Chatterton is Wallis’s earliest and most famous work. The picture created a sensation when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, accompanied by the following quotation from Marlowe:
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough.
Ruskin described the work in his Academy Notes as ‘faultless and wonderful’.
Thomas Chatterton (1752-70) was an 18th Century poet, a Romantic figure whose melancholy temperament and early suicide captured the imagination of numerous artists and writers. He is best known for a collection of poems, written in the name of Thomas Rowley, a 15th Century monk, which he copied onto parchment and passed off as mediaeval manuscripts. Having abandoned his first job working in a scrivener’s office he struggled to earn a living as a poet. In June 1770 he moved to an attic room at 39 Brooke Street, where he lived on the verge of starvation until, in August of that year, at the age of only seventeen, he poisoned himself with arsenic. Condemned in his lifetime as a forger by influential figures such as the writer Horace Walpole (1717-97), he was later elevated to the status of tragic hero by the French poet Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863).
Wallis may have intended the picture as a criticism of society’s treatment of artists, since his next picture of note, The Stonebreaker (1858, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery), is one of the most forceful examples of social realism in Pre-Raphaelite art. The painting alludes to the idea of the artist as a martyr of society through the Christ-like pose and the torn sheets of poetry on the floor. The pale light of dawn shines through the casement window, illuminating the poet’s serene features and livid flesh. The harsh lighting, vibrant colours and lifeless hand and arm increase the emotional impact of the scene. A phial of poison on the floor indicates the method of suicide. Following the Pre-Raphaelite credo of truth to nature, Wallis has attempted to recreate the same attic room in Gray’s Inn where Chatterton had killed himself. The model for the figure was the novelist George Meredith (1828-1909), then aged about 28. Two years later Wallis eloped with Meredith’s wife, a daughter of the novelist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866).
Leslie Parris, Ed., The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.142-144, reproduced p.143, in colour.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, pp.192-3, reproduced p.193, in colour.
Christopher Wood, The Pre-Raphaelites, London 1994, pp.61-4, reproduced p.68, in colour.
At very least, dears, the Americans can today all relate personally to this next painting, Mariana, seized as she was by Her Majesty’s government to satisfy a tax lien, the money subsequently squandered on various trivialities of government.
When it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851 this picture was accompanied by the following lines from Tennyson’s Mariana (1830):
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’
Tennyson’s poem was inspired by the character of Mariana in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Rejected by her fiancé, Angelo, after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, she leads a lonely existence in a moated grange. She is still in love with Angelo – now Deputy to the Duke of Vienna – and longs to be reunited with him.
In the picture the autumn leaves scattered on the ground mark the passage of time. Mariana has been working at some embroidery and pauses to stretch her back. Her longing for Angelo is suggested by her pose and the needle thrust fiercely into her embroidery. The stained-glass windows in front of her show the Annunciation, contrasting the Virgin’s fulfilment with Mariana’s frustration and longing. Millais copied the scene from the window of the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. However, the heraldic design appears to have been his own invention.
The motto ‘In coelo quies’ means ‘In Heaven there is rest’ and clearly refers to Mariana’s desire to be dead. The snowdrop symbolises ‘consolation’ and is also the birthday flower for 20 January, St Agnes’ Eve, when young girls put herbs in their shoes and pray to St Agnes to send them a vision of their future husband. It may also refer indirectly to John Keats’s narrative poem The Eve of St Agnes, which, like Tennyson’s Mariana, is also concerned with the theme of yearning. The mouse in the right foreground is Tennyson’s mouse that ‘Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d, | Or from the crevice peer’d about’. The miniature altar in the background, decorated with a small triptych, and a silver casket, may refer to Tennyson’s other poem on the same theme, Mariana in the South, in which Mariana prays desperately to the Virgin Mary.
Millais may have intended the picture to complement Holman Hunt’s Claudio and Isabella(1850, Tate N03447), a scene also taken from Measure for Measure. But as a subject from Tennyson the picture acquired a certain topically, since Tennyson was made Poet Laureate in November 1850.
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1984, reprinted 1994, no.35, pp.89-90, reproduced p.90.
Elisabeth Prette john, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, pp.11-13, reproduced p.10, in colour.
Yesterday, in the sunshine fulgent, Lovey and I visited Mr. Jefferson, his splendid cherry blossoms, the National Gallery, the Pre-Raphaelites and the third great love of my life, my Impressionists painters of France.
At school, quite a long while ago now, a kindly but sheepish Dr. West took severe umbrage to a blue-paper examination booklet in which I had been instructed to tell Dr. West all that I had learned from him about the Pre-Raphaelites.
I had written this in my blue-paper examination booklet and returned it to Dr West:
“The Pre-Raphaelites were annoyingly pretentious men, who fancied themselves Impressionists but, lacking any talent, sought to put the viewer off the scent by employing color so extraordinarily vivid as to confuse people into thinking that remarkably vivid color meant talent must be there, when it simply was not.”
Dr. West, a fan of these Pre-Raphaelites, concocted to flag me with an F in his course—an absurdity that troubled me not about myself, but troubled me rather so about Dr. West, who would have to defend this absurdity in front of the Dean of Men for Arts and Letters, a certain Dr. Morin.
