The Death of Chatterton

Despite its status as one of the icons of Pre-Raphaelite art, we know curiously little about the circumstances leading to the creation of The Death of Chatterton. In particular the figure of the dead poet which dominates the picture remains mysterious in a number of respects.

Firstly, how did Wallis come to attempt such a dramatic, even melodramatic, subject given his previous work, which had been largely lacking in ambition consisting of painstakingly detailed pictures of interiors relating to the life of Shakespeare? One of these, Shakespeare’s House Strafford-Upon-Avon (1854) Landseer later ‘improved’ by adding Shakespeare’s faithful terrier. In Dr Johnson at Cave’s The Publisher, exhibited at the RA in 1854, he attempted a history subject with figures, but the overall feel of the picture is somewhat stilted and conventional.

One clue to his dramatic shift may lie in William Michael Rossetti’s Spectator review of his (lost) 1855 RA submission Fireside Reverie , which was accompanied by two lines of Meredith’s verse and with the latter’s wife, Mary Ellen Meredith, as the model. Rossetti classifies Wallis as a Pre-Raphaelite, which suggests that he was already by this date in the Pre-Raphaelite circle (Leesens ). However he concludes somewhat caustically ‘He has merely shown us that he can paint; and that we knew before’ (June 2 1855). The implication being that a true Pre-Raphaelite artist should be attempting something more ambitious.

Several observers have seen the figure’s pose as echoing that of the dead Christ, taken down from the cross, as depicted in Christian Art. Wallis's atheism might not have precluded his using this image as a model for Chatterton. In The Death of Marat, for example, David used it for a non-religious political purpose in order to portray Marat as a martyr for the Revolution. However, nowhere else in his art does Wallis employ conventional religious imagery nor does there appear to be any use of this particular image in Pre-Raphaelite art up to this date.

It would be tempting to link Chatterton to David’s picture given Wallis’s radical political beliefs (Hickox) and the fact that he had earlier studied in France for a period at Gleyre’s atelier. An interesting possible link comes from another fact, that Wallis may have been familiar with Carlyle’s History of The French Revolution. A recently discovered letter to Wallis dated June 56 from his close friend Peter Augustine Daniel mentions Carlyle's book, and makes a specific reference to David’s picture (Joukovsky). Certainly Wallis was influenced by Carlyle‘s work — a quotation from Sartor Resartus accompanied The Stonebreaker. However Carlyle describes Marat as ‘detestable’ and it is unlikely that the pacifist Wallis would have seen such a murderous figure in a positive light.

A more likely model based on the Dead Christ is the Shelley Memorial of 1854, sculpted by Henry Weekes, in Christchurch Priory Dorset. This shows the drowned body of Shelley cradled in Mary Shelley’s arms and was based on Michelangelo’s Pieta . Thus monument, which was set up by Shelley’s son and his wife, Lady Shelley, to commemorate both Shelley and Mary Shelley, was part of an ongoing Shelley cult for which Lady Shelley was largely responsible. The Memorial represents a secular appropriation of Christian imagery with an added irony given that Shelley himself was a convinced atheist. One purpose of the Shelley cult, in fact, was to depoliticise his memory by concentrating on his lyric poetry (Foot). Nevertheless memories of his radicalism remained, and it may be significant that, despite being included in the Pre-Raphaelite list of Immortals, no major Pre-Raphaelite artist seems to have referenced his work.

Wallis could have known of the monument through Stodart's 1853 engraving. The fact that it dates from the year before the monument was installed suggests it may have been made at the behest of Lady Shelley for distribution to those interested in preserving the poet’s memory. Certainly there would have been a number of these in Wallis’s background at the time he was painting Chatterton. One was William Michael Rossetti who, like Wallis, was an atheist, a Republican, and also a collector of Shelley relics. Others were Thomas Love Peacock who had been a close friend of Shelley and his daughter Mary Ellen Meredith, with whom Wallis was to elope in 1857. She had corresponded regularly with Mary Shelley and with Shelley’s friend Thomas Hogg. The mid-1850s was also a period in which there plans for a Shelley biography, instigated by Lady Shelley, involving those in his circle.

