Pen, Pencil, And Poison - A Study In Green

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It has constantly been made a subject of reproach against artists
and men of letters that they are lacking in wholeness and
completeness of nature. As a rule this must necessarily be so.
That very concentration of vision and intensity of purpose which is
the characteristic of the artistic temperament is in itself a mode
of limitation. To those who are preoccupied with the beauty of
form nothing else seems of much importance. Yet there are many
exceptions to this rule. Rubens served as ambassador, and Goethe
as state councillor, and Milton as Latin secretary to Cromwell.
Sophocles held civic office in his own city; the humourists,
essayists, and novelists of modern America seem to desire nothing
better than to become the diplomatic representatives of their
country; and Charles Lamb's friend, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright,
the subject of this brief memoir, though of an extremely artistic
temperament, followed many masters other than art, being not merely
a poet and a painter, an art-critic, an antiquarian, and a writer
of prose, an amateur of beautiful things, and a dilettante of
things delightful, but also a forger of no mean or ordinary
capabilities, and as a subtle and secret poisoner almost without
rival in this or any age.

This remarkable man, so powerful with 'pen, pencil and poison,' as
a great poet of our own day has finely said of him, was born at
Chiswick, in 1794. His father was the son of a distinguished
solicitor of Gray's Inn and Hatton Garden. His mother was the
daughter of the celebrated Dr. Griffiths, the editor and founder of
the Monthly Review, the partner in another literary speculation of
Thomas Davis, that famous bookseller of whom Johnson said that he
was not a bookseller, but 'a gentleman who dealt in books,' the
friend of Goldsmith and Wedgwood, and one of the most well-known
men of his day. Mrs. Wainewright died, in giving him birth, at the
early age of twenty-one, and an obituary notice in the Gentleman's
Magazine tells us of her 'amiable disposition and numerous
accomplishments,' and adds somewhat quaintly that 'she is supposed
to have understood the writings of Mr. Locke as well as perhaps any
person of either sex now living.' His father did not long survive
his young wife, and the little child seems to have been brought up
by his grandfather, and, on the death of the latter in 1803, by his
uncle George Edward Griffiths, whom he subsequently poisoned. His
boyhood was passed at Linden House, Turnham Green, one of those
many fine Georgian mansions that have unfortunately disappeared
before the inroads of the suburban builder, and to its lovely
gardens and well-timbered park he owed that simple and impassioned
love of nature which never left him all through his life, and which
made him so peculiarly susceptible to the spiritual influences of
Wordsworth's poetry. He went to school at Charles Burney's academy
at Hammersmith. Mr. Burney was the son of the historian of music,
and the near kinsman of the artistic lad who was destined to turn
out his most remarkable pupil. He seems to have been a man of a
good deal of culture, and in after years Mr. Wainewright often
spoke of him with much affection as a philosopher, an
archaeologist, and an admirable teacher who, while he valued the
intellectual side of education, did not forget the importance of
early moral training. It was under Mr. Burney that he first
developed his talent as an artist, and Mr. Hazlitt tells us that a
drawing-book which he used at school is still extant, and displays
great talent and natural feeling. Indeed, painting was the first
art that fascinated him. It was not till much later that he sought
to find expression by pen or poison.

Before this, however, he seems to have been carried away by boyish
dreams of the romance and chivalry of a soldier's life, and to have
become a young guardsman. But the reckless dissipated life of his
companions failed to satisfy the refined artistic temperament of
one who was made for other things. In a short time he wearied of
the service. 'Art,' he tells us, in words that still move many by
their ardent sincerity and strange fervour, 'Art touched her
renegade; by her pure and high influence the noisome mists were
purged; my feelings, parched, hot, and tarnished, were renovated
with cool, fresh bloom, simple, beautiful to the simple-hearted.'
But Art was not the only cause of the change. 'The writings of
Wordsworth,' he goes on to say, 'did much towards calming the
confusing whirl necessarily incident to sudden mutations. I wept
over them tears of happiness and gratitude.' He accordingly left
the army, with its rough barrack-life and coarse mess-room tittle-
tattle, and returned to Linden House, full of this new-born
enthusiasm for culture. A severe illness, in which, to use his own
words, he was 'broken like a vessel of clay,' prostrated him for a
time. His delicately strung organisation, however indifferent it
might have been to inflicting pain on others, was itself most
keenly sensitive to pain. He shrank from suffering as a thing that
mars and maims human life, and seems to have wandered through that
terrible valley of melancholia from which so many great, perhaps
greater, spirits have never emerged. But he was young--only
twenty-five years of age--and he soon passed out of the 'dead black
waters,' as he called them, into the larger air of humanistic
culture. As he was recovering from the illness that had led him
almost to the gates of death, he conceived the idea of taking up
literature as an art. 'I said with John Woodvil,' he cries, 'it
were a life of gods to dwell in such an element,' to see and hear
and write brave things:-


'These high and gusty relishes of life
Have no allayings of mortality.'


