Friday, 13 November 2015

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Thomas Chatterton (20 November 1752 – 24 August 1770)

Thomas Chatterton was a poet who is now remembered mostly as a lithe youth lying elegantly dead in a squalid attic. In a pair of startlingly electric blue breeches. In a painting. Which means he at least went one better than the creator of the exquisite Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece that depicts him – if you’re looking at the Birmingham sketch, you’ll notice that the strides have miraculously turned heliotrope – an artist who is barely recalled at all (Henry Wallis). The intense blue of the breeches, reminiscent of lapis lazuli – and thus of many a Virgin – along with hair the colour and flow of a Botticelli Venus, indicates the reverence with which the painter has portrayed his subject, imbuing it with an ethereal, almost empyrean, grace and saintliness high above the mundane world that lies beyond the grime-rank window, though the hideous grey of the flesh – not yet eighteen – indicates all too clearly that what we have here is nothing but cadaver. Thus it is that Chatterton (and, indeed, the painting) has become the very image of the struggling artist starving in the garret so beloved by romantic misconception, although, in the case of Chatterton, this was the actual hard and unsentimental truth of his short life. Which he lived mostly in the fifteenth century, and yet died in 1770, having not even reached full manhood. How could this be?

Chatterton was born in Bristol to a family whose name had long been coupled with the post of sexton in the parish of St Mary Redcliffe. Ironic on several levels, that, seeing sextons were church officials generally put in charge of graveyards (given Chatterton’s ultimate association with death, but that he has no known resting place himself) and also (given the capers young Tommy would get up to later) because “sexton” is rhyming slang: Sexton Blake. The dad was something of a small-time oddball, being musician, poet, numismatist (coin collector) and half-hearted dabbler in the occult, whilst the mum – Sarah Young – lived up to her name by being only seventeen when they married and already mother of a daughter. Just for once, the Thomas Chatterton name – the dad’s also – can’t be put down to paternal vainglory, seeing that the old man went and died fifteen weeks before ever his son saw the light of day. Which left the mum to attempt to make ends meet by starting a girls’ school and taking in sewing and ornamental needlework.

As it goes, things didn’t start off any too promisingly at all: for such a precocious prodigy, in his early years he showed not the faintest glimmer of talent whatsoever. In fact, he was suspected of outright idiocy and was even expelled from his first school for being a bit of a dullard, all on account of his refusal to learn anything or to join in the games of the other youngsters, preferring to spend his time absorbed in brooding silence. Perhaps he simply had his eyes fixed on a loftier prize because, on being asked what device he wanted painting on a bowl that was to be his, he summoned up all the high zest of a child ardent for some desperate glory to reply, “Paint me an angel, with wings, and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world.” Which, you must admit, shows a smart more ambition than merely hoping that your conker will make it into a sixer, wouldn’t you say? Anyhow, by the time he turned seven, it was all systems go and he was even making up for lost time. Legend has it that his father, some years previously, had “brought home” from the church (half-inched, that is) some aged music folios so they could be used as book-bindings and sewing patterns (so, not only light-fingered but a philistine to boot), which the mother happened to be tearing up (sounds like she wasn’t much better) when young Tommy catches an eyeful of them and thinks to himself, “This is a drop of all right and no mistake,” instantly falling in love with the illuminated capitals. That did the trick right enough, firing his imagination and, once the mother had finally taught him to read (so she’s not so bad after all, then), there was no stopping him bookwise and he was soon gobbling up all he could get his hands on. Thus began his enchantment with all things medieval.

