John William Waterhouse, RA, RI (British 1849-1917) Miranda 76 x 101.5 cm. (30 x 40 in.)
Lot 199
John William Waterhouse, RA, RI
(British 1849-1917)
Miranda 76 x 101.5 cm. (30 x 40 in.)
Sold for £ 106,400 (US$ 143,107) inc. premium

Lot Details
John William Waterhouse, RA, RI (British 1849-1917) Miranda 76 x 101.5 cm. (30 x 40 in.) John William Waterhouse, RA, RI (British 1849-1917) Miranda 76 x 101.5 cm. (30 x 40 in.) John William Waterhouse, RA, RI (British 1849-1917) Miranda 76 x 101.5 cm. (30 x 40 in.)
John William Waterhouse, RA, RI (British 1849-1917)
Miranda "O I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel,
Who had no doubt some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces. O the cry did knock
Against my very heart! Poor souls they perished"

(Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1 Scene II)
signed 'JW.Waterhouse' (lower right)
oil on canvas
76 x 101.5 cm. (30 x 40 in.)


  • Provenance:
    Private collection, Scotland

    Royal Academy, 1875, no.76.

    Waterhouse’s Miranda is an important rediscovery; only the artist’s second ever Royal Academy exhibit, it represents the artist’s first known depiction of a subject he was to revisit twice, with his major work Miranda- The Tempest’, exhibited at the RA in 1916, and another work, also entitled Miranda, exhibited posthumously in 1917. The work is mentioned in both Anthony Hobson and Peter Trippi’s monographs on the artist, although its whereabouts was previously unknown. Hobson speculates that the original title of the painting was Waiting, 'a title suggested by the writing on the wooden support in Mrs Somerville’s photograph of the painting'; although the author concedes that the writing does not appear to be in Waterhouse’s hand. Hobson continues: 'The change in title would be consistent with Blaikie’s comment [James Blaikie interviewed Waterhouse in 1886] that this in 'in no sense a dramatic illustration of Shakespeare' and that the ship which is so small and far off 'is yet to suffer through the magic of Prospero'. In a wonderful comment on the painting Hobson also notes that, by comparison with Waterhouse’s earlier works such as Undine (RBA 1872), in Miranda we see that 'the advance in Waterhouse’s skill and technique is most marked. He already gave evidence of that sensitivity to the pose of a pretty young model to which many of his best works are indebted: although, draped or undraped, their modesty is always as apparent as their sexuality.'

    We are extremely grateful to Peter Trippi for preparing the following essay:

    ‘The re-appearance of J.W. Waterhouse’s Miranda is of exceptional significance not only because it has been unlocated for 131 years, but also because it reveals that the artist was exploring highly personal themes and techniques far earlier in his career than we had guessed. The picture was cited as untraced in my Waterhouse monograph of 2002 (Phaidon), and was known to scholars only through a black-and-white photograph-printed in reverse-in Anthony Hobson’s groundbreaking monograph of 1980 (Cassell).

    The subject of Miranda was immediately recognizable to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who saw it during its first and only public presentation - the 1875 Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in Burlington House, Piccadilly. William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, first performed in 1611, was well-known to every literate Victorian, and most viewers would have been able to associate this scene instantly with Miranda’s soliloquy in Act I, Scene ii:

    If by your art, my dearest father, you have
    Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them:
    The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
    But that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek,
    Dashes the fire out. O! I have suffer’d
    With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel
    Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her,
    Dash’d all to pieces. O! the cry did knock
    Against my very heart.

    Although Shakespeare’s audience does not see Miranda witnessing the wreck of the ship that contains her evil uncle Antonio and her future husband Ferdinand, her heartfelt empathy for the passengers’ suffering is conveyed by these famous words, which she delivers in the scene after the storm. In 1886, Waterhouse’s interviewer James A. Blaikie correctly recalled this painting as “... in no sense a dramatic illustration of Shakespeare, but ... rather, for all its pictorial effect, a purely academic study of the figure, set forth in a spacious aerial medium of broad, soft evening light suffusing sea and sky. In a foreground of sea-shore Miranda, lightly draped, is seated on a rock, watching with clasped hands and partly averted face the brave ship tossing in the offing; the blue sea breaks unheeded on the sand, her eyes being wholly absorbed by the vessel, which is yet to suffer through the magic of [her father] Prospero.”

    It may strike us as odd that the first theatrical subject known to be treated by Waterhouse is so undramatic in composition. Waterhouse was brought up in a society teeming with visualizations of The Tempest, and most were melodramatic, with Miranda clutching her breast or otherwise conveying horror at the unfolding tragedy. Only 26 when he exhibited this picture, he may have been led to create it by the artist F.R. Pickersgill (1820-1900), a friend of his father whose recommendation had helped him enter the Royal Academy Schools in 1870. Pickersgill’s Prospero and Miranda (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and Ferdinand and Miranda (Rochdale Art Gallery) are just two expressions of his affection for the play, and both are emphatically theatrical, as if actors have been caught between lines.

