Chatterton, 1856



HENRY WALLIS – Chatterton, 1855 – 6

Text by Robin Hamlyn

Exhibited at the Royal Academy with the following lines from Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus (written c. 1590) inscribed upon the frame and also printed in the catalogue:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight
And burned is Apollo's laurel bough.

The words on the frame are now concealed by the glass 'window' put in at a later date to protect the picture.

Wallis' choice of subject matter in this picture has first to be seen in the context of a small group of paintings exhibited by him in which he depicted scenes and incidents with strong literary associations: his subjects included Dr. Johnson, Shakespeare (both exh. 1854), Andrew Marvell (1856), Montaigne (1857) and Sir Walter Raleigh (1858 and 1862). Of all these it was 'Chatterton' which established the artist's reputation in his lifetime and which has remained since then as certainly his best known work and one of the most familiar of all nineteenth-century British pictures.

Thomas Chatterton, born in Bristol in 1752, was a poet whose genius was chiefly manifested in his authorship, at an early age, of spurious mediaeval histories and poems which he copied out in a fake hand on old parchment. His elaborate fabrications were detected - and ignored - by Horace Walpole whose patronage Chatterton had sought in 1769 and the embittered author decided to seek success in London, where he arrived in April 1770. Here he became a contributor of squibs, tales and songs to many of the leading publications (including the Middlesex Journal, seen in Wallis' painting), though without earning much money. In June 1770 he moved to a garret at 39 Brooke Street, Holborn, but soon penniless and with little hope of immediate success, on the night of 24 August, not yet eighteen years old, he took his own life by swallowing arsenic.

In 'Chatterton', Wallis adheres fairly closely to the few details that are known of the poet's death though one description of his body when it was found referred to the half empty phial of poison as still being grasped in his hand (and not on the floor as Wallis shows it) and the corpse violently convulsed - as it most certainly would have been - from the effects of the arsenic; the floor of his room was found to be covered with torn up scraps of all his manuscripts, as Wallis has shown it.

That Wallis chose, at this particular moment, to paint a picture inspired by Chattertons's life can be seen to a certain extent as a natural outcome of an obvious interest in literary anecdote - an interest which was shared by many contemporary painters of genre subjects. Seen simply in these terms, Wallis's 'Chatterton' shares much of that feeling of an elaborate tableau vivant characteristic of many paintings being exhibited at the Academy and elsewhere at this time. Like such works it eschews the very harshest realities and the place of 'Chatterton' within this tradition should not be overlooked, even if the intensity of the artist's vision and its execution allies it to truly Pre-Raphaelite works.

It has been suggested that Wallis's choice of subject might have been inspired by a two-part essay by David Masson, 'Chatterton: A Story of the Year 1770' which appeared in the Dublin University Magazine in July and October 1851. In fact, Masson's essay deals neither with the poet's final months nor his dramatic death; it was only when it was republished in late 1856 - when the author incorporated into his narrative the graphic details of the poet's last hours as described in a spurious inquest report published in Notes and Queries (5 February 1853) - that the story was completed. As far as historical sources were concerned, therefore, it seems probable that Wallis either turned to material published in the eighteenth century, or had been inspired by the concocted, but vivid, inquest report, or, just conceivably, had met and spoken to Masson himself, who was intimate with the Rossettis, Holman Hunt and Woolner from about 1850 onwards.

In a much wider sense, both Masson's essay and the inquest 'report' were further manifestations of the recurrent fascination which Chatterton's writings, together with the melancholy story of his life and early death, had exerted on the romantic imagination. Keats and Wordsworth had been influenced by him with the latter describing him as ' ... the Marvellous Boy, / The Sleepless Soul that perished in his pride'. Apart from his influence as a poet, as a symbol of blighted artistic genius and the misery of blasted hopes Chatterton had no euqal; in 1854 the painter James Smetham called him a 'Titanic young mortal' and years later D.G. Rossetti thought him 'noble'. Undoubtedly, Wallis was well aware of all this and it is rather curious that he seems to have been the first nineteenth-century British painter to explore the subject.

