Iconic Moment No. 18
Chatterton's Death - Accident or Suicide?
Age: 17 years 9 months, Brooke Street, Holborn
Chatterton was found dead on the morning of the 24th August 1770
Did he commit suicide or was he self-medicating and his death a horrible accident? And was it really as romantic an event as depicted in Wallis's painting or, in reality, more like the depiction in Bartolozzi's engraving?
Herbert Croft is writing in the guise of James Hackman, when he describes how strongly he felt when he visited the room Chatterton died in. It is on page 223 of the 1786 fifth edition of his book Love and Madness, (p.198 in the, 1780, fourth edition):
The two engravings on The Death of Chatterton, are an example of the confusion running throughout the Chatterton story, but if you think that the confusion or obfuscations ended when the 20th century arrived you would be wrong - so, part of our brief, is to cut through the confusion and discover the truth of it!
We all know that George Meredith was the model for Wallis's famous painting; but did you know that the gruesome image with the rats, by Bartolozzi, which was listed as The Death of Chatterton by the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, is not a representation of the death of Chatterton at all - or is it? It was engraved for the poem Retirement by James Henry Leigh Hunt, and can be seen in his book Juvenilia, 1802 - but, but, but, we could confirm the truth of it if we had sight of Raphael Lamar West's original painting, with whatever title he gave it
You can now add the delightful little watercolour by John Absolon, 1815-1895, to the list. It was up for sale during 2020, and was listed by the auctioneer as 'The Death of Chatterton' simply because someone had written that title on the back of it.
It is actually a watercolour with the title 'The First Night in a Convent'. The model lying in the Chatterton pose, is actually a young nun - and she is sleeping, not dying!
Now take a look at the manuscript below; it is by the hand of Rev. Michael Lort and records a conversation he had with Mr Cross the apothecary. I will put the whole document on in due course - with a transcript. In the mean time, here's Meyerstein quoting Lort from this very document: 'Mr Cross says he [Chatterton] had the foul disease which he wd cure himself and had calomel and vitriol of Cross for that purpose who cautioned him against the too free use of these particularly the latter'
Rev. Lort's Ms. re Cross & Chatterton
Was Chatterton buried in a pauper's grave in London, or was he brought back to Bristol and buried in the family grave in St Mary Redcliffe church? The general consensus is a pauper's grave in the Shoe Lane Workhouse burial ground. Some questions remain unsolvable, but Sherlock Homes had the right idea; 'when you have excluded the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth'. I only mention Holmes because there is a scene in a Sherlock Holmes movie with Sherlock lying on a bed in an attic room in the Wallis pose.
In Flux and Subject to Collaboration -
Howe woe-be-gone, how withered, forwynd, deade! (.Q.)