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Art Treasures opened

Jonathan Schofield's fortnightly focus on works at MAG's Art Treasures: 150 years on

Written by . Published on October 31st 2007.

Art Treasures opened

Name of the work: Chatterton (painted 1856).

The artist: Henry Wallis (1830-1916): a Pre-Raphaelite painter and writer.

Is the guy on bed sleeping a hangover off? Shame on you. He’s dead. This is a story of doomed youth, early death, of promise and talent nipped in the blood. You know the thing: the James Dean effect, the Busby Babes tragedy, Monroe, even the ex-Princess of Wales.

Got you. So what was so special about Chatterton? He was a poet, he was seventeen when he died, and he was good despite his tender years. He wrote under his own name and also as Thomas Rowley, in a weird medievalist manner, and gained early recognition. But this was the problem. He got praise but he was still desperately poor. Disillusioned in the way only a teenager can be, he did himself in with arsenic on 24 August 1770. A little later poets such as Shelley and Coleridge got hold of his poor thin corpse (metaphorically of course), gave it a shake and re-invented the sad lad as a symbol of the struggling artist.

Good story: what’s this got to do with Art Treasures? Lots, first off it appeared at the original 1857 event and you can see it here, on loan from the Tate, back in Manchester. But it was also the most popular painting, it was the crowd-pleaser back in the day. One person thought that people were impressed because it ‘tended to overawe and exalt the mind’. In otherwords it appealed to the melodramatic mood of the time and it was an image which drew immediate sympathy. The suicide of the young is always desperately sad, the suicide of the good-looking, talented young has always had the same effect, right or wrong, multiplied by ten.

I think he looks a bit like a girl. That androgeny was part of it. This imagined picture of Chatterton, in an age of high mortality rates, covered all the bases. Wallis wanted people to feel moved, and he succeeded – hence he left out the small detail that arsenic poisoning is messy, lots of vomit, blood and all that. He played fast and easy in others ways too, and people loved it. They loved the torn writings of unfulfilled genius (what joys could Chatterton have delivered if he'd lived?), the poison bottle rolled away from his dying arm, the open window from which his soul had escaped, the distant view of London, where he should have become celebrated. Shall I tell you what the really ironic thing is?

I’m sure you will. Too right. Well Chatterton was largely forgotten until Wallis painted this picture. Meanwhile Wallis, an average Pre-Raphaelite painter has largely been forgotten as a painter except for this painting. It’s only this picture which gives either men any lasting fame.

Art Treasures in Manchester :150 years on is the biggest exhibition Manchester Art Gallery has held since it re-opened in 2002. It marks the anniversary of the first major block-buster art exhibition, held in Old Trafford in 1857. The Exhibition runs until 27 January 2008.

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BillyOctober 31st 2007.

Poor Tommy, now he'd have some facebook friends and housing benefits. It's hard being a broke artist these days.

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