Moreover the Charnock group literary circle, with which Wallis became associated in the mid 1850s, tended to be politically radical and religiously agnostic. This group included George Meredith, the model for Chatterton. An important, if now forgotten, figure linking these mid Victorian Radicals with the earlier world of Shelley and the Romantics was the poet and radical journalist Richard Hengest Horne. A passionate disciple of both Shelley and of Carlyle he was also a close friend of Shelley’s friend the radical writer Leigh Hunt.

Horne’s world view might be described as Promethean, a term which has come to describe a group of early nineteenth century artists, intellectuals, and scientists for whom Shelley was the unacknowledged prophet. The term derives from the giant Prometheus who is punished in Greek Mythology for stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to man. The Promethean Belief system combined political radicalism, atheism or agnosticism, and a belief in the liberating power of creative individual genius. The last was also reflected in the influential writings of Carlyle. With regard to the Prometheans Max Adams notes, “The collective output of a generation of fire bringers suggests a conflation of Prometheus, Satan, Mephistopheles, Adam and Christ into a single, sacrificial, insolent, liberating and redemptive figure” (Adams 164).

In 1834 Horne published a play entitled The Death of Marlowe, which was well reviewed. At this time Marlowe’s reputation was only just starting to rise after a long period of neglect since the Romantics saw him as the archetypal, creative, rebellious Promethean genius rejected by society who met a sordid death in a tavern brawl. ‘Our elder Shelley’ as Swinburne was to describe him. In the play Marlowe is killed in a duel over the love of a prostitute by a swaggering bully, representing an indifferent and philistine society. The key aspect of the play that links it with Chatterton is that at the end Horne quotes from the concluding lines ofDr Faustus.

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight
And burned is Apollo’s Laurel bough.

These are the same lines Wallis inscribed on the frame of Chatterton, and suggest that he was familiar with Horne’s play. This is further suggested by his later RA submission in 1862 of Marlowe dealing with the death of the poet. Finally, a further link between Horne and the Wallis circle comes from the fact that Meredith was friendly with Horne, and his first book, Poems(1851), carried a quotation from Horne’s poem Orion on the title page (Bleaney 181).

Indeed, Faust is the ultimate Promethean figure who is punished for trying to attain divine wisdom. In many respects Chatterton can be read as a Promethean picture. The poet who died young, like Shelley and Marlowe, is cast down by hostile forces of an uncaring society and conventional religion, exemplified by the dome of St Pauls seen though the open window. The open window itself suggests some malevolent force has entered the room from the outside world. However, although clearly a victim, Chatterton is also a heroic figure who stands for the Promethean fight against repression.

His heroic status may explain Chatterton’s splendid attire — the red cloak and the blue satin knee breeches-which contrasts with the poverty of his attic room. Chatterton’s Christ-like appearance is caught by William Michael Rossetti’s comment in his Spectator review that his features are ‘calm, or even triumphant’. Nevertheless, despite praising the painting as a ‘high-minded work’, he also criticised the idealisation in Wallis’s portrayal of Chatterton since it ran counter to Pre-Raphaelite Realist principles. Thus he is at pains to point out that Wallis’s depiction did not match the recorded and less glamorous details regarding the poet’s suicide (May 1856).  


Adams, Max. The Prometheans . London: Queurcus, 2010.

Blainey, Ann. The Farthing Poet, A Biography of Richard Hengest Horne 1802-83. London: Longmans, 1968.

Foot, Paul. Red Shelley. London: Bookmarks 1995.

Hickox, Mike. ‘The Political background to The Death of Chatterton’. Victorian Web.

Joukovsky, Nicholas, ‘The Merediths and their circle in 1856; a letter from Peter Augustin Daniel to Henry Wallis , Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 557-61.

Leesens, Ronald. ‘Henry Wallis (1830-1916), a neglected Pre-Raphaelite’, British Art Journal 10.2 (2014): 47-65.


Last modified 2 December 2014