The Legend Makers: Chatterton, Wallis & Meredith

It was not only for Wordsworth that Thomas Chatterton was a ‘marvellous Boy’, for the image of his death became a potent and much-used symbol of romanticism and alienation in Victorian England.

'Faultless and wonderful: a most noble example of the great school', wrote John Ruskin in his 1856 Academy Notes. 'Examine it well inch by inch: it is one of the pictures which intend, and accomplish, the entire placing before your eyes of an actual fact – and that a solemn one.' The subject of this encomium was No. 352 in the Royal Academy's 1856 summer exhibition, Chatterton , by Henry Wallis, which was accompanied by a quotation from the final chorus of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus:

à, having as its unacknowledged ancestors the many medieval and Renaissance paintings that depicted the dead Christ in the arms of his Mother – the arch of the body and the loose hanging arm touching the floor appear in a number of earlier works, including the Avignon Pieta, works by the Master of Flemalle, Rogier van der Weyden and Ercole de' Roberti, and in later works by Michelangelo and Rubens.

Henry Wallis (1830-1916) was a painter of independent means, a gregarious and genial character who is now remembered for only two paintings, the Chatterton and The Stone-breaker of the following year. He stands out from his contemporaries by virtue of the fact that he studied in Paris as well as in London (and there may have seen Courbet's two paintings of stone-breakers of 1847), but this fact finds no reflection at all in his subsequent paintings, whose subjects are frequently literary or are given a literary context – even The Stone-breaker is presented as an exemplum on a text by Thomas Carlyle. Other works include Dr. Johnson at Cave's the Publisher, Andrew Marvell returning the bribe, Elaine , and several paintings depicting the young Shakespeare in Stratford. Later, Wallis gave up painting altogether – there is no painting of his dating from after 1861 – travelled in the East, and devoted himself to the study and collection of ceramics, publishing authoritative volumes on early Italian maiolica and Oriental influences on Italian Renaissance ceramics.

George Meredith was twenty-seven when he agreed to pose as the dead Chatterton for Wallis, whom he met through a common friend, Edward Peacock, son of the novelist Thomas Love Peacock. In 1849 Meredith had married Thomas Peacock's daughter Mary Ellen Nicolls, a young widow with a five-year-old daughter, and their son Arthur Gryffydh Meredith was born in June 1853. For several years Meredith had been trying to realise his great literary ambitions, but with no success; neither his Poems of 1851, nor his first novel The Shaving of Shagpat (1855) had met with any favourable reception, and Mary Ellen had earned more from a cookery-book she had written together with her father than Meredith had done with his poetry or prose. In addition, Peacock made no secret of his dislike of Mary Ellen's second husband, and cannot have liked Meredith's dedication of the Poems to himself, 'with profound admiration and affectionate respect of his son-in-law'.

Within a few months of Wallis's success at the Royal Academy with his painting of Chatterton, Mary Ellen had left Meredith for Wallis; they toured Wales and went to Capri, and at the beginning of 1858 Mary Ellen bore Wallis's son. The story ends in tragedy. On their return to London, Wallis abandoned her, Meredith seized his son Arthur from her first husband's parents and refused any attempt at reconciliation with her, and her ageing father could do nothing to help her; her last months seem to have been a time of unrelieved misery and loneliness, and she died of kidney-failure at the end of 1861. Neither Meredith, Wallis nor Peacock attended her funeral.

Meredith had meanwhile risen from obscurity to the heights of literary fame; his breakthrough came with The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), despite its being condemned as an immoral novel and Mudie's Circulating Library cancelling an order for three hundred copies. With Evan Harrington, The Adventures of Harry Richmond, Beauchamp's Career, The Egoist andDiana of the Crossways , Meredith, who had begun his career as a failed poet, established his reputation as one of the leading novelists of the late- Victorian period, despite his very elliptical style, a contorted prose heavy with metaphors and allusions, with a ponderous irony operating throughout. Oscar Wilde, killing two very respected birds with one stone, opined that 'George Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning,' and described his style as 'chaos illumined by flashes of lightning'.

Beerbohm's affectionate cartoon of Meredith appeared in Vanity Fair in September 1896, and he also included Meredith in two other cartoons, one depicting the millieu surrounding Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the other gloriously entitled 'Rossetti insistently exhorted by George Meredith to come forth into the glorious sun and wind for a walk to Hendon and beyond' (Meredith's sole relaxation was walking, and most memoirs of visits to him include accounts of his trying to persuade his visitor to join him on one of his marathons). Millais, Strang, Watts and Sargent portrayed Meredith in the role of Grand Old Man, and his house, Flint Cottage on Box Hill, became the goal of reverent literary pilgrimages, up to his death in 1909.

Meredith made his own life a quarry for his novels – his childhood, his flamboyant grandfather, 'The Great Mel', his father, an inept tailor who bankrupted himself, all these appear in the novels, disguised and adapted to serve Meredith's artistic aims as well as to conceal those aspects of his early years which he wanted to bury, but there is no mention in the novels of his first marriage, of the decade in which he won and lost Peacock's brilliant daughter. Instead, Meredith returned to his first ambition, poetry, and in 1862, a year after Mary Ellen's death, publishedModern Love , a sequence of fifty sixteen-line poems constructed as sonnets. Despite F.R. Leavis's assurance that 'Modern Love seems to me the flashy product of unusual but vulgar cleverness working upon cheap emotion', the poem sequence is erected for the benefit of society; ranging from the sardonic to the poignant, the epigrammatic to the lyrical, this raw, urgent verse both evades the truth and tells more than it knows.

Chatterton does not seem to have had any influence on Meredith as a poet, nor does his life or his end seem to have interested the mandarin novelist; but Wallis's painting, with all its evasions, forms an interesting focus, a point where four very different lives meet and overlap, an image relating to a century and a half and reflecting a variety of images, from the lonely garret in Brooke Street to Flint Cottage and the Order of Merit, from the muniments room of St. Mary Redcliffe to the volumes on Italian maiolica.

For Further Reading:

E.H.W. Meyerstein,  A Life of Thomas Chatterton , (Ingpen & Grant, 1930); Linda Kelly, The Marvellous boy, the life and myth of Thomas Chatterton (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971); The Complete Works of Thomas Chatterton , ed. Donald S. Taylor (Oxford University Press, 1971); Jack Lindsay, George Meredith: his life and his work (Bodely Head, 1956); Siegfried Sassoon, Meredith (Constable, 1948); David Williams; George Meredith, his life and lost love (Hamish Hamilton, 1977); William Gaunt, The Pre-Raphaelite tragedy (Jonathan Cape 1942).

  •    Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski is a librarian at the Tate Gallery, London and authorof the Pallas of Pall Mall (History Today, February 1982).