This was dicey business, again, not for me, but for West, as Morin, as his name suggests, was an Irishman who suffered grievous the Irishman’s Disease, and invariably had a sore head, resultant of that affliction.
I got to our little meeting first. Morin greeted me, if that serves as the correct word, by saying:
Why are you causing heartburn to a harmless fellow like West?
I simply wrote the truth, Sir, didn’t you read it?
I never read anything—I don’t have to –I am, after all, Dean of Men for Arts and Letters.
Anyway, I simply wrote the truth, Sir, about the Pre-Raphaelites.
Well, that’s where you went off the rails—that’s where you went wrong.
Just there, Sir.
Begg—the truth is something you studied at Seminary—this is University!
Oh, I see, Sir.
Well, done, Begg—now how do we square things with West?
Well, Sir, we simply ask him how, and if, he can refute my proposition.
Which proposition, Begg?
My proposition that:
“The Pre-Raphaelites were annoyingly pretentious men, who fancied themselves Impressionists but, lacking any talent, sought to put the viewer off the scent by employing color so extraordinarily vivid as to confuse people into thinking that remarkably vivid color meant talent must be there, when it simply is not.”
Begg, you need to drink more and think less.
I’ll try, Sir.
Well done, Begg, nicely done—now—I’ll handle West, you leave now.
I’m off, sir.
Off with you then, Sir—and Begg—please consider the feelings of these sheepish sorts—that’s why they go into academe after all, isn’t it—they can’t face the world.
Quite so, Sir.
Quite so—try to be sensitive—seems West actually likes these–what do they call them–Pre-Raphaelites? What an odd thing to do—call yourself a Pre-Raphaelites—wonder what that means.
He does, Sir.
Who does what, Begg?
West does, Sir—likes them—these Pre-Raphaelites. They image themselves to be Impressionists, I think, Sir.
He does? They do?
Seems so, Sir—I will try to consider these things—others men’s feelings.
I’ll do, Sir.
Well done, Begg—now off with you.
Thank you, Sir.
And, Begg– you must put yourself to drinking more and thinking less”
Right away, Sir, directly I leave here, Sir.
I aced the class—got an A— and a round compliment, in class, from West for my “prescience” concerning these Pre-Raphaelites.
I can’t help but dwell, now late in life, on the notion that I had somehow hurt West’s feelings.
At the time, young and intemperate, I didn’t consider men’s feelings. Steeled in the rigors of seminary school, I sought out the truth and hung the consequences.
Now, I’m an old softy, I guess.
All I learned at university that I can fit in the glass of life is down to Morin—I did as directed—and now understand that it was he, not I, who deserved formal recognition for his “prescience”—what most men ought to do is to drink more and think less.
It was with this in mind that I took Lovey to visit the Pre-Raphaelites at the National Gallery, where it seems they are doing a road show for sometime here at Washington.
Quite luckily, I discovered before getting to the Gallery that Lovey, as did West, and, I take it others, has not herself seen through the glare of the supra-natural coloration vivid, to the dearth of talent that lurks below, in the work of these Pre-Raphaelites.
I like ‘em, says Lovey.
I see. Says I. I see.
We paid a brief visit to our Mr. Jefferson prior to going to the Gallery after, at which, I politely indulged Lovey’s drinking in her Pre-Raphaelites with enduring and admirable patience—and for doing so was rewarded with my favorite treat at the Gallery—my Impressionists French!!
Before the Gallery, Lovey and I visit Mr. Jefferson and his blooms–kind gifts of the Empress Nipponese.
Before the Gallery, when we had visited Mr. Jefferson’s townhouse at his Tidal Basin, we drank deep of his gorgeous spring cherry blossoms—a gift to him from the Empress Nipponese. Simply wonderful blooms.
Lovey remarked that the Empress Nipponese “must be most kindly disposed to Mr. Jefferson to give him such beauties as these for his basin.”
“I am quite sure they are close friends, Lovey,” I assured her.
Now, Jesus—I get my just desserts!
After Mr. Jefferson, his blooms, Lovey’s Pre-Raphaelites and my Impressionists, it had all made to a long day and I took Lovey home and gave her a champagne cocktail.
Lovey is no sort of drinker and was soon drowsy from that elixir. I took her to her bed.
She looked at me and said, “are you happy with me, darling—do I make you peaceful, restful?”
As with so many today, most particularly the very young, Lovey is not of a consecutive frame of mind, an oversight of mental discipline in those lacking the consecutive that I find often beneficial and useful, as those who are not of a consecutive frame of mind are rather easy to evade and confuse.
I petted her head and kissed her and said “Darling… ‘In coelo quies’”
“What does that mean, Thurston?”
Lovey, it just means ‘In Heaven there is rest’
“What a wonderful thought after a wonderful day with my favorite Pre-Raphaelites” smiled Lovey as she drifted off.
And it is—a wonderful thought. And, it was—a wonderful day.
‘In coelo quies’—‘In Heaven there is rest’
John Daniel Begg
Friday, 12th April, Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, 2013