Waterhouse's later paintings tend to have less narrative content than formerly, and many of them focus on a single female figure in some vaguely medieval or Renaissance setting. They are often variations on a theme and The Crystal Ball is an example, echoing Destiny (Towneley Hall Art Gallery, Burnley; Hobson, op.cit., 1980, pl.94), a work of 1900 which Waterhouse contributed to an auction, carried out by Christie's, to raise money for the British Army engaged in the Boer War. In the earlier painting the half-length model raises a cup to her lips, apparently in valediction to the heroes seen sailing away in their ships in the mirror behind her. In The Crystal Ball, a larger painting in which the model is seen full-length, she gazes into the eponymous ball and appears to be a sorceress, weaving a spell in her sanctum with the aid of a book, a wand, and a skull.
This skull, on the far side of the book, can be seen in the photograph of the picture in the Christmas number of the Art Journal for 1909, which was devoted to Waterhouse's career; but it has since been painted out, presumably at the instance of a previous owner (Mr Pyman?) who found it distasteful. Whether Waterhouse himself did this is impossible to tell, but the detail is clearly visible under the superimposed paint, and x-rays and paint samples show that it is still intact, protected by a layer of varnish. It could easily be uncovered, adding greatly both to the composition and the picture's narrative force.
The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1902, together with a comparable work, The Missal, in which a girl, possibly the same model, is seen on her knees studying an illuminated manuscript at a prie-dieu, with a window opening beyond her onto a formal garden (location unknown; Hobson, op.cit., 1980, pl.111). Just as The Crystal Ball echoes Destiny, so The Missal looks back to an earlier work, Mariana in the South, exhibited at the New Gallery in 1897 (Hobson, op.cit., 1980, pl.71). The two pictures were both acquired by F.H. Pyman and were clearly regarded as pendants, possibly illustrating some such concept as the sensual and the spiritual life.
We are grateful to Anthony Hobson for his help in preparing this entry.