Quite clearly, Fate had somehow got hold of the idea that, as far as the Chatterton Kid was concerned, life was proceeding just a wee bit too well and so, in August 1760, she decided that some form of comeuppance was called for and dished him out a real snorter. In the shape of Colston’s Hospital. Which, despite the name, purported to be a school but thought it was a prison. This markedly uneducational establishment had been founded back in 1710 by Edward Colston, a “philanthropist” who made shiploads of cash and bloody (literally) great profits out of dealing in human suffering on a wanton scale via the flourishing slave trade – the family motto (and also the school’s), with breathtaking effrontery, urged Go and do thou likewise. Which our man Eddie certainly adhered to when he thought that it was maybe high time to “give something back.” And the best way to achieve that seemed to be by inflicting yet more misery on the innocent, young boys in this case, for whom, similarly, there would be no escape. The curriculum didn’t bother with anything much beyond reading, writing, maths and a good solid dollop of the catechism by rote, believing it more important to concentrate on seeing the inmates were tonsured like monks and ruthlessly punishing any sign of religious non-conformity. Under such circumstances, a boy might become a tad rebellious. Young Tommy did. It seems he divided his time between outright delinquency and sulky morosity, but at least it got that awkward adolescent phase out of his system good and early.

Chatterton was doomed to six years at Colston’s but, whenever he got a break from the floggings, it was straight down to St Mary Redcliffe with him (where his uncle was sexton) for a good rummage round the Muniment Room. All the Legal Johnnies out there now will already know what that means and may even be rolling their eyes at the rest of us for our ignorance here, but bear with us a second, would you? The word comes from Latin, munimentum, meaning fortification or defence so, basically, it’s referring to title deeds with which to establish (or defend) ownership of an asset. (We may not know a great deal about Law but we are aware that imparting any such information should always be swiftly followed by an additional, “That’ll be fifty guineas, please.”) Anyhow, when our lad went rooting around the oaken chests therein – the same ones his old man had been pilfering from years earlier – there were loads of these documents to be had, many of them having been lying around forgotten since the Wars of the Roses. These he would gleefully gather up and squirrel away with him into his attic fastness, locking himself into isolation with his fifteenth century chums. 

One of these was the great shipping merchant, William II Canynges, amongst the wealthiest men of his day and five times Mayor of Bristol (eat your heart out, Dick Whittington, roughly Canynges’ contemporary), whose image he would have seen recumbent on his tomb in the church and who inspired him to write his romantic poem The Storie of William Canynge. By the age of eleven, he was already a contributor to the Bristol Journal and, before he was twelve, had penned Elinoure and Juga, his only poem to be published during his lifetime, which he tried to pass off as the work of a fifteenth century monk, Thomas Rowley, thus creating a pseudonym for himself and launching his career in the faking department. Now he dared to dream that his writing would bring him fame and wealth enough to rescue his mother from poverty.

Alas, however, Fate was to have other ideas and, at the end of his schooling in 1766, it was out of the frying pan of Colston’s and into the fire of an indentured apprenticeship with a local lawyer, one John Lambert. It seems that philistines were thick on the ground back in those days in Bristol and this fellow was no exception, taking great umbrage (not to mention a hefty stick) to the discovery that his scrivener wrote poetry in his spare time, tearing up what he’d written and forbidding him to produce any more. Despite his fascination with legal papers from the fifteenth century, it turned out that scrivening and Chatterton weren’t going to mix any too well at all, the drudgery of copying out the excruciatingly dull modern versions proving to be mindnumbingly tedious to an imaginative young lad, so he occupied his time with versifying and drawing instead, whilst maintaining a sulky and sardonic attitude throughout – being an adolescent, you might say – topping the whole insouciance off with evenings in the company of other likewise disillusioned apprentices, drinking and chasing girls.

