The Death of Chatterton. Henry Wallis. 1856. Oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 36 3/4 inches Collection: Tate Britain, museum acquisition no. T01685.
The Death of Chatterton or Chatterton (which is the title under which the painting was first exhibited) is Wallis’s best-known picture and one of the masterpieces of the first wave of Pre-Raphaelitism. One of several works with strong literary associations that Wallis painted early in his career, finishing the painting in 1855 and exhibited it at the Royal Academy the following year.
Because no portraits of Chatterton were known, Wallis was free to invent his appearance and like many artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood he preferred to use friends rather than professional models. Tradition has it that he chose George Meredith, although no direct evidence has ever been found to prove for certain that Meredith was the model. Meredith would have been an appropriate choice, however, because like Chatterton at the time of his death, George was a young and unappreciated poet.
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The exact location where Wallis painted this picture has remained controversial. Initially it was alleged that Wallis painted it in the room of the house where Chatterton had died at 39 Brooke Street in London. The view of St. Paul’s in the background, as seen from this room, would not have been identical to that shown in the picture. At the time the painting was finished, Wallis was sharing rooms at 8 Gray’s Inn Square with his friend Peter Augustin [Austin] Daniel, a few minutes walk away from Brooke Street. Daniel’s journal entry for May 5, 1856 reads:
Then to the opening of the Royal Academy – where of course was a great crowd. Met every body I knew there. The Exhibition is not a startling one but it contains many excellent works…Wallis too has made a great hit and established his name by his Death of Chatterton an excellent picture but without the interest of novelty to me who have watched its progress from the first slight sketch to its completion – indeed it was painted in the very room I now write in. [Joukovsky, Meredithian Milieu, 628]
As Robin Hamlyn has pointed out, however, 8 Gray's Inn Square did not have an attic storey of the kind depicted in Chatterton and neither the west end of St. Paul's Cathedral, nor the tower of Holy Sepulchre, Holborn, visible on the skyline in the painting could be seen as they are shown in the picture from the side of the square on which No. 8 is situated. (http://www.friedrichshainerschule.de/WALLIS.htm). It is still certainly possible that Chatterton was indeed painted at 8 Grays’s Inn Square during the summer of 1855 and the room and the view from the window are simply products of the artist’s imagination. While the debate about where it was painted may have some importance for art historians, it has no influence on the aesthetic appreciation of the work.
An oil sketch for the composition is in the collection of the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and a smaller copy of the Tate Britain painting is in the collection of the Yale Center for British art in New Haven, Connecticut.
The Painting’s Critical Reception
The picture was not exhibited at the Royal Academy until May 1856 where, in general, it received favourable reviews from the critics. The picture is full of the symbolic references loved by Pre-Raphaelite painters. The reviewer of The Athenaeum was enthusiastic about the picture:
One of the most thoughtful pictures exhibited this year is Mr. Wallis’s Chatterton (352), -a sad scene, full of pathos; though, perhaps, too sad for those whose path of life is softly carpeted, and who shut their doors on all unpleasant realities.…With a little idealization of face and form, Mr. Wallis represents the dead poet, the poison-phial just slipped from his relaxed hand, stretched cold and stiff on a miserable pallet below a garret window, through whose horny, smoked panes, we see the careless city, crowned by the mountain dome that is for everlasting. This is the whole picture, the rest of the story being told by a candle just gone out, the blue stifling smoke of which curdles about the ceiling. By the bed-side is a chest full of torn poems, for the proud lad, who would rather starve than share his landlady’s dinner, spent his last moments in carefully destroying all he had written. In how many garrets have such scenes been enacted with the same great city hushed below, careless of the forms whose shadows fall upon its stones and pass away? Mr. Wallis has flattered Chatterton as to face, without doing him justice, -his great laughing eyes, rich flood of hair, and proud sullen mouth were worthy of the Apollo. The body is well drawn, and the satin coat and violet breeches form a pleasant unison of colour. Idealized as the face is it is excellently modelled, and its proportions are exquisite, and the effect of poison is conveyed in its blue lividness, without exciting disgust. Well may the spectator exclaim with a sigh – “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough.” 
The latter lines from Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus were inscribed on the frame and included in the catalogue for the exhibition.