It is impossible not to feel that in this passage we have the
utterance of a man who had a true passion for letters. 'To see and
hear and write brave things,' this was his aim.

Scott, the editor of the London Magazine, struck by the young man's
genius, or under the influence of the strange fascination that he
exercised on every one who knew him, invited him to write a series
of articles on artistic subjects, and under a series of fanciful
pseudonym he began to contribute to the literature of his day.
Janus Weathercock, Egomet Bonmot, and Van Vinkvooms, were some of
the grotesque masks under which he choose to hide his seriousness
or to reveal his levity. A mask tells us more than a face. These
disguises intensified his personality. In an incredibly short time
he seems to have made his mark. Charles Lamb speaks of 'kind,
light-hearted Wainewright,' whose prose is 'capital.' We hear of
him entertaining Macready, John Forster, Maginn, Talfourd, Sir
Wentworth Dilke, the poet John Clare, and others, at a petit-diner.
Like Disraeli, he determined to startle the town as a dandy, and
his beautiful rings, his antique cameo breast-pin, and his pale
lemon-coloured kid gloves, were well known, and indeed were
regarded by Hazlitt as being the signs of a new manner in
literature: while his rich curly hair, fine eyes, and exquisite
white hands gave him the dangerous and delightful distinction of
being different from others. There was something in him of
Balzac's Lucien de Rubempre. At times he reminds us of Julien
Sorel. De Quincey saw him once. It was at a dinner at Charles
Lamb's. 'Amongst the company, all literary men, sat a murderer,'
he tells us, and he goes on to describe how on that day he had been
ill, and had hated the face of man and woman, and yet found himself
looking with intellectual interest across the table at the young
writer beneath whose affectations of manner there seemed to him to
lie so much unaffected sensibility, and speculates on 'what sudden
growth of another interest' would have changed his mood, had he
known of what terrible sin the guest to whom Lamb paid so much
attention was even then guilty.

His life-work falls naturally under the three heads suggested by
Mr. Swinburne, and it may be partly admitted that, if we set aside
his achievements in the sphere of poison, what he has actually left
to us hardly justifies his reputation.

But then it is only the Philistine who seeks to estimate a
personality by the vulgar test of production. This young dandy
sought to be somebody, rather than to do something. He recognised
that Life itself is in art, and has its modes of style no less than
the arts that seek to express it. Nor is his work without
interest. We hear of William Blake stopping in the Royal Academy
before one of his pictures and pronouncing it to be 'very fine.'
His essays are prefiguring of much that has since been realised.
He seems to have anticipated some of those accidents of modern
culture that are regarded by many as true essentials. He writes
about La Gioconda, and early French poets and the Italian
Renaissance. He loves Greek gems, and Persian carpets, and
Elizabethan translations of Cupid and Psyche, and the
Hypnerotomachia, and book-binding and early editions, and wide-
margined proofs. He is keenly sensitive to the value of beautiful
surroundings, and never wearies of describing to us the rooms in
which he lived, or would have liked to live. He had that curious
love of green, which in individuals is always the sign of a subtle
artistic temperament, and in nations is said to denote a laxity, if
not a decadence of morals. Like Baudelaire he was extremely fond
of cats, and with Gautier, he was fascinated by that 'sweet marble
monster' of both sexes that we can still see at Florence and in the
Louvre.

There is of course much in his descriptions, and his suggestions
for decoration, that shows that he did not entirely free himself
from the false taste of his time. But it is clear that he was one
of the first to recognise what is, indeed, the very keynote of
aesthetic eclecticism, I mean the true harmony of all really
beautiful things irrespective of age or place, of school or manner.
He saw that in decorating a room, which is to be, not a room for
show, but a room to live in, we should never aim at any
archaeological reconstruction of the past, nor burden ourselves
with any fanciful necessity for historical accuracy. In this
artistic perception he was perfectly right. All beautiful things
belong to the same age.

