Henry Wallis’s “Chatterton” (1855-56) represents the ultimate Romantic hero. An iconic image of the young poet as scorned and neglected genius, it is one of the most popular pictures in Tate Britain, yet few visitors know much about its subject’s history.
Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was a minor English poet whose legacy chiefly consisted of a series of fabricated medieval poems. Born in Bristol in 1752, he developed an early interest in history and poetry. Access to old documents in his parish church enabled him to obtain scraps of ancient parchment on which he wrote manuscript poems, which he claimed to be the work of a 15th-century monk Thomas Rowley. At first acclaimed, he sent samples of these poems to the antiquarian Horace Walpole, who pronounced them fakes and denounced Chatterton as a forger.
Embittered and disgraced, Chatterton moved to London in 1770 where he made a meagre income selling satires and songs to newspapers and journals.
Receiving little recognition or reward, he was soon penniless and living in conditions of extreme poverty. Overcome by depression, ill health and financial hardship, he took his own life on August 24 by swallowing arsenic. He was only 17.
The mythology of blighted talent surrounding Chatterton’s life exercised a powerful influence on later generations. John Keats dedicated the poem “Endymion” to his memory, Wordsworth dubbed him “the marvellous boy”, and Coleridge, Shelley and later Dante Gabriel Rossetti, all paid tribute to him in their work. Wallis was also inspired by the poet’s death. A young artist on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Wallis empathised strongly with Chatterton’s struggles and represented him as a beautiful and tragic figure, dying alone in the prime of his youth.