The critic of The Saturday Review was also fulsome in his praise of the picture’s stern simplicity and reality
After the Academy had been opened a few days, young Wallis ‘found himself famous.’ His Chatterton not only gives promise of great things in the future, but is itself, though not faultless, a picture of high achievement…The sad history of Chatterton‘s misdirected genius and boyish vanity is well known. Wallis has chosen for his subject the morning after the poet’s mad deed, and has painted the corpse stretched on a bed in a poor cottage. The morning light streams on to the figure, which is simply and exquisitely drawn - the head and right arm fall over the side of the bed, the hand clutching some fragments of a manuscript – the poison- phial lies empty on the floor, the candle is just burnt out, and the last thin thread of smoke is melting away through the window. London is seen in the distance, grey and cold, as he found it. This picture is impressive, from its stern simplicity and reality. The painting of the bright morning sky, seen through the window, is really wonderful (58).
Even the notoriously cranky John Ruskin was warm in his praise for the painting, writing in his Academy Notes: "Faultless and wonderful: a most noble example of the great school. 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. Give it much time." (Works 14.60).
Despite the excellence of the picture some critics made minor criticisms of details. The reviewer for The Spectator, likely W. M. Rossetti, noted features in the painting that did not conform to the known details of Chatterton’s suicide:
Mr. Wallis’s Chatterton, lying dead in his garret as dawn-light spreads through the narrow window, and stretches along the roofs of the mighty London which he has found all too small to exist in, is a highminded work, thoroughly felt, thought, and executed. The poison-bottle lies on the floor; the dead hand clutches a fragment of the manuscripts which the poet is torn up and scattered to perdition; and the last whiff of his ‘brief candle’ fades into the air. The chiselled features are calm, or even triumphant. Mr. Wallis has avoided anything ghastly in his subject, while he gives all the impressiveness of it’s a reality. His details, however, he is not adhered rigidly to the narratives. Chatterton‘s hair was extremely dark, not golden brown; his corpse was found with the legs hanging over the bed, not distended; and the poison-bottle was standing by the window. )
In 1857 the painting was exhibited at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester where it was even more enthusiastically received and proved to be a sensation. It was the most popular contemporary painting in the exhibition. In October 1857 Wallis’s friend P. A. Daniel travelled to Manchester to see the show. In a letter of October 14, 1857 to his mother Daniel reported:
The place was too extensive to enable me to form an opinion of its merits on so short an acquaintance but I was delighted to see that Wallis’s picture of the death of Chatterton which he painted while living with me at Gray’s Inn seemed to be the principal object, which the [crowd] of people who were there, seemed to have in view. He appears to have touched some secret spring in the heart of those hand-to-mouth hard working cotton spinners who from the course of their own lives could sympathize with the death struggle of the poor ambitious boy who from poverty fell to despair and thence to suicide. They have actually been obliged to shore up the rail with a couple of stout pieces of timber just opposite this pictures so great is the struggle to get a sight of it. It is a great success for old Wallis. [Joukovsky, Meredithian Milieu 
It is said that two policemen were needed to protect the picture from the crowd.
Links to Related Material
- The painting's political context and themes
- The Death of Chatterton — a Promethean Picture?
- W. B. Morris's Chatterton's Half-holiday
“Fine Arts Royal Academy.” The Athenaeum, No. 1489 (May 10, 1856): 589-92.
“Fine Arts. The Royal Academy Exhibition.” The Spectator XXIX, (May 24, 1856): 570-71.
Hamlyn, Robin, “Henry Wallis – Chatterton, 1855-6”, Boys in Art, http://www.friedrichshainerschule.de/WALLIS.htm.
Joukovsky, Nicholas A. “The Early Meredithian Milieu: New Evidence form Letters of Peter Augustin Daniel,” Studies in Philology XV (Summer 2018): 615-64.
Lessens, Ronald and Dennis T. Lanigan. Henry Wallis. From Pre-Raphaelite Painter to Collector/Connoisseur. Woodbridge: ACC Art Books, 2019, cat. 22, 83-87
Ruskin, John. The Works of John Ruskin. Academy Notes, vol. XIV. Eds. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. London: Allen and Unwin, 1904.
“The Royal Academy.” The Saturday Review II (May 17, 1856): 57-58.
Created 18 December 2004
Last Modified 19 October 2022