And so, in his own library, as he describes it, we find the
delicate fictile vase of the Greek, with its exquisitely painted
figures and the faint [Greek text which cannot be reproduced]
finely traced upon its side, and behind it hangs an engraving of
the 'Delphic Sibyl' of Michael Angelo, or of the 'Pastoral' of
Giorgione. Here is a bit of Florentine majolica, and here a rude
lamp from some old Roman tomb. On the table lies a book of Hours,
'cased in a cover of solid silver gilt, wrought with quaint devices
and studded with small brilliants and rubies,' and close by it
'squats a little ugly monster, a Lar, perhaps, dug up in the sunny
fields of corn-bearing Sicily.' Some dark antique bronzes contrast
with the pale gleam of two noble Christi Crucifixi, one carved in
ivory, the other moulded in wax.' He has his trays of Tassie's
gems, his tiny Louis-Quatorze bonbonniere with a miniature by
Petitot, his highly prized 'brown-biscuit teapots, filagree-
worked,' his citron morocco letter-case, and his 'pomona-green'
chair.

One can fancy him lying there in the midst of his books and casts
and engravings, a true virtuoso, a subtle connoisseur, turning over
his fine collection of Mare Antonios, and his Turner's 'Liber
Studiorum,' of which he was a warm admirer, or examining with a
magnifier some of his antique gems and cameos, 'the head of
Alexander on an onyx of two strata,' or 'that superb altissimo
relievo on cornelian, Jupiter AEgiochus.' He was always a great
amateur of engravings, and gives some very useful suggestions as to
the best means of forming a collection. Indeed, while fully
appreciating modern art, he never lost sight of the importance of
reproductions of the great masterpieces of the past, and all that
he says about the value of plaster casts is quite admirable.

As an art-critic he concerned himself primarily with the complex
impressions produced by a work of art, and certainly the first step
in aesthetic criticism is to realise one's own impressions. He
cared nothing for abstract discussions on the nature of the
Beautiful, and the historical method, which has since yielded such
rich fruit, did not belong to his day, but he never lost sight of
the great truth that Art's first appeal is neither to the intellect
nor to the emotions, but purely to the artistic temperament, and he
more than once points out that this temperament, this 'taste,' as
he calls it, being unconsciously guided and made perfect by
frequent contact with the best work, becomes in the end a form of
right judgment. Of course there are fashions in art just as there
are fashions in dress, and perhaps none of us can ever quite free
ourselves from the influence of custom and the influence of
novelty. He certainly could not, and he frankly acknowledges how
difficult it is to form any fair estimate of contemporary work.
But, on the whole, his taste was good and sound. He admired Turner
and Constable at a time when they were not so much thought of as
they are now, and saw that for the highest landscape art we require
more than 'mere industry and accurate transcription.' Of Crome's
'Heath Scene near Norwich' he remarks that it shows 'how much a
subtle observation of the elements, in their wild moods, does for a
most uninteresting flat,' and of the popular type of landscape of
his day he says that it is 'simply an enumeration of hill and dale,
stumps of trees, shrubs, water, meadows, cottages and houses;
little more than topography, a kind of pictorial map-work; in which
rainbows, showers, mists, haloes, large beams shooting through
rifted clouds, storms, starlight, all the most valued materials of
the real painter, are not.' He had a thorough dislike of what is
obvious or commonplace in art, and while he was charmed to
entertain Wilkie at dinner, he cared as little for Sir David's
pictures as he did for Mr. Crabbe's poems. With the imitative and
realistic tendencies of his day he had no sympathy and he tells us
frankly that his great admiration for Fuseli was largely due to the
fact that the little Swiss did not consider it necessary that an
artist should paint only what he sees. The qualities that he
sought for in a picture were composition, beauty and dignity of
line, richness of colour, and imaginative power. Upon the other
hand, he was not a doctrinaire. 'I hold that no work of art can be
tried otherwise than by laws deduced from itself: whether or not
it be consistent with itself is the question.' This is one of his
excellent aphorisms. And in criticising painters so different as
Landseer and Martin, Stothard and Etty, he shows that, to use a
phrase now classical, he is trying 'to see the object as in itself
it really is.'

