Friday, November 13, 2015

Henry Wallis, George Meredith, Mary Meredith and The Death of Chatterton

This post is dedicated to Evan, 2tanners and kvd, inspired by a short comment stream on That Australian life - the Lamberts inspired by this remark of mine: "Growing up, I was attracted by the concept of the artist in the garret. It seemed kind of romantic. Certainly I wasn't put off by minor things like the cold! Now, older, I wonder a bit. There is a lot to be said for comfort and at least a degree of stability".

This photograph, the Death of Chatterton, is by the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis (1830-1916), I quote from the Wikipedia entry:.
Wallis is best remembered for his first great success, The Death of Chatterton, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856. The painting depicted the impoverished late 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton, who poisoned himself in despair at the age of seventeen, and was considered a Romantic hero for many young and struggling artists in Wallis's day. .... He (Wallis) used a bold colour scheme with a contrasting palette and he exploited the fall of the natural light through the window of the garret to implement his much loved style at the time, chiaroscuro. 
So the painting captures the idea of the romantic but unrecognised artistic hero dying alone in his garret. In one of his comments, 2tanners took a very modern and prosaic view of the artist in the garret.
The artist in the garret implies mediocre commercial success (and therefore critical acclaim). Sometimes this can make you hungry in ways that don't involve food, and keep you there. Success can make you more casual about what you do. This isn't restricted to art, the saying "Stay hungry, or success will kill you" is a business mantra. 
*Starving* in a garret is a different thing, IMHO. To any self respecting artist, you do need to stay alive and feed your family (or contribute). I have two writer friends who thank their lucky stars for retail stores like JB Hi-Fi. They can work there to get through the lean times and are valued by their employers for their stability, lack of retail ambition (they don't want to join the managerial ranks) and knowledge of the product range. But they are writers, first and foremost.

Oh dear.It quite takes the romance out of it all. But where did the garret phrase come from. According to Victoria S Dennis, an English writer called Samuel Foote (1720-1777) summarised the life of an author as "Born in a cellar.and living in a garret".Foote was talking about writers, not painters.

In the 18th century the figure of the literary man living in poverty because his ideas were too unfashionable or politically unsafe to sell well was, according to Victoria, a familiar cliché. By contrast, during the same period the painter was seen as a craftsman who by definition worked for the rich, and therefore should make a comfortable living if he were any good. "The idea of the painter as a rebel genius who is poor because he only paints what inspires him and refuses to prostitute his gift by painting pictures people want to buy"  is, Victoria says. "a creation of 19th-century Romanticism."

Victoria did not know at what date the cliché came to be "starving" rather than just "living" in the garret. Her guess was in the second half of the 19th century. In the 18th century everyone knew that people only lived in garrets if they were too poor to afford anything better. "After the Romantics had made the idea of a delightfully bohemian life in a garret fashionable (in theory and in novels, at any rate), it became necessary to stress the idea of poverty."

Oh dear once again! I am clearly a romantic.In all this, there is a twist that does fit with popular images of the artistic life.

This is the painting of the English writer George Meredith painted in 1893 by George Frederic Watts.  In 1856 Meredith posed as model for The Death of Chatterton. 

In 1849,  Meredith had married Mary, a widow with one child. In 1853, a son (Arthur) was born to the couple.

Mary has been described as beautiful, intelligent, outspoken and ambitious. The marriage was apparently troubled. .Around the time that The Death of Chatterton was painted, Mary began an affair with Henry Wallis. In 1858, pregnant, she ran off with Wallis shortly before giving birth, leaving Arthur behind. It was a short relationship, with Mary dying in 1861.

Like many writers, Meredith seems to have drawn from his experiences in his writing. The collection of "sonnets" entitled Modern Love(1862) emerged, as did The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, his first "major novel". I haven't read the book nor indeed any of Meredith's writing, yet another gap in my knowledge! However, the novel's opening has been described in this way: "Sir Austin Feverel's wife deserts him to run away with a poet, leaving her husband to bring up their boy Richard. Believing schools to be corrupt, Sir Austin, a scientific humanist, educates the boy at home with a plan of his own devising known as "the System". This involves strict authoritarian supervision of every aspect of the boy's life, and in particular the prevention of any meeting between Richard and girls of his own age."