In all likelihood, 'Chatterton' was commenced in 1855. Two preliminary sketches (now Tate gallery Nos T.1721 and T.1722) for the figure of Chatterton are clearly drawn from a model and they show the body stretched out on a couch in a similar attitude to that adopted in the finished picture. Since no portraits of Chatterton as a young man existed Wallis chose to portray - appropriately, because he was also a struggling writer - a living author, George Meredith (1828 - 1909) and it is his head, with it's flowing chestnut-coloured hair, but lacking the beard which he had at this time, which appears in 'Chatterton'. Wallis's introduction to Meredith and his circle probably came through a mutual friend, P.A. Daniel, who had studied alongside Wallis at the Royal Academy (see Diane Johnson, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and other Lesser Lives, 1973, p. 187). The story of the artist's subsequent elopement with Meredith's wife has since become inextricably entwined with the history of the painting.

Whilst there has never been any doubt that Wallis used Meredith as the model for Chatterton, it has been stated many times that the painter actually used the room in which Chatterton died for the background of his painting. This has often been cited as one of the most notable instances of the Pre-Raphaelite concern for truth; however, the evidence is such that this assumption must be questioned.

According to Wallis's obituary in the Burlington Magazine (xxx, 1917, pp. 123-4) 'Chatterton' 'was painted in his friend Mr A.P. Daniel's rooms in Gray's Inn'. In fact, both Wallis and Peter Augustin (not A.P:) Daniel - who practised briefly as a painter and was in later years a minor Shakespeare scholar - shared the same address at number 8 Gray's Inn Square between about mid-1855 and mid-1858 and it is a room in this set of chambers to which the obituary presumably refers. As it happens, number 8 Gray's Inn Square did not have an attic storey of the kind depicted in 'Chatterton' and, anyway, neither the west end of St. Paul's Cathedral nor the tower of Holy Sepulchre, Holborn, visible on the skyline in 'Chatterton', could be seen as they are shown in the picture from the side of the square on which No.8 is situated: clearly the reference in the obituary can only refer to a room which Wallis used (for about three years at least) as his studio. Over the years, the assumption that Daniel's room and Chatterton's garret were one and the same and that therefore Daniel was the owner of the latter and hence gave Wallis access to it has assumed the weight of fact; its credibility has no doubt been reinforced because the geographical term 'Gray's Inn' might quite reasonably be applied to the area which embraces Brooke Street - a few minutes walk away from Gra's Inn Square just on the other side of Gray's Inn Road. But the exact location of the house in which Chatterton died only seems to have been positively established as No. 39 Brooke Street in 1857 (by W.M. Thomas in the Athenaeum, No. 1571, 5 December, p.1519), that is, after Wallis had painted this picture. The occupant of the house at this date (though not, of course, necessarily the owner) was one William Jefford, a plumber and glazier, who seems to have resided there between c.1832 and c.1858 and it is his name alone, not Daniel's, which is mentioned in nineteenth-century researches into the whereabouts of Chatterton's last lodging.

Number 39 was on the west side of Brooke Street (its position is now marked by a plaque) which meant that a view from the top attic would have been much as that shown through the window in 'Chatterton'; no views of the inside of the house appear to exist but a woodcut showing the street frontage was published in Walter Thornbury's Old and New London (11. 1873, p.547) and this engraving does indeed show dormer windows of the kind which appear in 'Chatterton'. Nevertheless some reminiscences by the antiquarian J.C. Hotten (1832 - 1873) also published by Thornbury suggest that by the time Wallis came to paint his picture the original room was considerably altered and this does seem to rule out the possibility that he used it for 'Chatterton'. Hotten also commented that 'it is a curious fact that, in the well-known picture (by Wallis) ... St. Paul's is visible though the window; I say a singular fact, because, although this is strictly in accordance with the truth, as now known, the story previously believed was that the house was opposite, where no room looking into the street could have commanded a view of St. Paul's. This could only have been a lucky accident of the painter's'. A more probable explanation of this coincidence may well be that in order to render the scene of Chatterton's death as effectively as possible, and certainly in accordance with at least one of the known facts, Wallis needed to show and clearly suggest dawn breaking and that meant a view looking eastwards over the rooftops of the City.

