The mirror not yet crack’d

A woman stands in front of an oval mirror. She is seeing if a shawl she is trying on suits her. She has been standing there for more than a century — since 1910 in fact. And I too have stood for a long time looking at her looking at the looking glass, in which I wasn’t reflected.

The Mackerel Shawl was painted by Algernon Talmage (1871–1939) and has been hanging in Bristol Museum & Art Gallery since it was acquired in 1913. Whenever I visit the gallery I am often drawn to it, but have not really thought why. Until now.

For it has stories to tell, and I want to tell you what it has told me.

Like all hypnotic images there are layers and layers of meaning, of symbols, of emotions. For example, though the unknown woman seems to be checking out how she looks with the shawl — is she at home? in a shop? at a friend’s house? — a closer glance shows she is looking directly at the viewer, whether at the painter himself or at gallery visitors.

What is that look? Does it appraise? Does it reveal anxiety or confidence? What can the uplift of the chin tell us about her mood? Is she bored with ‘sitting’ for the portrait or is she revelling in the attention? It’s so hard to tell mood and attitude from her glance or her stance, but it’s what we are primed to do, to assess if someone is friendly or not.

Now, the mirror itself is a staple of stories and of narratives conveyed by their appearance in paintings. We are reminded of the fairytale motif “Who’s the fairest of the all?” and of Alice going through the looking glass. Of the non-appearance of vampires in mirrored surfaces. Of the Arnolfini portrait by van Eyck, of Las Meninas by Velázquez, and a host of other enigmatic paintings and images where artists and viewers reflect on why their image is not reflected. (Or, in the case of René Magritte’s Not to Be Reproduced, disturbingly why only the back of the sitter’s head is seen by him in the mirror.)

But there’s more to The Mackerel Shawl. You’ll have noticed there’s a goldfish bowl on the table to the right. In it is reflected the window we can see also reflected in the oval mirror — but there is nobody reflected in the convex surface. What we do see are the many fish swimming around and around the bowl, and they of course echo the indistinct fish shapes referenced in the title of the painting.

Are the goldfish a metaphor for our human lives? Maybe. But our attention is now drawn to the mackerel shawl itself: to the net-like gauze in which the fish shapes are caught, to the way the material flows down the sitter’s silk dress like a waterfall to the floor, how the shawl merges into the shag pile of the carpet like a cascade joins a pool.

But the carpet isn’t a fishy pool: though the pattern isn’t clear it appears more like grass or fallen leaves, and this vegetation motif is echoed by the net curtains with their flowery shapes, behind which is the fainter blush of what could be a rose.

What, if anything, does this all mean? What might the barely discernable embossed shields on the wallpaper signify? Of course this could merely be a late impressionist study of what Algernon Talmage actually saw in front of him, with no ulterior motive on his part: as the Art UK note has it, the portrait shows what appears to be “a dressmaker’s shop where a woman is trying on a new dress and shawl. The shawl is in a fine gauze fabric, with perhaps silver thread embroidery.” And that’s it. No mystery to see. Move away, please.

And yet I can’t help but remember the impact one of Tennyson’s poems, The Lady of Shalott, had on Victorian artists. In that poem the fairy lady cannot look out of a window at real life but is cursed to view things reflected in a mirror and weave them into a tapestry.

She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

But she becomes “half-sick of shadows,” and, fatally, looks out of the window at Sir Lancelot riding by.

The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

She goes down to the stream, lays down in a boat. As she floats downstream to Camelot she sickens and dies from the curse.

William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott (1905)

William Holman Hunt was just one of many Pre-Raphaelite artists drawn to the theme: he painted this version of The Lady of Shalott in 1905. But while Holman Hunt’s sensibilities drew him to paint romanticised medieval themes, Tolmage’s impressionism only admitted more contemporary subjects, depicted in more muted tones. And yet, and yet…

Am I foolish to see in The Mackerel Shawl, painted only five years later, a nod to the ill-fated Lady of Shalott? For here is the mirror not yet “crack’d”, the window with net curtains hiding passers-by, the allusion to a stream and its fishes, the coats of arms on the wallpaper, and the shadow of the woman — and only hers — thrown onto the carpet and wall.

As she gazes at us in the mirror is she about to turn and see us in the flesh?


Postscript on the Lady of Shalott

The first two titles have a substantial section or chapter on artists such as Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal and Millais who dealt with the Lady of Shalott theme (first published by Tennyson as a poem in 1832 and revised in 1842). The Lupack title only gives passing mention to the theme but gives space to a range of artists spanning the 19th and 20th centuries.

