Beautiful and damned

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Joanna Banham explores the remarkable story behind a painting that provoked praise and condemnation from Victorian viewers

Henry Wallis's "Chatterton" (1855-56) represents the ultimate Romantic hero. An iconic image of the young poet as scorned and neglected genius, it is one of the most popular pictures in Tate Britain, yet few visitors know much about its subject's history.

Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was a minor English poet whose legacy chiefly consisted of a series of fabricated medieval poems. Born in Bristol in 1752, he developed an early interest in history and poetry. Access to old documents in his parish church enabled him to obtain scraps of ancient parchment on which he wrote manuscript poems, which he claimed to be the work of a 15th-century monk Thomas Rowley. At first acclaimed, he sent samples of these poems to the antiquarian Horace Walpole, who pronounced them fakes and denounced Chatterton as a forger.

Embittered and disgraced, Chatterton moved to London in 1770 where he made a meagre income selling satires and songs to newspapers and journals.

Receiving little recognition or reward, he was soon penniless and living in conditions of extreme poverty. Overcome by depression, ill health and financial hardship, he took his own life on August 24 by swallowing arsenic. He was only 17.

The mythology of blighted talent surrounding Chatterton's life exercised a powerful influence on later generations. John Keats dedicated the poem "Endymion" to his memory, Wordsworth dubbed him "the marvellous boy", and Coleridge, Shelley and later Dante Gabriel Rossetti, all paid tribute to him in their work. Wallis was also inspired by the poet's death. A young artist on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Wallis empathised strongly with Chatterton's struggles and represented him as a beautiful and tragic figure, dying alone in the prime of his youth.

Much of the power of Wallis's painting derives from its apparent realism; the artist researched his subject thoroughly. The setting is a cramped and dingy garret room in Holborn, close to where the poet had lodged. The view through the window is of the rooftops of London looking eastwards towards St Paul's. The sparse and shabby furniture consists of a simple truckle bed, a table and chair. An open chest contains torn-up samples of the poet's writings, and extracts from his contributions to the Middlesex Journal and other journals are scattered on the floor. All these elements accord closely with accounts of Chatterton's last hours.

However, the painting is not simply a reconstruction of a historical event and, significantly, Wallis avoids the more gruesome details of the poet's death. Contemporaries described Chatterton's body as convulsed in agony, his features contorted and the bottle of poison clutched in his hand.

Wallis's figure, by contrast, is stretched out across the bed in an attitude more reminiscent of erotic abandon, or a drugged sleep, than death. His expression is peaceful and his limbs are relaxed. One arm languidly pulls his shirt open to reveal his unblemished chest, while the other hangs limply over the edge of the bed, leading the spectator's gaze to the bottle of poison on the floor. These artistic liberties, like the flawless perfection of Chatterton's skin, create an image of the poet as an exquisite young martyr. The similarity of the pose to depictions of the Christ-figure in deposition scenes, evokes explicitly Christian associations of sacrifice.

Other details also contribute to the narrative. Chatterton's reputation as a dandy is conveyed in his purple silk breeches and linen shirt, and in the extravagant crimson coat that's draped over the chair. The passing away of the poet's spirit is suggested by the burnt-out candle and the smoke curling up towards the window. The pathos and fragility of an unrecognised talent is conveyed by the single fading rose, the petals of which have dropped on to the window ledge.

No portraits of Chatterton were known, so Wallis was free to invent his appearance. Like many artists associated with Pre-Raphaelitism, he preferred to use friends rather than professional models and he chose George Meredith who was, like Chatterton at the time of his death, a young and unappreciated poet. Meredith's fine features and long chestnut hair were well-suited to the role, but Wallis also felt that the inward signs of a poetic nature were externally visible in his appearance. The sittings were evidently highly charged and led to a romantic entanglement between Wallis and Meredith's wife, who left her husband to elope with the painter.

The picture of Chatterton was an immediate success, attracting widespread praise from critics and huge crowds when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, and in Manchester in 1857. Yet several writers condemned Wallis for his seeming glorification of suicide. There was considerable ambivalence surrounding suicide in the mid and late-19th century. It was deemed by law to be a crime; legal punishments were not abandoned until 1870, and victims were denied a Christian burial until 1880. Nevertheless, attitudes were changing. Whereas previously suicide had been perceived as cowardly and sinful, it was beginning to be regarded more sympathetically and was increasingly associated with emotional sensitivity and mental instability. These were characteristics more frequently associated with women than with men and it is significant that the other celebrated Victorian representation of suicide is John Everett Millais's "Ophelia"(Tate, 1852).

Wallis's painting reflects some of the changes surrounding this subject.

While the youth and beauty of his figure invited pity for a life cut down in its prime, the circumstances of Chatterton's death introduced the idea that social causes might be as much to blame as distress or insanity.

Wallis's painting portrays the artist as an outcast from society, scorned and unappreciated by his contemporaries. It also celebrates the nobility of a poet prepared to sacrifice everything for his art. These associations drew on a potent mythology of tormented genius. They also contributed to an increasingly influential view of the artist as an unconventional bohemian - a view that persists today.

* "Chatterton" is on show at Tate Britain, which is open from 10am-6pm, Monday to Friday. Free admission.

= l Further reading: The Pre-Raphaelites. Edited by Leslie ParrisTate (available in libraries); The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. By Elizabeth Prettejohn, Tate pound;19.99 Joanna Banham is head of education at Tate Britain

HENRY WALLIS 1830-1916

Henry Wallis was born in 1830. He enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in 1848 and later studied for a short time in Paris. He first exhibited in the early 1850s and showed 35 pictures at the Royal Academy from 1854 to 1887. His early work consisted mainly of historical and literary subjects.

Later he travelled and painted in Italy, Sicily and Egypt. He was secretary of the Preservation of St Mark's, Venice from 1879 to 1882, and edited several volumes on Italian, Egyptian and Persian ceramics between 1885 and 1905.

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