The Death of Chatterton – every young Romantic’s dream

Chatterton (1855-1856) by Henry Wallis. Tate Britain, London

I couldn’t let my week of blogs about the wonderful Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain go by without mentioning the one painting exhibited there that has a personal significance for me beyond all the other great works in Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde.

Henry Wallis (1830-1916), one of the lesser known figures from this period, painted an image, Chatterton, that has stirred the imagination of every young Romantic ever since it was completed in 1856.

It is the very essence of the Romantic poet cut down tragically in his prime, alone in his garret room.

Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was born humbly in Bristol, England but had burning ambitions about becoming a great poet. He had, along with so many young writers, that mix of exaggerated hope and despair in his own abilities but, in his case, he had the added ingredient that ensured his immortality. He was prepared to do almost anything to make his name. He struck on the idea of creating a fake medieval poet called Thomas Rowley and then started to write many poems in an invented faux-medieval style going even further in his deceit by writing them on what looked like ancient manuscript paper. Good old England, of course, swallowed it whole and Thomas Rowley became the toast of the literary elite.

It was all going so well but, ah, the arrogance of youth, young Thomas grew jealous of Rowley and set out on his own, Dick Whittington like, from Bristol to London in 1770 at the still tender age of just 17 where he tried to establish himself, the real Thomas Chatterton, as a political radical writing world-changing pamphlets.

Well, needless to say, his pamphlets didn’t change the World and he was never, in his lifetime, to be as  famous as his creation, the soon to be infamous Thomas Rowley.

Study for Chatterton (c.1856) by Henry Wallis, Tate Britain, London

He never lived beyond 1770. He suffered from poverty, hunger, disappointment, frustration, (the list could go on) and, one day, he may have taken poison to end it all. His body was found alone in his garret room above a “bawdy house” in Brooke Street, Holborn, London and thus began his great career as Romantic martyr.

We would, on the whole, prefer him to have taken poison rather than dying, as some modern researchers suggest, from a cocktail of recreational and prescription drugs treating a possible venereal disease. Nothing will take away the young poet’s posthumous glory though especially as he will live, in death, forever in Henry Wallis’s classic icon.

So why is it so personal for me? Well, in my student days in Bristol, I collaborated with a good friend, David Richardson, now an old friend,  on a film about the life and death of Chatterton and, for the death scene, we spent no little time recreating the garret room in faithful imitation of Wallis’ invention. I knew every inch of that painting before I saw it, for the first time in the flesh, last weekend. It didn’t disappoint.

My Chatterton days

I was young too then when I worked on that film and I too was burning with Romantic dreams of becoming a writer just as David burned to be a film director, so I will always feel fond and also sad for young Thomas Chatterton who, not only inspired me with his youthful arrogance and daring but who also played an important role in a wonderful period of my life. It isn’t surprizing that the Pre-Raphaelites were so attracted to him too.

My friend David in those Chatterton days.

Study for Chatterton (c. 1856) by Henry Wallis. Tate Britain, London.

Here’s one of the crazily mock medieval poems that were nearly the making of him but which led to the unmaking of him.

On Happienesse

MAIE Selynesse on erthes boundes bee hadde?
Maie yt adyghte yn human shape bee founde?
Wote yee, ytt was wyth Edin’s bower bestadde,
Or quite eraced from the scaunce-layd grounde,
Whan from the secret fontes the waterres dyd abounde?
Does yt agrosed shun the bodyed waulke,
Lyve to ytself and to yttes ecchoe taulke?
All hayle, Contente, thou mayde of turtle-eyne,
As thie behoulders thynke thou arte iwreene,
To ope the dore to Selynesse ys thyne,
And Chrystis glorie doth upponne thee sheene.
Doer of the foule thynge ne hath thee seene;
In caves, ynn wodes, ynn woe, and dole distresse,
Whoere hath thee hath gotten Selynesse.

Thomas Chatterton aka Thomas Rowley


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