Our venues

The Decameron, by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)


See a larger version

About the artwork

This month we are covering two artworks by Waterhouse: The Decameron, shown here, and The Enchanted Garden.

These scenes of medieval storytelling, painted in 1916 and 1917, distil many of the qualities of Waterhouse’s work. Their fanciful subject, colour and attention to detail echo the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. Their composition, elegance and figures remind us of works by the Victorian classicists. But, perhaps more significantly, these works demonstrate the traditionalist preferences of their collector, William Hesketh Lever.

Like many of the Pre-Raphaelite artists whom he admired, Waterhouse was interested in medieval literature; indeed perhaps one of his most famous works is his interpretation of the medieval subject The Lady of Shalott, now in Tate Britain. In The Decameron and The Enchanted Garden, Waterhouse gathers inspiration from the great Italian medieval writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375).  Boccaccio's Decameron was written in about 1350 during the outbreak of the Plague in Florence. It relates the story of 10 young people (3 men and 7 women) who fled into the countryside to escape the ravages of the disease. Each member of the group took it in turns to be ‘king’ or ‘queen’ for the day choosing activities including storytelling by each member of the group. Over a ten-day period 100 different stories are told covering a myriad of themes and motifs including wit, love, fortune, deception, sex, religion, cruelty and death.

In The Decameron we see most of the members of the group sitting, listening intently to the latest tale. In The Enchanted Garden, Waterhouse illustrates one tale specifically. This is the fifth story from the tenth day. It concerns Dianora, wife of Gilberto, who is pursued by Ansaldo,whose fame for feats of arms and courtesy was spread far and wide. Dianora is exasperated by Ansaldo's insistence so she devises what she believes is an impossible task in order that he will prove his love. If he does complete the task she will be his lover. Dianora asks Ansaldo to produce a May garden, full of blooms, in January. Assisted by a magician, Ansaldo achieves this seemingly impossible task leaving Dianora distraught. In an anxious state, she explains to her husband the bargain she has made and he, conscious of that Ansaldo has fulfilled his part of the bargain advises her that the agreement must be kept. On hearing of Dianora’s honesty, Ansaldo decides to release her from the obligation.  Waterhouse has chosen the great moment of discovery and realisation by Dianora for this painting.

John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849. The family returned to England in the late 1850s and from an early age the young Waterhouse assisted his father, also a painter, in his studio.  By the 1870s Waterhouse was training at the Royal Academy schools in London. His early works showed the influence of the great Victorian classical artists such as Frederic Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema.  Later he became interested in Pre-Raphaelite painting, especially the works of Edward Burne-Jones. Eventually, these two styles merged to create Waterhouse’s atmospheric but academic pictures.

The Enchanted Garden was unfinished when Waterhouse died in 1917, but was purchased by William Hesketh Lever from the artist’s widow.  It was, she stated, a companion to The Decameron that Lever had acquired in the previous year.  The paintings were exhibited separately at the Royal Academy in 1916 and 1917 but there were few reviews. These fanciful subjects, and paintings like them, drew little attention from critics during the First World War. Although painted in 1916 and 1917 they were essentially Victorian paintings, the remnants of a passing age. They appealed to Lever and his traditional taste and fitted-in well with his painting collection, a collection that already included works by the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian classical artists. At a time when he was devising his new art gallery and considering its eventual contents it is no surprise that Lever added them to his collection. Perhaps what is a surprise is that The Enchanted Garden was the last contemporary painting Lever bought; he turned his attention to buying historic works instead.