‘The Death of Chatterton’ by Henry Wallis


The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

Accession Number: 1918P43

Date: 1855-6

The Death of Chatterton is probably Henry Wallis’s most famous work, though this is a small version of it; the larger oil is at the Tate Gallery. This work engages with Romantic literary culture in a number of ways. As the BMAGIC website points out:

When the large painting of this subject was first exhibited as ‘Chatterton’ at the Royal Academy, Wallis added a quote from Christopher Marlowe: ‘Cut is the branch that might have grown straight, And burned is Appollo’s laurel bough’. A label on the verso of this painted version reads: The Death of Chatterton/ the original painting/ Study by H Wallis/-‘The Marvellous Boy/ The sleepless soul, that perished in his pride’/ Wordsworth.[1]

The lines from Wordsworth are taken from ‘Resolution and Independence’, his poem reflecting on the life of the poet, and the problems encountered therein. He is conscious of the mental struggles which a creative life can engender, and all too aware of those who do not manage to conquer them – such as the poet Thomas Chatterton:

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;
Of Him who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plough, along the mountain-side:
By our own spirits are we deified:
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

Chatterton (1752-70) was a poetic prodigy, whose work was a unique forgery: he pretended that he had discovered the poems of a fifteenth-century monk, Thomas Rowley, and for a while manage to convince a number of eminent antiquarians, including Horace Walpole, who later exposed him as a fraud. He also wrote politically radical prose. Wallis’s painting (actually modelled on the poet George Meredith, rather than based on any likeness of Chatterton) emphasises the growing cult of celebrity which surrounded some figures – particularly those who showed such promise and died young. The painting dramatizes the young poet, who died aged 17 (it is uncertain whether he committed suicide or took an accidental overdose when trying to cure himself of venereal disease). The stereotype of a poet in a garret may well stem from Chatterton; he was born into poverty, and made little money from his writing, but this is glamourized by Wallis’s painting. The red hair and unearthly pallor suit Wordsworth’s ‘marvellous boy’, and the open window, richly coloured fabrics and fragments of torn manuscripts on the floor imply some beauty and success in his life. The glowing purple hues of the corpse’s trousers focus the eyes to the centre of the painting, from where we must look outwards carefully to see the details. The picturesque approach is more significant than any historical detail, however, and the painting tells us a great deal, therefore, about the Pre-Raphaelites’ approach to Romantic poetry.

[1] See BMAGIC.