Christine Poulson. The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art 1840-1920. Manchester University Press. 1999: 179-201. Chapter 8 ‘The Lady of Shalott’

Elizabeth Prettejohn. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Tate Publishing. 2007: 223-231 ‘Ladies of Shalott’

Barbara Tepa Lupack, with Alan Lupack. Illustrating Camelot. Arthurian Studies LXXIII. D S Brewer. 2008: 15

44 thoughts on “The mirror not yet crack’d

    1. Thanks, Dale — and I’d forgotten that Millais! Yes, very similar to the Hunt, especially in that aura of melancholy verging on despair. A bit typical though of the Victorian taste for maidens waiting in vain for Mr Right, or at least Mr Rich, to make their lives complete…

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  1. Pingback: The mirror not yet crack’d — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. Lovely reading of the picture, Chris. I’m now checking my diary to see if I can fit in a trip to Bristol, which isn’t so very far down the road, though I generally whizz past it, rather than call in.

    I really like your Lady of Shallot connection. I regularly stumble across it in fiction from 19th & early twentieth century.

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    1. So glad you liked the commentary, Cath! It’s another of my discussions about pictures at the Bristol Museum (I suppose I should have made that clear) and my feeling that many city and regional collections need to be better known than they are, compared to the Tates, the Nationals and so on.

      I’m always dubious about male Victorian painters celebrating fallen women, frail maidens, lovelorn females and the like, the Lady of Shalott, like Ophelia, being one of the more tragic figures. I’ll now have to check whether, as I suspect, PRB sisters either didn’t treat this subject or gave their subjects more agency. That’s why I liked this particular take on what I see as the theme: the woman’s gaze, while ambiguous, is not despairing in the least.

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      1. Yes, I’ve spent many lovely hours in the smaller museums and galleries, and they have some real gems.

        I don’t know about paintings, or the PRB sisters, but it’s referenced in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I’ve also seen suggestions that it can be found in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette – though it’s a long time since I’ve read that one, so I can’t remember if I agree…

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        1. Interesting, I hope to read Middlemarch this year (having missed last year’s bicentenary) and Villette is the last of Charlotte’s novels I have yet to read — but Wuthering Heights comes first! — so I may get a superfluity of Shalott ladies soon! I shall now have to dig out my PRB coffee table catague to see what the sisterhood made of her.

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            1. I’ve now added some references above, Cath, and can recommend both the Poulson and the Prettejohn.

              This is what Prettejohn concludes:
              “the Lady remains radically indeterminate. She may be a sexualised woman; she may be the victim of patriarchal oppression; she may an allegory for the artist; she may be a fairy or prophet… We may perhaps rejoice that the Lady has eluded the attempts of patriarchal societies, either hers or ours, to fix her meanings. ”

              Poulson cites Bruno Bettelheim and, among other considerations, sees the various Victorian versions of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (and ‘Elaine’) as counter-fairy-tales ‘in which the heroines do not have to grow up and there is no happy ending… These pictures […] offered comforting endorsements of a reactionary view of women as subjugated and powerless… ”

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  3. Interesting to see the differences and similarities in the two paintings referenced here. I’m certainly no art critic (I have taste, but I’m not sure if it’s good :p) but I really like the colour and composition of the first picture… the second one, despite its vibrancy and there being a lot more to “take in” just doesn’t make me feel anything.

    When I look at the woman standing in the first picture, and her expression as she looks in the mirror, she comes across to me as looking sad, in a contemplative way. I can easily imagine her wondering if there’s something more outside of that window she sees reflected. It’s also interesting that while she isn’t reflected in the curved glass of the goldfish bowl, she casts a shadow on the wall. Loved your insight into the painting, and comparison to the poem.

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    1. I entirely agree with your preference for the Talmage over the Hunt, the second is a tour de force of detail but the first is both subtle and profound, and I know which one I’d rather be, as it were, forced to live with! The Lady, to me, is a person playing a part but the Woman is someone with a personality.

      Anyway, I’m pleased you found my musings of worth, especially as I’ve a few more artworks in hand to retro-review here!

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  4. I wouldn’t say Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott is particularly frail. She looks quite robust. But I love his colour, and have always loved Tennyson’s poem. There is a restrained power about the woman in Talmage’s work; I would love to know her thoughts. But do you think the curtains in the reflection suggest she might be in boutique or some place of commerce? The way they are suspended from the rod could be in a shop window.

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    1. Yes, the Art UK commentary inclines towards the dressmaker’s shop interpretation, Gert, and the nets halfway up the window certainly favour that view. If that’s the case it would buttress the weaving/sewing connection, wouldn’t it!

      ‘Restrained power’ is rather good as a phrase, better than the restrained powerlessness of Hunt’s figure, literally caught up in her threads and belying the robustness of her figure.