However, as I pointed out before, he never feels quite at his ease
in his criticisms of contemporary work. 'The present,' he says,
'is about as agreeable a confusion to me as Ariosto on the first
perusal. . . . Modern things dazzle me. I must look at them
through Time's telescope. Elia complains that to him the merit of
a MS. poem is uncertain; "print," as he excellently says, "settles
it." Fifty years' toning does the same thing to a picture.' He is
happier when he is writing about Watteau and Lancret, about Rubens
and Giorgione, about Rembrandt, Corregio, and Michael Angelo;
happiest of all when he is writing about Greek things. What is
Gothic touched him very little, but classical art and the art of
the Renaissance were always dear to him. He saw what our English
school could gain from a study of Greek models, and never wearies
of pointing out to the young student the artistic possibilities
that lie dormant in Hellenic marbles and Hellenic methods of work.
In his judgments on the great Italian Masters, says De Quincey,
'there seemed a tone of sincerity and of native sensibility, as in
one who spoke for himself, and was not merely a copier from books.'
The highest praise that we can give to him is that he tried to
revive style as a conscious tradition. But he saw that no amount
of art lectures or art congresses, or 'plans for advancing the fine
arts,' will ever produce this result. The people, he says very
wisely, and in the true spirit of Toynbee Hall, must always have
'the best models constantly before their eyes.'

As is to be expected from one who was a painter, he is often
extremely technical in his art criticisms. Of Tintoret's 'St.
George delivering the Egyptian Princess from the Dragon,' he
remarks:-


The robe of Sabra, warmly glazed with Prussian blue, is relieved
from the pale greenish background by a vermilion scarf; and the
full hues of both are beautifully echoed, as it were, in a lower
key by the purple-lake coloured stuffs and bluish iron armour of
the saint, besides an ample balance to the vivid azure drapery on
the foreground in the indigo shades of the wild wood surrounding
the castle.


And elsewhere he talks learnedly of 'a delicate Schiavone, various
as a tulip-bed, with rich broken tints,' of 'a glowing portrait,
remarkable for morbidezza, by the scarce Moroni,' and of another
picture being 'pulpy in the carnations.'

But, as a rule, he deals with his impressions of the work as an
artistic whole, and tries to translate those impressions into
words, to give, as it were, the literary equivalent for the
imaginative and mental effect. He was one of the first to develop
what has been called the art-literature of the nineteenth century,
that form of literature which has found in Mr. Ruskin and Mr.
Browning, its two most perfect exponents. His description of
Lancret's Repas Italien, in which 'a dark-haired girl, "amorous of
mischief," lies on the daisy-powdered grass,' is in some respects
very charming. Here is his account of 'The Crucifixion,' by
Rembrandt. It is extremely characteristic of his style:-


Darkness--sooty, portentous darkness--shrouds the whole scene:
only above the accursed wood, as if through a horrid rift in the
murky ceiling, a rainy deluge--'sleety-flaw, discoloured water'--
streams down amain, spreading a grisly spectral light, even more
horrible than that palpable night. Already the Earth pants thick
and fast! the darkened Cross trembles! the winds are dropt--the air
is stagnant--a muttering rumble growls underneath their feet, and
some of that miserable crowd begin to fly down the hill. The
horses snuff the coming terror, and become unmanageable through
fear. The moment rapidly approaches when, nearly torn asunder by
His own weight, fainting with loss of blood, which now runs in
narrower rivulets from His slit veins, His temples and breast
drowned in sweat, and His black tongue parched with the fiery
death-fever, Jesus cries, 'I thirst.' The deadly vinegar is
elevated to Him.

His head sinks, and the sacred corpse 'swings senseless of the
cross.' A sheet of vermilion flame shoots sheer through the air
and vanishes; the rocks of Carmel and Lebanon cleave asunder; the
sea rolls on high from the sands its black weltering waves. Earth
yawns, and the graves give up their dwellers. The dead and the
living are mingled together in unnatural conjunction and hurry
through the holy city. New prodigies await them there. The veil
of the temple--the unpierceable veil--is rent asunder from top to
bottom, and that dreaded recess containing the Hebrew mysteries--
the fatal ark with the tables and seven-branched candelabrum--is
disclosed by the light of unearthly flames to the God-deserted
multitude.

Rembrandt never painted this sketch, and he was quite right. It
would have lost nearly all its charms in losing that perplexing
veil of indistinctness which affords such ample range wherein the
doubting imagination may speculate. At present it is like a thing
in another world. A dark gulf is betwixt us. It is not tangible
by the body. We can only approach it in the spirit.


