. No one can know for certain what the lady has seen, however, the picture notes at the National Gallery suggest that she may have been reminded of her lost innocence. She is rising up as if her conscience has been awakened and it is not too late to escape her morally corrupt situation. “… the sunlit garden reflected behind her suggests that she will choose a path towards spiritual enlightenment, and that faith will be her salvation.”

As time went on, members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement began to move away from their initial aims, blurring the lines between their radical ideas and the commencement of the Aesthetic Movement. Not all Pre-Raphaelites were sucked into this new concept, however, those that were, took their mirror motif with them. With a new aim of creating art for art’s sake, the mirrors were used to emphasise beauty and reality rather than having any stronger symbolic nature.

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Il Dolce far Niente (1859-66) by William Holman Hunt

From the selection of paintings that the National Gallery grouped into this category, the one that stands out the most is Il Dolce far Niente (1859-66) which was also painted by William Holman Hunt. Hunt was one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters who prefered to convey an enlightening purpose or narrative, which makes this particular painting an anomaly.

Il Dolce far Niente, which translates into English as “it is sweet to do nothing”, is a portrait that focuses on female beauty. The convex mirror in the background, tying it in with the majority of the other paintings in the exhibition, shows a reflection of the snug domestic scene, however, adds little else to the composition.

Apparently, the original painting was intended to be a portrait of Hunt’s fiancé, Annie Miller, but the engagement was eventually broken off. Hunt later repainted the face to turn it into a portrait of his wife, Fanny Waugh, whom he married in 1865.

When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood combined their fascination of the convex mirror with their love of literature, the perfect poem was found. The Lady of Shalott (1832) by Sir Alfred Tennyson (1802-92) provided painters with potential scenes to show off their artistic style inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait. This ballad tells the story of a woman under a curse who cannot engage with the outside world. The only safe way to view the goings on outside her prison is through a mirror that faces a window. She spends her time painstakingly reproducing these reflections on a loom until one day she catches sight of the striking Sir Lancelot. Forgetting herself, she watches him from the window; the mirror cracks and her death is inevitable.

The poem, written in four parts and nineteen stanzas, supplied the Pre-Raphaelites with many scenes to illustrate, making good use of the prominent mirror. Four examples are shown in the exhibition, revealing different interpretations. Three of the four chose to encapsulate the curse in action, emphasising the cracking mirror and the Lady of Shalott facing the window, distraught with the realisation about what she has done.

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The Lady of Shalott (1894) by John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), was born at the same time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was established. Although the movement had largely come to the end by the time he started his career, he was still influenced by their style. Waterhouse was also guided by other artists’ techniques of his era, for example, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1865-1940), therefore his outcomes are not as smooth and detailed as the founders’ artwork.

Nevertheless, Waterhouse was one of the painters who attempted to demonstrate the curse of the Lady Shalott. The background contains the typical circular mirror complete with the crack symbolising the protagonist’s demise. The lady herself is tangled up in the skeins of wool, emphasising that she cannot escape her dreadful fate.

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“I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” (1913) by Sidney Meteyard

 

The painting that does not depict the breaking of the mirror is, perhaps, the most striking of the selection, if not the most beautiful in the whole exhibition. Sidney Meteyard (1868-1947), who was too late for the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but worked in a later revival of the style, used rich, dreamlike colours to illustrate the fairytale-like ballad. Taking the title directly from a line in the poem, “I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” (1913) reveals the lady dozing in front of the mirror and loom after witnessing two lovers who can still be seen in the convex mirror.

“But in her web she still delights/To weave the mirror’s magic sights,/For often thro’ the silent nights/A funeral, with plumes and lights,/And music, when to Camelot;/ Or when the moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed;/’I am half sick of shadows,’ said/The Lady of Shalott.”

– The Lady of Shalott, Tennyson, Part II, final verse

The expressive colours emphasise the dream-like state the Lady of Shalott. It suggests she may be dreaming of the lovers or imagining herself in a similar scenario, which she will never get to experience in real life. The flowers in the foreground, which help to frame the painting, also indicate the romantic, intimate scene the lady has recently witnessed.

From this exhibition, the National Gallery stresses the influence the Arnolfini Portrait with its convex mirror had on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. However, these were not the first people to be affected in this way. Long before Hunt, Rosetti and Millais began to make a fuss about the Royal Academy’s teaching methods, the painting was spotted by a seventeenth-century artist in the Spanish Royal Collection. Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was enamoured with van Eyck’s portrait and went on to produce the second most famous mirror in the history of Western art.

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Partial copy of “Las Meninas” (1862) by John Philip

The original painting, Las Meninas (c1656) is very famous and recognisable, however, it is currently hanging in the Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid. Fortunately, the National Gallery was able to display a partial copy of Las Meninas produced by John Philip (1817-67) in 1862. This copy shows approximately one-quarter of the original composition showing the detail in the bottom left-hand corner.

The partial copy by the Scottish artist brings in to focus the mirror hanging on the wall amongst a selection of framed paintings. This feature is likely to be overlooked in the original, the lighting drawing attention to the girls in the foreground.

Whilst the mirror is not round, as it is in the Arnolfini Portrait, it adds a further dimension to the painting. In the dark glass, the figures of the King and Queen of Spain can be seen, who do not feature anywhere else in the composition. This has resulted in the meaning of the painting remaining ambiguous, with critics coming up with varied suggestions about the purpose of the King and Queen’s presence.

The Pre-Raphaelites were not impressed with Las Meninas in the same way that the Arnolfini Portrait struck them. Although it contained a mirror, the painting style leant more towards impressionism than van Eyck’s hard-edged style. It was the photorealistic aspect that the Brotherhood wanted to replicate more than anything else.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites is a visual journey of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the effect a single painting can have on a large number of people. By limiting the display to paintings featuring mirrors, the National Gallery compares and contrasts the various interpretations artists developed. It is interesting to see how one key idea – a mirror – can result in so many different outcomes.

Occasionally, the National Gallery’s claim that various paintings were inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait is debatable, but, assuming this conclusion was reached by experts, visitors can only take their word for it. Regardless of whether the connection is obvious or not, the selection of paintings is beautiful and intriguing, and worth taking the time to study.

The National Gallery provides an audioguide at a small extra cost and has detailed notes throughout the exhibition explaining the paintings and the thoughts of the Pre-Raphaelites. By introducing the public to poems, such as The Lady of Shallot, the exhibition is as educational as it is entertaining.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites remains on display in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery until 2nd April 2018. Tickets are £10 on weekdays and £12 at weekends.