      I feel an uneasiness about Hunt’s picture, it doesn’t quite work for me: the flyaway hair in particular feels unfinished, almost like an afterthought (though I think it’s present in other versions he did of this subject), and makes the composition a bit unbalanced. I’d have to consider more why it doesn’t satisfy me…

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  5. Add me to the ones who have enjoyed this commentary or narration of the picture. Whether conscious or unconscious, I find the nod to Lady Shallot very plausible. After reading your reaction to Hunt’s picture, I’ve adopted it myself, 🙂

    I adore paintings with mirrors. And your allusion to Velazquez and Magritte, two of my favorites, was lovely to read.

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      1. This Jonathan Miller book sounds very appealing.. Will search out. And veering off the track, as I am wont to do, have a look at him in dialogue with Alan Bennet on Youtube.An hilarious discussion entitled Beyond the Fringe on Oxford Philosophy.

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  6. Oh, wow. One, you introduced to me two, not one, pieces of art I an more aware of. More importantly, you gave me a glimpse of how you perceive the works, and how to look at their meaning from a different point of view. Thank you, Chris. A lot to chew on here, but I’d rather feast than starve.

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    1. I’m on it, Lory! I have a few more artworks to post from Bristol, then a handful from Cardiff and Leeds. I’m hoping to go to Birmingham in the next few months, so there’ll be enough for a few more months at least. And if you felt like doing the same too — Switzerland must be choc-a-bloc with musées des beaux-arts! — I’d be well chuffed!

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      1. Well, that is something to consider, but I seldom come up with such profound thoughts when looking at a picture. I need interpreters like you to help me see more deeply. It could be a good thing to try, though.

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        1. These days, when life is so fast-moving and I tend to skim over so much, to have the time and energy to contemplate and consider creative works is a privilege I’m so grateful for. Whether my considerations are correct or not is for others to judge, but if it inspires anyone to do likewise then I’m happy. 🙂

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          1. Yes, it means slowing down, taking the time to really look instead of just skim over the surface. I find this easier to do with words than with images! But both are worthwhile and indeed a privilege.

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    1. You’re too kind, Jo, I can’t claim to originality but I do like ferreting out obscure threads and following my nose; and if it entertains others without distorting facts then that’s all to the good!

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  7. Fabulous post Chris 🙂 And a stunning painting. The Mackerel Shawl is just beautiful and appeals to me far more than the Holman Hunt, although if I saw the latter on its own I would undoubtedly enjoy it. I find The Mackerel Shawl quite mesmerising: a picture seemingly so simple and yet it offers us an ocean of stories.

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  8. A really masterful painting – technically difficult and all achieved with muted tones, but most importantly, managing to convey a thought process and emotion on her face with all the potential ambiguity of reality. Given the subtlety and self-reflexivity of it all, I don’t doubt your thoughts and connections would have passed through the painter’s mind too. An interesting read. Thanks.

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    1. Glad this commentary passed muster with you, Tim, I had a horrible feeling writing it that I might have been talking through my hat! The self-reflexity aspect is really interesting and, in view of my musings about the male gaze in my current post, she appears to be looking at the painter himself as he himself must have been considering her. As she appears to be considering us too, now.

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      1. In addition to the woman using the mirror to look out towards the window behind her, and the reference to a river (in the fish and water), there is also allusion to the weaving of images in the setting of the dressmaker’s shop and the mackerel motif. Whether or not any of this was intentional on the part of the artist, he would have registered the resonance, I’m sure.

        As you say though, perhaps most interesting is that he has chosen to paint her looking at him. If, as suggested by his invisibility in the painting, he was trying to recreate a scene in which we are to imagine her alone, then he would have painted her looking at herself in the mirror… So either he is making a comment about her relationship to him (or more generally the subject’s relationship to the artist, or women to men), or maybe we are to imagine her glancing away from her own image to the dressmaker. (Perhaps it is one step too far to suggest he has cast himself as Sir Lancelot!!)

        But the direction of her gaze would have been discussed and decided upon. Paintings like this take time of course. I’d say it’s more about the female gaze.

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        1. Weaving, water, mirror, a look — it’s all very suggestive, certainly. And whether the look is meant to be transgressive or not, and whether Talmage intended to evoke the Shalott story or not, I think we are justified in considering its latent symbolism as well as admiring the painter’s skill and technique. For me it’s a haunting image.

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    1. It is curious indeed, Jean. If I was a cynic — well, I suppose I am a little bit cynical — I’d say she was a bit bored with all that standing around modelling and was thinking How much longer is this going to go on?, but also being a bit sensitive I’d have to agree there’s a sense of wistfulness about her. Yes, a hug is in order!

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