Early in his career John Waterhouse had painted Graeco-Roman subjects in the manner of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Before developing a passion for the romantic Pre-Raphaelite style, particularly the Arthurian legends popularised by poets such as Lord Alfred Tennyson.
Lamia was inspired by John Keats’s celebrated poem of 1820. Set in the wild hills of ancient Greece during an ‘evening dim at moth time’, the poem speaks of a young charioteer who hearing a soft voice calling – ‘a maid more beautiful than [any] ever with twisted braid’ – falls inextricably in love with her. He is unaware that this vision is in reality a monstrous half-serpent, who metamorphoses into a woman’s form to prey on young men.
The intensity of the young knight’s gaze draws the viewer into Waterhouse’s painting, Lamia kneels below him, one hand on his and the other resting on his armplate, the only visual clue to her nature captured in the glimmering moulted snake-skin draped about her, its peacock tinges drawn from Keat’s description.