Of Oldham and the Shadow Queen: William Stott’s Painting of Queen Iseult

Art Gallery Manager Hanging Paintings
Art Gallery Manager Hanging Paintings

The art world transitioned from the influences of the primarily French Impressionists to a more personal and exploratory approach in the late 1870s and early 1880s. It was during this period of exploration that William Stott rose to prominence.

To distinguish himself from Edward Stott, another well-known painter from Lancashire, William Stott added “Of Oldham” to his signatures from 1882 on. This addition also paid homage to the town of his birth, although he studied and painted extensively in Paris and at the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing.

While a significant portion of William Stott’s paintings are landscapes, it is often the classical figures that mesmerize art lovers. One of the most sought-after depictions is his 1891 oil on canvas titled Queen Iseult.

The Romance of the Shadow Queen, Queen Iseult

William Stott painted Queen Iseult walking along her ship with a sense of wonder apparent on her wide-eyed face. The sailor behind her is securing the boom, unaware that Iseult and Tristan are embarking on a different kind of long and tortuous journey.

The love story of Tristan and Iseult, also known as Tristan and Isolde, has captivated people for hundreds of years. The story of the two lovers may even have tenuous ties to historical figures. The most well-known story, beloved even in Medieval times, was based on a Celtic myth. This myth may have originated from a once-living Pictish king.

In the romantic story, Tristan is a loyal subject of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. He travels to Ireland to bring Princess Iseult back to marry King Mark and vanquishes a ravaging dragon to secure this prize. Iseult’s mother crafts a love potion meant for her daughter and King Mark, but Iseult and Tristan drink it accidentally on their return sailing home. Although Iseult goes through with the marriage to King Mark, she and Tristan never stop loving each other. Despite their affair, they remain loyal to King Mark.

An Unbreakable Bond Despite Jealousy and Betrayal

King Mark discovers that his beloved Iseult still loves Tristan and tries to catch them in the act several times until he finally finds enough proof to act. He intends to punish Tristan, but Tristan escapes and tries unsuccessfully to leave with Iseult. In his anger, King Mark places his disgraced wife with a group of lepers. Iseult and Tristan run into the forest to hide, but eventually, Mark finds them.

After reclaiming his wife, Tristan agrees to leave the country, eventually marrying another Iseult, Iseult of the White Hands. But he never loves her the way he loved his precious Iseult, and when a poison arrow wounds him, he cries out for his Iseult since she is the only one who can save him. He sends a ship to bring her; if she comes, the ship will feature a white sail. If she refuses, the ship will unfurl a black sail.

The jealous wife of Tristan lies that a black sail has appeared on the horizon, and Tristan turns his face to the wall and dies. But his love is sailing toward him with haste. When she reaches Tristan and understands the betrayal that caused him to give up, she decides she can no longer live. And in their death, there is redemption; two trees spring up from where their bodies lay, and the branches intertwine so tightly they can never be separated.

William Stott’s Queen Iseult

The romance between Tristan and Iseult has inspired many artists. But unlike other artists, William Stott did not paint the two lovers together. Instead, Iseult is striding away from a sailor, with an Irish wolfhound named Hodain beside her in Tristan’s place. Her maid crouches in the foreground with a fearful look on her face after witnessing the two drinking the love potion. In the background, the wind-whipped sea is choppy, but Iseult is unaware or uncaring at this moment.

It’s unclear why William Stott placed Hodain the hound near Iseult rather than Tristan. But in Tristan’s absence, the viewer is drawn to Iseult when she realizes that her life has taken a new and unexpected direction.

A New Appreciation for William Stott’s Distinctive Style

William Stott completed an unrelated painting called The Bathing Place around the same time as Queen Iseult. It received accolades and a medal in Munich, and the Bavarian government purchased it. But despite the popularity of the subject matter and the delicate and emotional rendering of Iseult, Queen Iseult has remained one of Stott’s lesser-known works. For comparison, Queen Iseult sold at Christie’s in 2004 for £14,340, or approximately $26,074 at 2004 conversion rates.

Appreciation for Stott’s ability to capture his subjects’ emotions and his Impressionist and Post-Impressionist influence is increasing. Queen Iseult remains in a private collection since its sale in 2004, but other William Stott of Oldham works are entering the public sphere. Tate Britain acquired his 1881 work entitled Le Passeur in 2017 for £1.5 million.

The Legacy of William Stott of Oldham and the Enduring Shadow Queen

William Stott completed Queen Iseult in 1891 when he was 34. By 42, he had died in an unexpected accident on a ferry. How much his early death may have impacted his notoriety as a painter is unknown. Still, art collectors and historians agree that his work was essential to British Impressionist history.

Friends and artists of the time often exalted William Stott’s work as underappreciated despite his association with well-known artists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler. And the French Impressionists often overshadow other artists even today, just as they did in the 19th century.

Nevertheless, William Stott of Oldham’s works are receiving more praise now than ever. Combined with the lasting appeal of the tragic romance of Tristan and Shadow Queen Iseult, Stott’s rendering of her in the moment her fate is sealed is poignant.

Bella Duckworth

Bella Duckworth

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