London’s Most Famous Works of Art- Ophelia

The past week has seen London heaving under the weight of tourists visiting from across the globe. 17 million people visit London every year, the majority will visit at least one gallery or museum whilst in the capital- with The British Museum and National Gallery taking the top spots. In this series I will explore the most famous works of art currently on display in London’s most popular museums and galleries. Who were the master behind these masterpieces and why are the pieces so adored even today?

As one of the most famous Shakespearean characters, it is no shock that John Everett Millais’ depiction of Ophelia is one of London’s most famous works of art. Over the years, Ophelia has been a popular subject for artists but Millias’ 1852 masterpiece is the image most commonly associated with the tortured lover.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Ophelia appears in the 1599 tragedy, Hamlet as a young Danish noblewoman who falls to her death from a willow tree before drowning in a brook. Distraught that her father, Polonius, has been brutally murdered by her lover, Hamlet, Ophelia has climbed a tree when suddenly a branch snapped and she fell in to the brook and drowned. In the reciting of this event by Queen Gertrude, the emphasis of the following, billowing cloth of her dress which takes centre stage.

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be

The innocent beauty and naivety of her damaged soul appeals to those who are familiar with the play, yet most who view the piece are not well-versed in Shakespearean literature. The rich, velvet, luxurious colours, although typical of Millais, contrasts with the melancholy, ghostly figures often shown to be Ophelia. The pure ethereal beauty and accurate depiction is simply the key to the popularity of this piece.

Unfortunately, Ophelia is currently on loan to Palazzo Chiablese in Turin, Italy. It normally resides in Tate Britain, London

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