Wallis's success in so dramatically realising the scene of Chatterton's death lies as much in the technical perfection of his work - with every detail inviting the closest scrutiny - as in the way the spectator is drawn into a simple and effective narrative through the artist's use of appropriate accessories. The onlooker can be left in no doubt about their significance. Thus, Chatterton's sense of pride, and his taste for fashion, is conveyed in the exquisite clothes which he wears and which are draped over the chair in the foreground; the rich lustrousness of his purple-blue silk breeches infuses the principal light with a sickly funeral tone. A sense of time passing and a sense of the passing away of a spirit is conveyed in the burnt-out candle whose smoke curls up towards the window and in the single fading rose whose petals drop on to the window ledge.

'Chatterton' was universally praised on its appearance at the Academy and, in the words of the Saturday Review (17 May 1856, p.58), after the exhibition had been open a few days 'young Wallis "found himself famous" '. The Art Journal thought that it showed 'marvellous power and may be accepted as a safe augury of the artist's fame' (n.s., 11, p.169, 1 June 1856). The Spectator thought it a 'high-minded work, thoroughly felt, thought and executed' (24 May 1856, p.570) but the highest praise came from Ruskin: 'Faultless and wonderful: a most noble example of the great school. Examine it well inch by inch: it is one of the pictures which intend and accomplish the entire placing before your eyes of an actual fact - and that a solemn one. Give it much time' (Ruskin, XIV, p.60).

That there was indeed a moral in this picture was, then, discerned by some critics. But other reactions were clearly at odds with the idea of homage to neglected artistic genius which must have been in Wallis's mind when he painted 'Chatterton'. Rather, the painting and its subject were seen - much as writers interpreted one of the functions of biography at this time - as an example of what others should avoid. The Literary Gazette (17 May 1856, p.284) had nothing to say against Wallis and his picture 'except the moral point of view' and this was clearly an indictment of the artist's seeming glorification of the suicide. The Saturday Review (17 May 1856, p.58) referred to the 'sad history of Chatterton's misdirected genius and boyish vanity' which culminated in his 'mad deed'. One year later, when exhibited at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, Tom Taylor thought of 'Chatterton' that 'never was the moral of a wasted life better pointed in painting' (A Handbook to the Gallery of British Paintings, 1857, p.112).

Despite the favourable reviews in London, 'Chatterton' made a far greater impact when it appeared in Manchester in 1857: it was variously reported, later, as 'a sensation' (Morning Star, 5 May 1858. p.6). However, eleven year later when it was again exhibited in Leeds, the Art Journal singled out 'Chatterton' as an instance of how the Pre-Raphaelite School and its protagonists were now of the past: 'It is, indeed, a striking sign of the instability of fashion and of fame, that Wallis's "Death of Chatterton" which needed two policemen for its protection in Manchester against the crushing crowd, is now ... overlooked and neglected' (n.s., VII, p.156, 1 Aug. 1868).

'Chatterton' was sold by Wallis to Augustus Egg in 1856 for either 100 gns (as reported in the Art Journal, n.s., V, p.227, 1 July 1856) or £200 (report on the sale of Egg's pictures, Art Journal, n.s., II, p.139, 1 July 1863) and Egg sold the copyright for £150, together with the right to have the picture engraved, to Robert Turner, a publisher in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Egg printed a pamphlet advertising artist's proofs of the engraving priced at 8 gns and plain prints at 2 gns (Diane Johnson, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith ..., 1973, p. 92). The engraving by T.O. Barlow (15 7/8 x 23 13/16: 40.3 x 60.7; B.M. Dept of Prints and Drawings, 1889-4-9-357) seems to have been completed by 1860 though not, as far as can be ascertained, published. Barlow's engraving had been preceded by a crude woodcut, made with Wallis's permission, which appeared in the National Magazine in 1856 (I.P. 33; 5 1/8 x 7 1/2: 13 x 19).