Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Henry Wallis 1830-1916
Chatterton 1856
Oil on canvas
support: 622 x 933 mm frame: 905 x 1205 x 132 mm; 24 1/2 x 36 3/4 inches
The Tate Gallery, London

At the exhibition in Manchester in 1857, there was unanimous admiration for Henry Wallis's Chatterton. It was widely regarded as the most popular painting in the exhibition, and according to a later report, "it needed two policemen for its protection in Manchester against the crushing crowd."

It appealed to the popular Victorian sensibility.

This highly romanticised picture created a sensation when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856.

Thomas Chatterton was a poet whose 'gothic' writings, melancholy life and youthful suicide fascinated artists and writers of the nineteenth century.

At an early age, he wrote fake medieval histories and poems, which he copied onto old parchment and passed off as manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The fraud was later discovered. In London he struggled to earn a living writing tales and songs for popular publications.

Penniless, he took his own life by swallowing arsenic at the age of seventeen.