    In Waterhouse’s scene, there is no sense that Miranda is stirred by the sight of the ship, nor do the waves look particularly rough. The placement of the figure with her back toward us reflects Waterhouse’s experimentation with the compositional strategies of Albert Moore (1841-1893), who excelled in such expertly drawn, delicately coloured scenes of desirable yet chaste English maidens in clingy Grecian drapery lounging as decorative objects for the viewer’s visual pleasure. Moore’s friend W. Graham Robertson (1867-1948) later described Moore’s girls as “Graeco-West Kensington,” and indeed Waterhouse was living near Moore, in his father’s house at 70 Holland Road, Kensington. We know that Waterhouse first registered in 1868 as a reader at the British Museum, where both he and Moore clearly admired the Elgin Marbles. A highly pertinent example that Waterhouse surely saw is Moore’s Shells, shown at the previous Academy exhibition in 1874; now at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, this presents a girl standing on the beach, her drapery fluttering in the breeze. Indeed, there is no logical reason why a 17th-century heroine such as Miranda would be wearing a Greek chiton except for Moore’s powerful influence.

    The picture’s compositional serenity fits neatly into the arc of Waterhouse’s development through the 1870s. In 1872 he exhibited a picture of the water fairy Undine lamenting her love for a mortal before a gushing fountain. Next came two Orientalist pictures showing women leaning against walls (The Slave and The Unwelcome Companion: A Street Scene in Cairo), and in 1874 La Fileuse, a contemplative beauty in ancient Roman dress leaning against a wall as she spins thread. Waterhouse’s breakthrough that same year was Sleep and His Half-Brother Death, which marked his debut at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This presents two adolescent boys -one rosy-cheeked and the other dead- lying on a late Roman bed. It was an odd and bold choice for a young artist to revive this obscure classical motif, especially with faces studied from a female model, yet it drew relatively numerous (and positive) reviews from the critics. Waterhouse’s taste for the offbeat and melancholy was demonstrated further in 1876 -a year after Miranda- when his large After the Dance was accorded a place “on the line” at the Academy. This shows a boy and a girl lounging in a Roman ballroom from which revellers have just departed; the scene’s melancholy is enhanced by musicians playing on while a woman stares dreamily into space.

    In my view, Blaikie was wrong to argue that this melancholy scene of Miranda conveys “no suggestion of the imaginative insight and exhaustive idealisation that are notable of the vision of Sleep and Death.” The Tempest is Shakespeare’s most conceptual - even Symbolist - play, and it would have been easier for Waterhouse to seek a popular success by choosing a livelier scene (as in 1849-50, when John Everett Millais showed Ferdinand covering his ears while the fairy Ariel hovers before him). Throughout his career - from Undine (1872) to Tristram and Isolde (1916) - Waterhouse was fascinated by water, possibly due to his own surname, and particularly by it's traditional status as the feminine element. Miranda, whose name means “wonder,” was cast adrift in a dinghy at age 3 with her father after his brother deposed him as Duke of Milan. Here we see Miranda at age 15, an innocent who has spent most of her life near water, contemplating her father’s potentially deadly powers. Such magic is yet another aspect of human nature that Waterhouse addressed throughout his career -from the deadly kiss of Undine and the whispering head in Consulting the Oracle (1884) to the crazed stares of Circe Invidiosa (1892) and Medea (1907). This Miranda thus marks an early convergence of water, femininity, and magic which – surprisingly - Waterhouse did not revisit until his renowned Lady of Shalott (Tate Britain) appeared thirteen years later in 1888. (By coincidence, that same year he depicted his next Shakespearean heroines - Cleopatra and Ophelia.)

    In 1886, Blaikie rightly noted that a “satisfying potency of colour and a finely graduated brilliance of illumination give admirable force and relief to the figure” of Miranda. Until now we could not have ascertained how far the 26 year-old artist had advanced in painting the luminous blue waves and mossy stones which enliven many of his pictures from the early 1890s onward. (Key examples include Ulysses and the Sirens of 1891 and A Mermaid, developed from 1892 until 1900. Why Waterhouse waited 15 years to revisit this motif is unclear.) The large scale matches that of the other canvas Waterhouse displayed at the Academy that same summer, Whispered Words, which we know only through an engraving. This is a more conventional scene of a young ancient couple embracing against a wall; the model for Miranda also posed for the female lover, and Anthony Hobson was surely right to argue that this was Waterhouse’s sister Jessie (b. 1853). We know that Whispered Words was purchased by John Aird, the civil engineer who moved the Crystal Palace from Hyde Park to Sydenham and constructed the Aswan Dam. Aird’s well-published collection definitely did not contain Miranda, and so we must continue seeking the name of its first private owner.

    Like Edward Burne-Jones, Waterhouse revisited his most cherished themes later in his career, including Miranda. In 1903-04, he sketched in pencil the composition for a more familiar treatment, which shows the heroine in a 17th-century gown with her left hand on her heart and right hand in her hair, standing on the shore gazing at the ship. We do not know exactly why it took him a dozen years to finalize this motif, which he exhibited at the Academy in 1916, nor why his widow sent a smaller oil sketch of this treatment there the following summer. We can take an educated guess, however: in the horrifying context of World War I, when Waterhouse returned to the intensely Romantic narratives of early Pre-Raphaelitism (e.g., Fair Rosamund, Tales of the Decameron, and Tristram and Isolde), his fascination with Miranda’s distress actually makes sense. Only after this magical storm has grounded the ship can her cruel uncle be punished, and only then can Ferdinand bring Miranda back to the real world as his queen. As a Romantic, Waterhouse always prized the transformative and magical power of nature, even as he endowed such pictures as Miranda with important lessons he had gleaned from classicism.’

    Anthony Hobson, The Art and Life of J W Waterhouse RA, Studio Vista/Christie’s, 1980;
    Anthony Hobson, J.W.Waterhouse, Phaidon/Christie’s, 1989.
    Peter Trippi, J.W.Waterhouse, Phaidon, 2002.
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