Henry Wallis is an enigma wrapped in a mystery despite having two major successes at the in his brief Pre-Raphaelite period at the Royal Academy, The Death of Chatterton (1856) and The Stonebreaker (1858), both highly rated by John Ruskin. Nevertheless we know very little about either his life or his artistic intentions in this period. Not only have a number of his paintings disappeared but almost no preliminary sketches for them survive apart from two studies for the figure in Chatterton.
Left to right: (a) The Death of Chatterton. (b) A Sculptor's Workshop, Stratford-upon-Avon — 1617. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
I have suggested that the titles and subjects of his exhibited works give an insight into his radical political and religious views; he was an atheist and a Republican. (Hickox). However we have one important piece of additional, if strangely neglected, evidence — his major picture A sculptor’s workshop Strafford on Avon, 1617 exhibited at the 1857 Royal academy. The picture shows the sculptor Gerard Johnson working on a bust of Shakespeare while Ben Jonson displays Shakespeare’s recently discovered (alleged) death mask for him to work from. It is painted with a typically Pre-Raphaelite use of vivid colour and fine detail (for example Ben Jonson’s costume) In addition to the workshop itself there is a landscape view through the window taking in the river Avon and Holy Trinity church in which the bust of Shakespeare was to reside.
This use of a background landscape, repeated in The Stonebreaker, marks a new direction in Wallis’s art since his pre-Chatterton work seems to have largely consisted of quite sparse interiors without figures. Indeed, with its figure subjects and landscape, it is an ambitious painting that places Wallis firmly in the Pre-Raphaelite camp. One might link key elements in the picture — the workshop subject, the children and the landscape view seen through a window — with Millais’s Christ in The House of his Parents and the Northern Renaissance plateau compositions used by many Pre-Raphaelites. Given it shows a summer scene with flowers in bloom, one must suppose it was painted some time in the summer of the previous year on a visit to Stratford immediately following his success with Chatterton. So it is probable that he intended to be a major history painting that would cement his new artistic reputation.
Almost certainly one explanation for the neglect from which A Sculptor’s Workshop has suffered is that Ruskin completely ignores it in his 1857 Academy Notes preferring to reserve his comments for Montaigne — the library.
Not, I think, quite so successful as the “Chatterton” of last year; but it contends with greater difficulties, and is full of marvelous painting. It is terribly hurt by its frame, and by the surrounding colours and lights; seen through the hand, the effect is almost like reality. That is a beautiful and characteristic fragment of homely French architecture seen through the window [Ruskin, 14.113]
A sculptor’s workshop returns to Wallis’s obsession with Shakespeare evidenced in his pre-1856 work. Reverence for the Bard and the use of Shakespearean subjects in art were hardly new in England by this period. Shakespeare had been given a separate category along with The Book of Job in the PRB’s list of Immortals but Wallis takes this preoccupation to a new level focusing on living spaces which would have had physical contact with his genius. Thus in A Sculptor’s Workshop he offers two images of Shakespeare, the alleged death mask and the bust of Shakespeare himself. Indeed, the work has a curiously religious feeling to it, ironic given Wallis’s atheism. The kneeling sculptor seems almost to be worshipping the white marble bust of Shakespeare which dominates the picture and which is illumined by the sunlight, in contrast to the darkness of the rear of the room. The child standing by the door seems to be gazing at it in awe. Ben Jonson pointing out the death mask recalls the traditional Memento Mori theme in religious art in which a figure points out a skull.
However, in a marked contrast with Chatterton, the overall mood of the picture is one of Resurrection and of New Life represented by the children playing, the tree in full leaf seen through the window, and, on the mantelpiece by the window, a nude statuette of a vigorous male athlete. One has the sense that the sculptor is miraculously bringing Shakespeare back to life. Indeed one might almost see Chatterton and A Sculptor’s Workshop as forming a diptych; one showing the despair and death of poetic genius, the other its resurrection.
There is also an interesting contrast between the two figures in the painting. The sculptor at his task, dressed in a homely garb, represents the honest laborer while Ben Jonson wears the elaborate costume of a courtier. Thus implicitly the latter is associated with death and the former with life and Resurrection. This may reflect a similar moral contrast in his painting of the previous year, Andrew Marvell returning the bribe (lost), in which the honest Marvell returns a courtier’s bribe. Interestingly Ben Jonson was not included in the PRB list of Immortals perhaps because he was seen as having embodied a rigid Classicism against which they believed Shakespeare had rebelled.
A clue to Wallis’s reading at this period comes from the inscription from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836) which accompanies The Stonebreaker in which the subject is depicted as a hero worn out by his life of hard labour. Carlyle who, like Wallis, had lost his religious faith, believed strongly in the role of great individuals, i.e. heroes in History. In Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841) he elevates Shakespeare, along with Dante, to an almost divine status. However there is an irony with respect to Wallis’s own heroes as seen in his works of the 1850s and '60s. Since, including the present picture, a number of his works relating to Shakespeare survive this gives an impression that his views were relatively conventional. However, his lost works typically had as their subjects’ politically and religiously radical figures: Marlowe, Henry Allen, Marvell, Walter Raleigh. These heroes all have a Promethean quality to them in that they were punished for challenging the Gods . For example a later subject Marsyas, painted in 1869, depicted the Greek musician who was punished for winning a contest with Apollo. This Promethean quality helps to link his work to the Shelley tradition, which featured strongly in Wallis’s background in the mid 1850s, since Prometheus was a key figure in the writings of both Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley.
Ruskin’s 1857 reviews seem to have returned Wallis to his 1856 track. The Stonebreaker, probably painted on his trip to Wales with Mary Ellen Meredith in summer 1857 (Diane Johnson 124), is a return to the theme of the suffering/dead hero and was highly praised by Ruskin.
Ruskin, John. The Works. Eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London, George Allen, 1903-1912.
Hickox, Michael, “The Political Background to the Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis,“ Victorian Web.
Johnson, Diane. The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and other Lesser Lives. London, Heinemann, 1973.
Last modified 28 February 2014