I don't think that Meredith believed in the principles involved, the book is in part a conflict between harsh principles and reality leading to apparently to an ultimate happy ending, but I was left with a strong impression of possible conflict between the serious self-focused Meredith and Mary's own strong personality.

In all this, after researching this post I was left dissatisfied. What happened to Mary's first child? What happened to the child born after Mary left to join Henry Wallis? How did Mary die? I would like to know more.


Thanks to leads supplied by kvd, we have more information on Mary Ellen Meredith. This is a pencil drawing of Mary made by Henry Wallis around 1856.She was clearly an attractive woman. 

A piece by Elvira Casal in The Victorian Web provides more information on Mary and the various relationships, with a little more added in the text attached to the pencil drawing..
George Meredith met Mary through London solicitor  Richard Stephen Charnock who was active in literary activities. Meredith was in fact apprenticed to Charnock who encouraged Meredith's literary endeavours. 
Among the people in Charnock's circle, were Edward Peacock and his beautiful sister, Mary Ellen Nicolls. Mary Ellen Meredith was the widow of Edward Nicolls, captain of the HMS Dwarf, who died in 1844 while trying to rescue a drowning man in the Shanon Estuary in Ireland. All accounts agree that Mary had the lively intelligence and wit that was to characterize many of Meredith's heroines. Even though she was 7 years his senior and he was in no position to support a family, the couple married on August 9, 1849.
According to, Casal both were intelligent, demanding and impatient. Meredith may have greatly admired witty women as social companions, but did not find in Mary Ellen the uncritical support that he craved. For her part, Mary Ellen, needed more from the marriage than a self-absorbed husband who could not even earn a living. Frequent pregnancies and miscarriages cannot have added to the Merediths' happiness. Their one child, Arthur, was born on June 13, 1853.

Continued deterioration in the Meredith marriage culminated in Mary's 1858 elopement Wallis. While Meredith never forgave Mary, his books suggest that he seems to have understood what drove her to elopement. In 1861, Mary died from what was probably a form of Bright's disease. Despite his resentment over the desertion, George had grudgingly allowed Arthur to visit his mother, especially during her last days. 


Anonymous said...

Jim, you might be interested to scan this for some of your unfound musings.

It includes In 1861, Mary Ellen Meredith died from what was probably a form of Bright's disease. George had never forgiven her for her desertion, but he grudgingly allowed Arthur to visit his mother, especially during her last days.

And also, the delicious fact that Meredith's seemingly autobiographical novel The Ordeal of Richard Feverel contained the dastardly Diaper Sandoe as the standin for Wallis :)

ps I feel Evan's contribution to your earlier post is more deserving of acknowledgement!

Anonymous said...

Also, see


Jim Belshaw said...

I should indeed have mentioned Evan kvd! Thanks for the links. V interesting. Will add updated postscript. Mary seems to have been a tad unlucky in life and love. Diaper Sandow! That is indeed a delicious piece of trivia.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Chatterton wrote, well, forged his earliest medieval romances in an attic room in the wonderful St Mary's Redcliffe, in Bristol. He wrote on medieval paper that he found (ie stole) from a forgotten muniments chest in the church. St Mary's is fantastic; well worth a visit for anyone lucky enough to spend some time in Bristol.

She survived Nazi bombing, contains William Penn's funerary achievements, housed Chatterton, and was the home of the church cat. For many years the eponymous moggie lived in and around the church. He was particularly fond of church music, and would sit quietly but attentively on the organ bench. When he died, after years of faithful service, he was interred in the churchyard. His tomb slab is simply engraved with 'The Church Cat'.

Jim Belshaw said...

Nice comment, JCW. Beyond the link to Chatterton, I hadn't of St Mary's Redcliffe. It is clearly worth a visit - - apart from the story of The Church Cat, another example of a species much loved by a certain JCW!