In this passage, written, the author tells us, 'in awe and
reverence,' there is much that is terrible, and very much that is
quite horrible, but it is not without a certain crude form of
power, or, at any rate, a certain crude violence of words, a
quality which this age should highly appreciate, as it is its chief
defect. It is pleasanter, however, to pass to this description of
Giulio Romano's 'Cephalus and Procris':-


We should read Moschus's lament for Bion, the sweet shepherd,
before looking at this picture, or study the picture as a
preparation for the lament. We have nearly the same images in
both. For either victim the high groves and forest dells murmur;
the flowers exhale sad perfume from their buds; the nightingale
mourns on the craggy lands, and the swallow in the long-winding
vales; 'the satyrs, too, and fauns dark-veiled groan,' and the
fountain nymphs within the wood melt into tearful waters. The
sheep and goats leave their pasture; and oreads, 'who love to scale
the most inaccessible tops of all uprightest rocks,' hurry down
from the song of their wind-courting pines; while the dryads bend
from the branches of the meeting trees, and the rivers moan for
white Procris, 'with many-sobbing streams,'


Filling the far-seen ocean with a voice.


The golden bees are silent on the thymy Hymettus; and the knelling
horn of Aurora's love no more shall scatter away the cold twilight
on the top of Hymettus. The foreground of our subject is a grassy
sunburnt bank, broken into swells and hollows like waves (a sort of
land-breakers), rendered more uneven by many foot-tripping roots
and stumps of trees stocked untimely by the axe, which are again
throwing out light-green shoots. This bank rises rather suddenly
on the right to a clustering grove, penetrable to no star, at the
entrance of which sits the stunned Thessalian king, holding between
his knees that ivory-bright body which was, but an instant agone,
parting the rough boughs with her smooth forehead, and treading
alike on thorns and flowers with jealousy-stung foot--now helpless,
heavy, void of all motion, save when the breeze lifts her thick
hair in mockery.

From between the closely-neighboured boles astonished nymphs press
forward with loud cries -


And deerskin-vested satyrs, crowned with ivy twists, advance;
And put strange pity in their horned countenance.


Laelaps lies beneath, and shows by his panting the rapid pace of
death. On the other side of the group, Virtuous Love with 'vans
dejected' holds forth the arrow to an approaching troop of sylvan
people, fauns, rams, goats, satyrs, and satyr-mothers, pressing
their children tighter with their fearful hands, who hurry along
from the left in a sunken path between the foreground and a rocky
wall, on whose lowest ridge a brook-guardian pours from her urn her
grief-telling waters. Above and more remote than the Ephidryad,
another female, rending her locks, appears among the vine-festooned
pillars of an unshorn grove. The centre of the picture is filled
by shady meadows, sinking down to a river-mouth; beyond is 'the
vast strength of the ocean stream,' from whose floor the
extinguisher of stars, rosy Aurora, drives furiously up her brine-
washed steeds to behold the death-pangs of her rival.


Were this description carefully re-written, it would be quite
admirable. The conception of making a prose poem out of paint is
excellent. Much of the best modern literature springs from the
same aim. In a very ugly and sensible age, the arts borrow, not
from life, but from each other.

His sympathies, too, were wonderfully varied. In everything
connected with the stage, for instance, he was always extremely
interested, and strongly upheld the necessity for archaeological
accuracy in costume and scene-painting. 'In art,' he says in one
of his essays, 'whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing
well'; and he points out that once we allow the intrusion of
anachronisms, it becomes difficult to say where the line is to be
drawn. In literature, again, like Lord Beaconsfield on a famous
occasion, he was 'on the side of the angels.' He was one of the
first to admire Keats and Shelley--'the tremulously-sensitive and
poetical Shelley,' as he calls him. His admiration for Wordsworth
was sincere and profound. He thoroughly appreciated William Blake.
One of the best copies of the 'Songs of Innocence and Experience'
that is now in existence was wrought specially for him. He loved
Alain Chartier, and Ronsard, and the Elizabethan dramatists, and
Chaucer and Chapman, and Petrarch. And to him all the arts were
one. 'Our critics,' he remarks with much wisdom, 'seem hardly
aware of the identity of the primal seeds of poetry and painting,
nor that any true advancement in the serious study of one art co-
generates a proportionate perfection in the other'; and he says
elsewhere that if a man who does not admire Michael Angelo talks of
his love for Milton, he is deceiving either himself or his
listeners. To his fellow-contributors in the London Magazine he
was always most generous, and praises Barry Cornwall, Allan
Cunningham, Hazlitt, Elton, and Leigh Hunt without anything of the
malice of a friend. Some of his sketches of Charles Lamb are
admirable in their way, and, with the art of the true comedian,
borrow their style from their subject:-


