Monday, 18 February 2013

Ophelia for Boys

Cast your minds back, dear readers, to young, impressionable, semi-gothic me at 18, when I was merely Miss Stonell and frequented the beach in black jumpers and crucifixes.  When I first encountered the wonders of Pre-Raphaelite art I must confess that it wasn't the glory of Ophelia, the wonder of The Hireling Shepherd or the plentiful charms of Fanny Cornforth that first hooked me.

No, it was this...

The Death of Chatterton (1856) Henry Wallis
Ah, Thomas Chatterton, my dead Victorian boyfriend... He was there for me when no other boys looked at me twice.  Yes, he may have been a melodramatic recreation of a Georgian forger/poet's accidental suicide while trying to cure himself of the clap, but he was my melodramatic recreation of a Georgian forger/poet...well, you get the idea.

I don't know why I fell in love with him so much: maybe it was the luminous hair that seemed to glow like embers, or those blue/purple trousers that mirror the gentle dawn glow that can be seen from his window, maybe it's because his skin looks like delicious chiseled marble.  Anyhow, I fell for him and it's a love affair that continues today.  The question is why did the Victorians fall in love with him?

Young Chatterton
Had Chatterton been born a hundred years later, I believe he would surely have embraced the Pre-Raphaelites.  Thomas Chatterton was born in 1752, the son of a poet and dabbler in the occult from Bristol, who died before Thomas was born. Young Tom Chatterton was obsessed with medieval and ecclesiastic icongraphy, frequenting St Mary Redcliffe where his uncle was a sexton.  He loved illuminated manuscripts and large-scale, richly painted books which he could access in the church.

He was different from other boys and read so much that he started writing for the Bristol Journal by 11 years old. That's pretty impressive, I hadn't done anything that good, although I had memorised every song from The Sound of Music.  

Chatterton 1765 (1873) Henrietta Mary Ada Ward
Because he was a little odd, Chatterton began to work alone in the attic, shutting himself away with Medieval papers he had 'borrowed' from St Mary Redcliffe Church. He developed his Medieval fantasies and poetry, living in a world of knights and maidens, of Chaucer and Spenser... Sound familiar?

He longed for a greater world and took his work to London, working in the fictional persona of Thomas Rowley, a reflection of himself inside the world of Medieval chivalry and all the romantic things his life lacked.  He was precocious and learnt to mimic the style of not only Medieval manuscripts but also contemporary poets like Pope or Gray, however he was not steered in his course, either through neglect (he was without a significant male role model) or through his own bloody-mindedness.  His work as Rowley was taken as just transcription, that he was merely copying out the work of this lost medieval genius.  In London he worked as a struggling writer at the age of 16, rejected mainly as a result of his youth and strangeness, until he either took arsenic due to misery (tearing is poems to shreds in a final act of despair) or in an attempt to cure venereal disease.  He was 17.

Scroll on one hundred years.  In that time, Chatterton gained notoriety, the posterboy for living fast and leaving a pretty corpse.  His work was finally revealed to be 'forgery' (gasp!) but somehow his twisted genius became romantic.  Shelley wrote a poem about him, Alfred de Vigny wrote a drama of his life (entirely fictitious, but somehow that seems appropriate) and then the Pre-Raphaelites embraced him as a lost brother...

Sketch for Chatterton (1856) Henry Wallis
Given his love of Medievalism, his detachment from society, his persecution (as he saw it) for his aesthetic beliefs, it's hardly surprising that he would appeal to the young brotherhood and their circle.  Hell, I think if you asked Rossetti whose death he would like to emulate, I'm sure he would have pointed at Chatterton.  When Henry Wallis chose him as his subject, he hit upon a picture that would keep him for the rest of his life (whenever he was short of rent, he would do another version).  I was surprised to see the similarity between his supine heroic martyr and this sketch from the turn of the nineteenth century...

The Death of Thomas Chatterton (1801) Francesco Bartolozzi
Yes, the rats under his bed are a nice touch, but I think Wallis added a little glamour to the situation, as covered him up a bit (really, we all know it's classier to flash only a bit of flesh rather than go topless).  It is quite a traditional pose, and marks the pose of a martyr, just in case you were in doubt of his angelic status.  The gorgeous model used by Wallis was George Meredith, a poet himself (he had just published the intriguingly titled 'The Shaving of Shagpat' - really, I don't know where to start with what is wrong with that title), who was in his late twenties when he posed.  Wallis ran off with Meredith's wife subsequently and Meredith was meant to move into Cheyne Walk with Rossetti, but he never did (his estranged wife's death occurred around the time he was meant to move in and he went and found married bliss in Surrey instead).  Sorry, I digressed - in some ways Chatterton should be as honoured as Ophelia but although it must be a very popular picture at the Tate and at Birmingham, it doesn't seem to get the column inches that its girly counterpart does.

