If people have heard of Bristol-born eighteenth-century poet Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770), it is most often in terms of his tragic death aged just 17—as depicted in an oil painting by Henry Wallis (Fig.1). This famous painting is also coming to the RWA in Bristol from 7-18 October. For too long this has been the case, overlooking what is an actually fascinating life; Chatterton not only a likely child prodigy born into poverty, but a poet, political writer and forger; often going under the pen name of an imaginary fifteenth-century monk Thomas Rowley, and trying to pass off his work as from that era!

Fig.1: Henry Wallis, Chatterton. 1856. N01685. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wallis-chatterton-n01685; Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Image: Fig.1

Chatterton’s remarkable talent, imagination and determination in the face of adversity makes him a fascinating figure in his own right—as upheld by A Poetic City, Bristol’s varied programme of events and works exploring Chatterton’s legacy, led by Bristol Cultural Development Partnership (BCDP). 2020 after all marks 250 years since his death, and this article will explore the history and character of Chatterton, as well as exciting new ways the public can learn more about him and get involved in A Poetic City.

A Poetic City’s programme explores the contemporary relevance of the themes of Chatterton’s work, ranging from poetry itself to hard-hitting discussion around mental health and suicide; with a suicide awareness programme being developed with Glenside Hospital Museum.  For example, poet Caroline Burrows teamed up with the Museum to create #PoetryHelps, launching on National Suicide Prevention Day: 10 September. There is also a virtual online exhibition hosted by Bristol Libraries, exploring the material on Chatterton in its collection, and a number of poets will also become Writer in Residence of historic Bristol locations. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a number of challenges, A Poetic City is still delivering a varied programme, with many more virtual events and exhibitions, online readings and exchanges of ideas to come.

A key highlight is two future publications on Chatterton, one of which is The Chatterton Comic with beautiful illustrations by Willem Hampson, due out later this year and will be distributed for free. The other is the highly-anticipated Bristol: A Poetic City poetry anthology, developed over the course of lockdown and set to be published imminently. The anthology of exciting new work has involved 12 commissioned poets in total, 6 from Bristol and 6 from further afield, responding to the iconic Henry Wallis painting ‘The Death of Chatterton’. It has been made possible with support from LYRA—Bristol’s Poetry Festival, and also funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund. Although Covid-19 restrictions mean that some of the plans for physical distribution have been altered, the anthology will be available in PDF format on the Festival of Ideas website and confirmation of where hard copies will be stocked, is due by early October.

The poets involved in the upcoming anthology are Josie Alford, Rachael Boast, Malaika Kegode, Caleb Parkin, Tom Sastry, Rebecca Tantony, Anthony Anaxagorou, Emily Berry, Keith Karrett, Fran Lock, Theresa Lola and Chris McCabe. Haunt Bristol spoke to a number of them, to find out more, with some of the writers already familiar with Chatterton when they started, whilst others had never heard of him before. According to Chris McCabe:

“I have a deeply personal connection to Chatterton and it is Chatterton's life and work that has informed my sense of Bristol. On my wedding day in 2004 I received a gift from my wife of Chatterton's Selected Poems and the book is now one of the treasures in my collection. Ten years later, I visited Bristol for the first time to take part in an event in the Arnolfini, staying with a friend-of-a-friend in a room overlooking the River Avon. The next morning I had some time before my train to explore the city, so I walked straight to St Mary Redcliffe church to get a sense of the place that was so important to Chatterton. While I was there I wrote a poem addressed to him, which means we have been involved in a conversation for quite some time. Trying to catch-up with Chatterton's medieval inventions is one of my great joys.”

Meanwhile, Rebecca Tantony reflected:

“I barely knew anything beyond a name. Engaging with Chatterton's work has allowed me to think deeper with regards to the many lives lived in this city, and the million artistic creations born out of that living.”

Caleb Parkin also added:

“I didn't know that much about Chatterton, apart from noticing what used to be his house, and was then a cafe, and is now a closed cafe, I think, near Temple Meads. Having read some of his work, I can appreciate the artistry and his ability to mimic a style, although it's quite hard to get into! For me, being able to engage with the painting, as a re-presentation of the idea of Chatterton, was the really interesting part, and the aspect which fuelled my poem. I'm interested in ekphrastic writing (i.e. poems about artwork).