What can I say of thee more than all know? that thou hadst the
gaiety of a boy with the knowledge of a man: as gentle a heart as
ever sent tears to the eyes.

How wittily would he mistake your meaning, and put in a conceit
most seasonably out of season. His talk without affectation was
compressed, like his beloved Elizabethans, even unto obscurity.
Like grains of fine gold, his sentences would beat out into whole
sheets. He had small mercy on spurious fame, and a caustic
observation on the FASHION FOR MEN OF GENIUS was a standing dish.
Sir Thomas Browne was a 'bosom cronie' of his; so was Burton, and
old Fuller. In his amorous vein he dallied with that peerless
Duchess of many-folio odour; and with the heyday comedies of
Beaumont and Fletcher he induced light dreams. He would deliver
critical touches on these, like one inspired, but it was good to
let him choose his own game; if another began even on the
acknowledged pets he was liable to interrupt, or rather append, in
a mode difficult to define whether as misapprehensive or
mischievous. One night at C-'s, the above dramatic partners were
the temporary subject of chat. Mr. X. commended the passion and
haughty style of a tragedy (I don't know which of them), but was
instantly taken up by Elia, who told him 'THAT was nothing; the
lyrics were the high things--the lyrics!'


One side of his literary career deserves especial notice. Modern
journalism may be said to owe almost as much to him as to any man
of the early part of this century. He was the pioneer of Asiatic
prose, and delighted in pictorial epithets and pompous
exaggerations. To have a style so gorgeous that it conceals the
subject is one of the highest achievements of an important and much
admired school of Fleet Street leader-writers, and this school
Janus Weathercock may be said to have invented. He also saw that
it was quite easy by continued reiteration to make the public
interested in his own personality, and in his purely journalistic
articles this extraordinary young man tells the world what he had
for dinner, where he gets his clothes, what wines he likes, and in
what state of health he is, just as if he were writing weekly notes
for some popular newspaper of our own time. This being the least
valuable side of his work, is the one that has had the most obvious
influence. A publicist, nowadays, is a man who bores the community
with the details of the illegalities of his private life.

Like most artificial people, he had a great love of nature. 'I
hold three things in high estimation,' he says somewhere: 'to sit
lazily on an eminence that commands a rich prospect; to be shadowed
by thick trees while the sun shines around me; and to enjoy
solitude with the consciousness of neighbourhood. The country
gives them all to me.' He writes about his wandering over fragrant
furze and heath repeating Collins's 'Ode to Evening,' just to catch
the fine quality of the moment; about smothering his face 'in a
watery bed of cowslips, wet with May dews'; and about the pleasure
of seeing the sweet-breathed kine 'pass slowly homeward through the
twilight,' and hearing 'the distant clank of the sheep-bell.' One
phrase of his, 'the polyanthus glowed in its cold bed of earth,
like a solitary picture of Giorgione on a dark oaken panel,' is
curiously characteristic of his temperament, and this passage is
rather pretty in its way:-


The short tender grass was covered with marguerites--'such that men
called DAISIES in our town'--thick as stars on a summer's night.
The harsh caw of the busy rooks came pleasantly mellowed from a
high dusky grove of elms at some distance off, and at intervals was
heard the voice of a boy scaring away the birds from the newly-sown
seeds. The blue depths were the colour of the darkest ultramarine;
not a cloud streaked the calm aether; only round the horizon's edge
streamed a light, warm film of misty vapour, against which the near
village with its ancient stone church showed sharply out with
blinding whiteness. I thought of Wordsworth's 'Lines written in
March.'


