Our Lady of the Water Gate [The Water Gate], 1870. Oil on canvas, 42 x 23 ½ inches (106.7 x 59,7 cm). Private collection. Click on image to enlarge it.
he subject of this painting is unclear as is when it first acquired the title of Our Lady of the Water Gate. When it was first exhibited, at the Dudley Gallery in 1870, it was simply entitled The Water Gate. The term “Our Lady” is one generally reserved for religious paintings and when this painting was exhibited at the Stanhope retrospective at the Carfax Gallery in 1909 it was titled My Lady of the Watergate. Several scholars have speculated that the woman might possibly represent Medea and refer to two lines of poetry in William Morris’s Life and Death of Jason (Book Seven).
She came down to a gilded watergate,
Which with a golden key she opened straight
Morris had published this book in 1867, and Stanhope would obviously have been familiar with it. Working against this hypothesis, however, is the fact that the lady in Stanhope’s picture does not hold the golden key Medea had stolen to help Jason obtain the fleece. If one looks at the original title this may, in fact, be a “subjectless” picture freed from any narrative and purely an early essay in Aestheticism. Stanhope did exhibit a painting entitled Medea at the Dudley Gallery the following year, 1871. Both Peter Trippi and Simon Poë agree that the model for the lady in this painting was Maria Zambaco. In 1870 Edward Burne-Jones had painted Love Among the Ruins in Stanhope’s new studio at his home Little Campden House on Campden Hill in London with Maria as the model for the female figure. Zambaco was having a passionate affair with Burne-Jones at this time and therefore was likely a frequent caller to the studio where both artists were working. Stanhope obviously asked her to be the model for the female figure in his The Water Gate. In William Morris poem “Medea” betrays her father King Aeetes of Colchis and aids Jason, with whom she has fallen in love, to gain the golden fleece. Poë points out that “this theme of the betrayal of family loyalty for love’s sake can be seen to link the painting with Maria’s story…And Medea’s story ends badly, just as Ned and Maria’s romance was doing” (76).
This painting was another example of Stanhope’s “modernized Medievalism” obviously inspired by Italian and Netherlandish Quattrocento paintings. The lady’s beautiful elaborate gown decorated with flowers and fruit, and the paintings of flowers in the foreground, closely resemble early Renaissance examples by the Old Masters Stanhope loved. The orb-like circles seen on the lining of her gown might possibly have been influenced by examples of Japanese design being incorporated into contemporary paintings by James Whistler and Albert Moore. Trippi has commented how “medieval ambiance is enhanced iconographically by an Urbino-like townscape and stylistically by Stanhope’s decision to paint the robe on a gold ground. The white sky heightens the mysteriousness by making even the time of day unclear…More than ever Stanhope’s landscape here is formularised and ornamental.” The medieval buildings in the background are similar to those Stanhope would later incorporate into paintings such as his The White Rabbit of 1871 and The Mill Pond of 1877. The small figures seen through the openings of the bridge-like structure to the right of the water gate resemble similar figures incorporated into paintings and drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Burne-Jones.
The Painting’s Reception
Despite the obvious beauty of this painting, which must be regarded as one of Stanhope’s early masterpieces, it was largely either ignored by the critics or given an unfavourable review when it was shown at the Dudley Gallery in 1870. The illustrated London News, in fact, failed to be impressed by the contributions of any of the artists associated with the nascent Aesthetic Movement including Stanhope: “The Absence of authority in our so-called school, and the consequent tendency to license, combining with the consciousness of technical infirmity, will explain some of the erratic attempts at mediaeval mimicry or psuedo-classicality of which we have examples in contributions by Messrs. Donaldson, Solomon, Stanhope, Crane and others” (478). The critic of The Art Journal at least gave it faint praise: “’The Water-Gate (190), by Mr. Stanhope, if hard and medieval to excess, may plead rich harmony of colour” (373). The critic for The Saturday Review inconceivably even complained of the ugliness of the female figure:
From this domestic mediaeval we pass to what may be termed a municipal mediaeval, in ‘The Water Gate’ (190) of Mr. Spencer Stanhope. High, angular, and dark above the horizon rises the old city, and gauntly in the foreground stands a tall solitary lady in rich attire. Something dreadful, no doubt, is about to take place – probably a suicide in the city moat; and indeed we could well afford to lose the lady altogether, were it not for a magnificent piece of drapery she has on. Why would these painters cling so affectionately to ugliness, when nature on all sides teaches us the supreme worship in art should be beauty? .
“Dudley Gallery. Fourth Winter Exhibition.” The Art Journal New Series 9 (1870): 372-73.
“The Dudley Gallery. The Saturday Review 30 (November 5, 1870): 594-95.
“Fine Arts. Winter Exhibition of Oil Paintings at the Dudley Gallery.” The Illustrated London News 57 (November 5, 1870): 478-79.
Poë, Simon: “Roddy, Maria, and Ned (And Georgie, Topsy, Janey, and Gabriel): An Entanglement.” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies New Series 9 (Fall 2000) 69-87.
Trippi, Peter B. “John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope. The Early Years of a Second Generation Pre-Raphaelite 1858-73.” M.A. Thesis. Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1993.
Last modified 8 May 2022