With the Rowley-forging getting into full-swing, what Chatterton needed now was a patron – well, the patron’s cash, to be strictly mercenary – and so he passed the Rowleys off as the genuine article to a number of Bristol dignitaries, one of whom, William Barrett, was so completely taken in that he based his History and Antiquities of Bristol entirely upon them. It sank without trace. Chatterton now discovered the truth of the saying that “nobody got rich by spending it,” which turned out to be very much the case with these fellows too so, in 1769, he spread his net wider, this time casting it over none other than Horace Walpole, son of the first (so called) Prime Minister (a term of abuse back then) and who had come up with the first Gothic novel, though with a satirical irony that must’ve delighted Chatterton enormously, Walpole had tried to make out that his (truly dreadful) Castle of Otranto was, in actual fact, a translation of an Italian manuscript, when it was clearly the work of an idle-rich MP with more spare time than talent. The biter was absolutely bit and Walpole offered to publish the Rowleys, “if they have never been printed,” until someone had a quiet word in his shell-like and suggested they might be forgeries, adding that Chatterton was but sixteen, which was enough to put the right honourable wind up Walpole and for him to send Chatterton away, cashless but with a flea in his ear and bitterly wounded by the snub. As it goes, there was another irony lurking on the premises, for Walpole was the coiner of the term serendipity – happy accident. When Chatterton’s tragic history finally unfolded, Walpole found himself cast in the role of cruel persecutor, a slur that he would end up fighting against for twenty years, though a salacious public proved stubbornly resistant to absolving him, given the juicily appetising contrast between an impoverished boy genius of immense talent and a rich dilettante fathead.

By now, he could pastiche in the style of any number of writers, including Tobias Smollett, James Macpherson (another fibber, having claimed that his Ossian was a translation from word-of-mouth Gaelic but which was described elsewhere as “the most successful literary falsehood in modern history”), Thomas Gray and William Collins. His home town proving to be too small a pond for him and what with his burgeoning interest in politics, he swapped the Bristol Journal for the Town and Country Magazine and other London periodicals, taking up the nom de plume of Decimus, as rival to the pseudonymous letter writer Junius, whose pieces sought to “to inform the public of their historical and constitutional rights and liberties as Englishmen; to highlight where and how the government had infringed upon these rights.” (So, no change there, then – we’ve now got an administration seeking to grant yet more highly invasive powers to our security services when this (so-called) intelligence is farcically incapable of even spotting that an Egyptian airport is letting any old ne’er-do-well walk straight through). 

Disguised as Decimus, Chatterton was able to aim a well-deserved boot at a good few fatcat trough-snouters, sharpening his satirical pen on the likes of the Duke of Grafton, the Earl of Bute and even Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (mother of George IV, the Prince of Whales, as he was known, thanks to his gluttonous appetites for all things fattening). His bitter savagery drew the attention and admiration of Charles Churchill (satirical curate) and John Wilkes, both of whom were mates and both hated Bute with a vengeance. Wilkes ran the North Briton journal and he had once had a go at George III, calling him a liar. Which the government took exception to and banged him up in the Tower before trying him for libel. Wilkes won. The government didn’t like that either. In February 1769, they booted him out of Parliament. He was re-elected in the same month and unceremoniously chucked out again, only to be elected yet again in March. And in April. Finally, the government decided it’d given the people enough chances to return the right man and simply declared Wilkes’ opponent to be the winner (much like our current one claims a “huge mandate” after having gained roughly thirty percent of the vote, not even enough to call a tube strike on these days). Chatterton was now contributing to various journals but, whilst the editors accepted his pieces, they proved curmudgeonly reluctant to pay much or even anything for them. Chatterton remained resolutely strapped for cash.

The time had come for leaving Bristol and so, on 17 April 1770 (Easter Eve, as it happens), he sat down to write his Last Will & Testament, in which he suggested he might well top himself the following evening. Which is one way of going about it, though a touch drastic. Half earnest and half tongue-in-cheek, his sardonic bequests included “Moderation, to the Politicians on both Sides” (fat chance!) and his Debts, “to the Charitable and generous Chamber of Bristol.” Whilst not disguising the utter wretchedness of his situation, the whole purpose of the scheme was to scare the living daylights out of his attorney employer who, for once, played ball and cancelled his indentures, which (along with a swift whip-round from friends and acquaintances) left Chatterton free to head off to London to make his fame and fortune. He left Bristol that April. As soon as he got there, he popped round to see the booksellers and editors he had written to beforehand, who were once again encouraging and flattering in their promises but turned out to be just as loath as ever when it came to actually stumping up for the goods. When he finally did get his hands on some hard-earned, he spent it on expensive gifts to send to his mother and sister. To reassure them as to how well he was doing.

