Whilst on a recent trip to the Tate in London I came across the wonderful 'The Death of Chatterton' by Henry Wallis. This was another one of my favourite paintings as a youth and much like with Millais' 'Ophelia', it really took me back to my school days. Studying for A Level Art - I got an A, thank you very much - we would come up to London to visit the galleries, probably twice a year, always for the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. It was very exciting at the time, coming into London with all your school mates and wandering around the galleries, plus there'd always normally be some free time when you could foray into town, ie find the nearest pub for a pint.
The painting of Thomas Chatterton always caught my attention. Chatterton was an English poet who died in 1770 at the tender age of 17 from suicide and became something of a cause célèbre at the time. He later went onto be revered by the Romantic Poets - Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron et al - as representing the archetypal romantic hero who died tragically young but to be forever mythologically immortalised post death. His death came quick but the flame burnt bright and forever. In this regard I see him as perhaps the first - albeit a bit younger - of the '27 Club', the group including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and more recently Amy Winehouse, who all died young and way ahead of their time.
(Above photo - Fellow North Londoner Amy Winehouse )
There is a beautiful and romantic tragedy in such talents leaving us so early and at the height of their creative powers. We feel a sense of loss that can then somehow be projected into their music which lives on and at the same time gives it extra meanings and significance. There is also the sense of being robbed - what music would these be greats making at 19, 32 and for the rest of their lives? For me, particulary with Amy Winehouse, I felt a great melancholy after her passing as she was a fellow North Londoner - in fact a Southgate girl - the type of streetwise, sassy girl I might have known growing up. Looking at her performances now and listening to her moving vocal deliveries, it always adds an extra slice of sadness, like her death had a certain fatalistic inevitability, the disease and darkness of addiction pulling her down into the ground.
Thomas Chatterton would have held the same significance in the late 1700s - the Romantic Poets were always talking about the philosophy and nature of art and poetry. Here was a young man who lived it and then left this mortal coil very suddenly. To fill the void, his work lived on and we talked about him ad infinitum. Over three hundred years after his death I walked through the Tate saw this amazing painting and felt compelled to write about him. Interestingly, Chatterton worked under a psyeudonym - Thomas Rowley - and in a 15th Century Medieval poetry style. This for me also makes him ahead of his time, writing 'in the style of', a pre-cursor to Post Modern intertextuality and bringing up questions of textual authenticity.
(Above photo - Samuel Taylor Coleridge )
Henry Wallis was - like Millais - also a Pre-Raphaelite. Hence the execution and brushwork is very detailed. Chatterton lies, translucent white pallor, with the glass vial - arsenic - dashed on the floor. His strong features and dashing red hair contrast with his deathly colour. The open casket - perhaps a trite coffin metaphor - by his head contains torn up paper and fragments, another allusion perhaps to the impermanence and insignificance of poetry and writing when in the context of the living. Chatterton is in a run down room - the classic trope of the artists garet - suggesting he died penniless (which he did) and also perpetuating the myth of the perennially struggling artist. Here he is, in all his deathly glory. He died young but lives forever.
(Above photo - Chatterton at work )
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