Henry Wallis – The Death of Chatterton

23 Sep

Today we’ll take a look at a painting which I loved recently; “The Death of Chatterton” painted in 1856 by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. The painting’s romantic, melancholy mood and vibrant colours are perfect to celebrate the first day of autumn; the most romantical of all the seasons.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Tate Britain version

Pale rays of the morning sun are coming in through the window of this shabby little garret. A young man is lying on the bed, but he isn’t in the world of dreams, in the usual slumber we mortals are well acquainted with. His pale grayish skin and hand hanging limply and touching the floor tell us that his soul is now wandering the dark avenues of the world of the death; no bird song, no caress or soft whisper of a loved one’s voice shall ever awaken those eyes to see and mouth to speak again. Through the window stretches a view of London; a city of possibilities, a city of despair, a city which brought nothing but disappointment and misery to this poor red-haired sleeping angel. Not many possessions he had in his poorly furnished attic room; a box lies next to his bed full of papers, some torn to pieces and some survived with words full of secrets. A chair with a red coat on it. Dark dirty wall full of cracks and a round little table. One can imagine the eerie silence hanging in that room like a cloud.

The dead young man here is the eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton who died in London in 1770 at the age of seventeen by poisoning himself with arsenic in the fit of despair. Although poor, he was very clever and not only ambitious, but, unfortunately for him, quite romantic too; when his idealism was shattered, the pink clouds of his dreams tainted by reality’s grey long-fingered nails, he saw death as the only escape. He is now considered an early romantic, and with his interest in Medieval literature and his short life laced with mysteries, Chatterton was admired by Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. And yet, no one glamourised his life with such intensity as Wallis here in this painting. Victorian group of painters, the Pre-Raphaelites were visual continuators of the idealism and dreaminess of the Romantic poetry; not in the form of beautiful and sensuous language but in vibrant colours and intricate detailing. Not only the subject alone, that of a Romantic martyr for art, but the method and style of the painting with its emphasis on details and usage of vibrant colours connect Wallis to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Can we take a moment to appreciate just how gorgeous and vivid these colours are, and how beautiful his corpse looks dressed in those lapis lazuli coloured trousers and masses of auburn hair. How serene he looks after a life of suffering in this cruel world. His shirt is unbuttoned, one shoe fell on the floor, and there is a bottle, presumably of arsenic that rolled out of his hand. In the Birmingham version of the painting, his trousers appear more violet in colour, which makes a tremendous difference 😉 .

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Birmingham version

The dazzling chiaroscuro, a method which Wallis loved, with the lightness falling on the body while the rest of the garret is in half-darkness only intensifies the emotional dimension of the painting. It is impossible not to feel gentleness, empathy, and also a sense of sacredness. The model for Chatterton was George Meredith, a poet and a novelist whose wife had an affair with Wallis just two years after this was painted, ouch, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. The Christ-like pose of the cadaver has since brought comparisons to religious art, such as Michelangelo’s “Pietà”. For Romanticists and Pre-Raphaelites, the artist was a secularised Christ-like figure, a dreamer, an idealist and a lover of beauty tortured by the unkind world. Therefore, Henry Wallis’s painting of Chatterton holds a deeper significance and meaning than a usual historical painting would; it isn’t just a portrait of a poet who had died the century before, it is an icon for all who believe in the religion of Art and Beauty.

There is an interesting anecdote from Chatterton’s life which occurred three days before he died; he was walking with his friend along the St Pancras Churchyard (the same one where Percy Shelley had nocturnal love meetings with Mary), lost in his thoughts the young poet fell into an open grave. His friend joked about it by saying he’d be delighted to help resurrect a genius from the grave, to which Chatterton replied: “My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now.” Just three days later, on 24th August 1770, he was dead.

This painting with the theme of suicide reminded me of the Manic Street Preachers’s song “Suicide is Painless”:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And you can do the same thing if you please…

5 Responses to “Henry Wallis – The Death of Chatterton”

  1. Frank Hudson 24th Sep 2018 at 5:56 pm #

    I didn’t know the George Meredith connection to the painting.Morbid it may be, but it is such a striking image.

    Not the Manic Street Preachers, but early 20th Century Afro-American poet Anne Spencer included Chatterton is her litany of Romantics shunned away to a death too soon.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. sylvanoak 27th Sep 2018 at 6:01 am #

    Have you ever read the brilliant book , a novel By Peter Ackroyd entitled Chatterton which is centered on the life of Chatterton but also simultaneously takes place in the present ~ a fascinating , gripping read (or at least I found it so and was totally absorbed by it when I read many years ago now) Chatterton begins in modern time, following a young English poet into an antique shop where he hopes to make a little extra cash for his financially struggling family. Instead he finds a portrait of a middle-aged gentleman that catches his attention so completely that he forgets the money he came to earn and instead makes an even trade for the portrait. Charles Wychwood, the poet, quickly becomes obsessed with the portrait when he discovers, with the help of a friend, that it resembles the poet Thomas Chatterton, who reportedly died when he was only seventeen.

    Charles travels to meet the original owner of the painting and receives a set of documents from the owner’s lover. While sorting these documents, Charles discovers a manuscript with the initials T.C. signed across the bottom. The manuscripts appears to be a confession of sorts, Chatterton’s confession of having faked his own death and continuing to write under the guise of many famous poets of the time period, including William Blake~ I won’t say anymore about it in case you do feel interested in reading it for yourself. But if you are intrigued with the life of Chatterton , I think you will find this a very interesting , richly detailed story albeit woven with imagination on aspects of Chattertons life~ not a bio as such , but contains a lot of real history of what is known about him . .and speculation about the young poet told in a captivating tale.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Byron's Muse 27th Sep 2018 at 10:07 pm #

      I read and enjoyed Ackroyd’s biography on Poe called “Life Cut Short”, and have started his book on Chatterton a few years ago, but I found it confusing and not really enjoyable. Still, I feel much more intrigued to tackle it again, after hearing all you’ve said about it. I am very interested in Romanticism and Chatterton’s short yet glamorised life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the novel, I appreciate it.


      • sylvanoak 27th Sep 2018 at 11:15 pm #

        I have enjoyed many of Ackroyd’s books but I can well understand especially in the first part of the book how it would be easy to become confused but as the story unfolds but as I remember it , it becomes clearer as to what exactly is going on ~ I always hesitate to recommend books as it is so subjective and tastes differ so widely, but just in light of your commentary here it made me think of Ackroyd’s book and how much I enjoyed it ~ but again much of what we see and feel is based on who we are, more than what the subject may be or it’s style and treatment~ I hope, if you do decide to revisit it , that you find you do enjoy it, although it if I recall correctly has quite an unexpected twist and you may not like that. I recommended this same book to a friend who thoroughly enjoyed it right up till the end and then disliked the ending… so.. I know how these things go. Anyway, I do love your blog and although I am probably closer to your mother’s age , I was a teen in the 60’s and early 70’s, much of what appeals to you also appealed and still speaks to me . I certainly actually lived much of the events and things you seem attracted to ~ always enjoy your posts and all the accompanying images .

        Liked by 1 person

        • Byron's Muse 30th Sep 2018 at 9:12 pm #

          Thank you! It is amazing to hear you actually lived through those times and events, and got to wear all the groovy clothes.

          Liked by 1 person

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