“This led me to think about self-presentation and masculinities. The figure of Chatterton has, perhaps, been co-opted into a particular way of seeing the Artist, or Poet, as well as youth and a romanticised idea of the impoverished (young, male) poet...Every time I engage in research and writing of this kind, it deepens and enriches my connection to a place, to the dialogues between art forms and across time that poetry can create.​”

But what about Chatterton himself? Chatterton’s interest in forgery highlights his ambitious and daring style, notably an approach he was not conditioned into, but instead driven by his own determination. Born in 1752 to a single mother (his father died just months earlier), he grew up in poverty, before being enrolled into a Bristol charity school, where the education was limited. These provisions evidently weren’t enough for young Chatterton, who by the age of 8 was said to enjoy reading and writing all day independently, and by 11 was contributing articles to the Bristol Journal, seeking out new books to read wherever he could.

During these formative years Chatterton also developed a fascination with the Church of St Mary, Redcliffe, where his uncle was the Sexton. It was after all a place where various literary materials could be accessed, including Bibles (which Chatterton read thoroughly), as well as historic artefacts—the boy reportedly fascinated by the historic inscriptions and designs on tombs, furniture and the wider architecture of the church. In the Muniment Room of the church, Chatterton’s father discovered a range of medieval parchments hidden in some oak chests, and it was these that became the inspiration for his medieval-styled mysteries and the forged identity of Thomas Rowley he would go onto create.

In 1769 Chatterton, aged 16, approached one of the most significant and well-known supporters of the Gothic, Horace Walpole (1717–97) who not only built his own Gothic villa, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, but he also penned a Gothic novel: The Castle of Otranto (published Christmas Eve 1764). Chatterton, over the course of a number of letters, sent and sought Walpole’s help in publishing the fragments of his Rowleian poetry (and the select work of others from the fifteenth century). Walpole, however, wasn’t convinced by the manuscripts’ authenticity. He refused to offer the support that Chatterton was after, and Chatterton’s Rowley corpus wasn’t published until 1777—7 years after his death.

Fig.2: Thomas Chatterton, Canynges’ Feast. Image in Public Domain.

Image: Fig.2

Chatterton’s poetic forgeries were hardly credible as fifteenth-century relics, even though a number of people went to lengths to attempt to prove their authenticity. Indeed, they follow the polished formula of eighteenth-century poetry, but the words are replaced by older examples, and there is a widespread revision of spelling (including doubling up on letters, substituting letters, and also sprinkling the letter ‘e’ liberally through words). Deciphering the text is a real challenge.

Not only was he interested in poetry, but also by other medieval arts, including heraldry. Calligraphy was also crucial to his forgery of the poetry; he adopted a curious historic script in which to write what he claimed was material from the fifteenth century. (Fig.2)

The centrality of such art forms to his forgeries is clearly demonstrated in Richard Jeffreys Lewis’s painting, Chatterton Composing the Rowley Manuscripts. Prints made after this painting were in circulation, and the teenage Chatterton is at the centre of the composition (Fig.3). Loose fragments, including depicting heraldry, are found all around, as are large books and collections of manuscripts. In the foreground is the fabled chest that his father liberated from St Mary, Redcliffe, and the church’s tower can be seen through the window behind Chatterton. This really sums up the Gothic nature of his impostures.

Dead at seventeen, Chatterton was at first considered a rogue and scoundrel for having made these forgeries, but soon his reputation became that of a child genius. How could, for example, a sixteen-year-old child create such fantastic historical impostures? Today, he is remembered as a genius, and one with a prodigious imagination and capacity for learning.

Fig.3: Edward McInnes after Richard Jeffreys Lewis’s Chatterton Composing the Rowley Manuscripts. 1846. 2010,7081.7504. © Trustees of the British Museum, London; (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Image: Fig.3

To stay updated with A Poetic City, visit the website, follow the project on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolPoeticCity and there is also a Facebook page, with regular updates. You can also read more about Thomas Chatterton and his connections to Bristol in this earlier Visit Bristol article.

Image credits

Fig.1: Henry Wallis, Chatterton. 1856. N01685. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wallis-chatterton-n01685; Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).

Fig.2: Thomas Chatterton, Canynges’ Feast. Image in Public Domain.

Fig.3: Edward McInnes after Richard Jeffreys Lewis’s Chatterton Composing the Rowley Manuscripts. 1846. 2010,7081.7504. © Trustees of the British Museum, London; (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).


‘Furious, Wild and Young': The Death of Chatterton at RWA
‘Furious, Wild and Young': The Death of Chatterton at RWA

A unique opportunity to see a painting that created a sensation when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, and was described by leading Victorian art critic John Ruskin as ‘faultless and wonderful’.

Royal West of England Academy
Royal West of England Academy of Arts Ruffin-Ferraby-Taylor-LLP

Bristol's first art gallery, housing over 1200 works of art from 19th century to the present day, a coffee shop and a small gift shop.