Possibly the reason for this is that Henry Wallis arguably never did a work equal to it, at least in popularity...

Shakespeare's House, Stratford Upon Avon (1854) Henry Wallis
Henry Wallis' work is jolly, he does a nice line in Shakespeare related pictures, and his painting of the dead Stonebreaker is a famous piece of social realism, but none of it rivals Chatterton's suicide in terms of  beauty.  I have often wondered if Spencer Stanhope was influenced by Chatterton when working on Thoughts of the Past and Robins of Modern Times.  Bear with me....

Robins of Modern Times John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
Thoughts of the Past J R Spencer Stanhope
Right, yes, I know it seems a bit random, but look at the pose the little girl is in, remind you of anyone?  The hand behind her resting on her torso, her hand in the daisies echoing the torn paper?  If we go with the notion that the woman in Thoughts of the Past is having a moment of clarity that will lead to her suicide, then her sad little window and plant looks awful reminiscent of another sad little London bedsit where a century before a young man ended it all.

All this meandering around good looking men with the clap brings me to the end of today's post.  I think what I have come to appreciate is that Chatterton is a brilliant piece of work that resonates with vast numbers of people yet seems to be under-appreciated in terms of artistic consideration.  How many times did you hear it discussed in the last year of Pre-Raphaelite news in the media?  It's always Ophelia, not her spiritual brother who gets the coverage.  It might not be as technically perfect as Millais' picture but it has pathos and breath-taking beauty aplenty, plus Wallis nailed the image of the glamorous burn-out of a hot boy-star.

Thank you Henry Wallis, you made an eighteen year old girl very happy.  Somehow that doesn't sound quite right...


  1. Those trousers are pretty damn fantastic.
    I wonder how this one passed me by until now?
    Very interesting, thanks for posting.

  2. Such a naughty boy! Arsenic was used to treat syphilis rather than the clap.

  3. My apologies. Having the syph is far more romantic than having the clap. And both are more romantic than 'The Shaving of Shagpat' sounds.

  4. Great article.
    We just staged a gender-reversed Hamlet that featured a handsome young male Ophelia. With red hair!
    Here is a photo:

  5. Gosh, that's awfully pretty! Thanks for the link :)

  6. I think I fell in love with him because of the bluish cast to his skin ... or maybe because I just wanted to move into that attic bedroom - I've always had a thing for attics. ;o)

  7. I must admit when I was younger and didn't know much about Pre-Raphaelite art and though that only paintings of pretty Medieval-esque maidens counted, that while I liked the Death of Chatterton (especially as an outcast and particularly morose, but not very talented wannabe poet, and especially as Chatterton is depicted as a redhead) but I somehow never made the connection that it was Pre-Raphaelite.

    I also always thought that Chatterton should have worn black trousers, as that just seemed more suitably morbid... I'd draw little illustrations in the margin of my copy of Hamlet where Hamlet looked a lot like Brandon Lee, so I shouldn't be trusted with ideas on making things 'suitably morbid'...

  8. I used to think 'If only Chatterton would move to Wiltshire and be my boyfriend...and not be dead or have syphilis...'

    I wonder if Chatterton is to blame for the fact that I married a redhead?

    1. My other half is decidedly strawberry-blonde and has long (at varying levels of 'long; over time) curly hair, and I blame Pre-Raphaelite paintings for giving me a thing for people with strawberry-blonde and red curly long hair.

  9. I came across this one when I was 17 or 18, and fell in love. The colours, the beautiful marble skin, perfectly chiselled cheekbones and brow. I spent a lot of time in front of it during the recent exhibition. And it may be something to do with my long-time obsession with redheads too! Interesting post - thank you.

  10. The equivalent for me was "the execution of Lady Jane Grey" by Paul Delaroche - such an amazing picture - the poor pretty girl, in the beautiful dress, being guided to the block, the executioner standing calmly by. In some ways it's even more poignant and sad than the other two in that she is still alive and if only a knight in shining armour would burst into the room, rescue her and gallop away on his noble steed...

    BTW, it's strange how the memory plays tricks on one as one gets older. I was reading your fascinating account of Chatterton's life, waiting for you to mention his forgery of works by Shakespeare. I had to double check on Wikipedia - I was conflating two different stories - Chatterton with William Henry Ireland. I feel guilty now for all the times that I've knowledgeably pointed to the Chatterton painting and told people the Ireland story.

  11. That is a beautiful picture. I find if you say anything with enough conviction you can get away with it...

  12. I believe arsenic for syphilis was the deception for obtaining it, not because he suffered from the disease.


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