His first lodgings were in Shoreditch (possibly originally called the highly unpromising Sewer Ditch) at the house of a relative, where he had to share a room (and a bed!) with some fellow, who noted that Chatterton “spent most of the night writing.” (Under the same circumstances, wouldn’t you?) Happily, however, by June 1770, he was able to take himself off to an attic in Brook Street (Holborn), where he was able to “enjoy” complete solitude. By now, he was simply churning the material out at a breath-taking – and exhausting – rate, including another allegedly Rowley piece, the universally admired and astonishingly fine Excelente Balade of Charitie. Well, universally admired except by the editor of the Town and Country Magazine, that is, seeing he rejected it out-of-hand. Another one notched up to the philistines there, we fear. But it still buttered no parsnips for our man. Our put any bread on his table. In desperation, he wrote to his old Bristol acquaintance William Barrett (bit of a cheek, seeing this was the same bloke he’d duped with his Rowleys and whose book would be doomed to the remainder bins), asking him to help with getting him a position as a ship’s surgeon. To which (with remarkable magnanimity, considering), Barrett replied along the lines of, “would love to, old chap, but the big stumbling block is that you’re not qualified as a surgeon.” So that fell through on a technicality. Despite the situation, he was still as big a hit as ever with the girls, of whom he knew many (in the was acquainted with sense), though it seems he was a bit caddish here. An Esther Saunders wrote to him, suggesting they meet in the morning when they wouldn’t be seen, adding, “we must wait with patient [sic] for there is a Time for all Things.” His reply was, “a time for all things—Except Marriage my Dear.”

Part of the point of the solitary Holborn pad was so nobody would see his dreadful poverty. But people could hardly help but notice. Mr Cross, a neighbouring apothecary, repeatedly invited him to join him at dinner or supper, but in vain. So did his landlady, who knew he hadn’t eaten for some days. Not hungry, was the response. On 21 August 1770, Chatterton was walking in St Pancras Churchyard and, lost in thought, failed to spot a newly-dug grave lying right in his path, the result being that he pitched in head first. A companion who was with him helped him out and jokingly remarked that he was “happy in assisting at the resurrection of genius.” This time, the reply was, “My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now.”

Three days later, on 24 August 1770, he climbed up to his attic fastness clutching a bottle of arsenic. Having torn to shreds all his remaining works, he then swallowed the poison in water. The room was broken into next day where, unlike in the painting, his body was found severely convulsed and absolutely dead. The landlady (ironically, a Mrs Angel) collected all the fragments in the hope of finding a last note amongst them, which were then purchased by a Dr Fry, who had come to London to offer the poet financial assistance but who had arrived far far too late. As a suicide, Chatterton was buried in an unmarked grave. His later admirers and commemorators would include Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Rossetti and Keats. Pre-Raphaelite, Henry Wallis, would famously go on to paint him, using as model the young Victorian novelist, George Meredith, before running off with Meredith’s wife.

Chatterton is long gone. But we still have the works. And the painting. When you next stand in front of the picture (at Tate Britain), having given silent thanks to Wallis, offer up an orison to one of the most gifted poets of any age, a boy too stubbornly proud to accept of charity …


The Death of Chatterton: Henry Wallis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sewing (1898) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wilfred Owen: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Colston’s Hospital: By The book's text by JF Nicholls (d. 1883) and John Taylor (d. 1893). Death dates citation: doi:10.1093/library/s1-V.1.86. Images by unknown engravers, and thus are PD due to age, per the relevant British legislation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Flagellation of Christ: By Peter Paul Rubens [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
William II Canynges: Lobsterthermidor at en.wikipedia [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Uriah Heep: Fred Barnard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Horace Walpole: By John Giles Eccardt (floruit 1740-1779) (Info : Pic) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ossian's Dream by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1813: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
John Wilkes (he was cross-eyed): By Unknown; after Richard Houston (died 1775) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mailcoach: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Death of Chatterton (Birmingham version): Henry Wallis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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