However, we must not forget that the cultivated young man who
penned these lines, and who was so susceptible to Wordsworthian
influences, was also, as I said at the beginning of this memoir,
one of the most subtle and secret poisoners of this or any age.
How he first became fascinated by this strange sin he does not tell
us, and the diary in which he carefully noted the results of his
terrible experiments and the methods that he adopted, has
unfortunately been lost to us. Even in later days, too, he was
always reticent on the matter, and preferred to speak about 'The
Excursion,' and the 'Poems founded on the Affections.' There is no
doubt, however, that the poison that he used was strychnine. In
one of the beautiful rings of which he was so proud, and which
served to show off the fine modelling of his delicate ivory hands,
he used to carry crystals of the Indian nux vomica, a poison, one
of his biographers tells us, 'nearly tasteless, difficult of
discovery, and capable of almost infinite dilution.' His murders,
says De Quincey, were more than were ever made known judicially.
This is no doubt so, and some of them are worthy of mention. His
first victim was his uncle, Mr. Thomas Griffiths. He poisoned him
in 1829 to gain possession of Linden House, a place to which he had
always been very much attached. In the August of the next year he
poisoned Mrs. Abercrombie, his wife's mother, and in the following
December he poisoned the lovely Helen Abercrombie, his sister-in-
law. Why he murdered Mrs. Abercrombie is not ascertained. It may
have been for a caprice, or to quicken some hideous sense of power
that was in him, or because she suspected something, or for no
reason. But the murder of Helen Abercrombie was carried out by
himself and his wife for the sake of a sum of about 18,000 pounds,
for which they had insured her life in various offices. The
circumstances were as follows. On the 12th of December, he and his
wife and child came up to London from Linden House, and took
lodgings at No. 12 Conduit Street, Regent Street. With them were
the two sisters, Helen and Madeleine Abercrombie. On the evening
of the 14th they all went to the play, and at supper that night
Helen sickened. The next day she was extremely ill, and Dr.
Locock, of Hanover Square, was called in to attend her. She lived
till Monday, the 20th, when, after the doctor's morning visit, Mr.
and Mrs. Wainewright brought her some poisoned jelly, and then went
out for a walk. When they returned Helen Abercrombie was dead.
She was about twenty years of age, a tall graceful girl with fair
hair. A very charming red-chalk drawing of her by her brother-in-
law is still in existence, and shows how much his style as an
artist was influenced by Sir Thomas Lawrence, a painter for whose
work he had always entertained a great admiration. De Quincey says
that Mrs. Wainewright was not really privy to the murder. Let us
hope that she was not. Sin should be solitary, and have no
accomplices.

The insurance companies, suspecting the real facts of the case,
declined to pay the policy on the technical ground of
misrepresentation and want of interest, and, with curious courage,
the poisoner entered an action in the Court of Chancery against the
Imperial, it being agreed that one decision should govern all the
cases. The trial, however, did not come on for five years, when,
after one disagreement, a verdict was ultimately given in the
companies' favour. The judge on the occasion was Lord Abinger.
Egomet Bonmot was represented by Mr. Erle and Sir William Follet,
and the Attorney-General and Sir Frederick Pollock appeared for the
other side. The plaintiff, unfortunately, was unable to be present
at either of the trials. The refusal of the companies to give him
the 18,000 pounds had placed him in a position of most painful
pecuniary embarrassment. Indeed, a few months after the murder of
Helen Abercrombie, he had been actually arrested for debt in the
streets of London while he was serenading the pretty daughter of
one of his friends. This difficulty was got over at the time, but
shortly afterwards he thought it better to go abroad till he could
come to some practical arrangement with his creditors. He
accordingly went to Boulogne on a visit to the father of the young
lady in question, and while he was there induced him to insure his
life with the Pelican Company for 3000 pounds. As soon as the
necessary formalities had been gone through and the policy
executed, he dropped some crystals of strychnine into his coffee as
they sat together one evening after dinner. He himself did not
gain any monetary advantage by doing this. His aim was simply to
revenge himself on the first office that had refused to pay him the
price of his sin. His friend died the next day in his presence,
and he left Boulogne at once for a sketching tour through the most
picturesque parts of Brittany, and was for some time the guest of
an old French gentleman, who had a beautiful country house at St.
Omer. From this he moved to Paris, where he remained for several
years, living in luxury, some say, while others talk of his
'skulking with poison in his pocket, and being dreaded by all who
knew him.' In 1837 he returned to England privately. Some strange
mad fascination brought him back. He followed a woman whom he
loved.

It was the month of June, and he was staying at one of the hotels
in Covent Garden. His sitting-room was on the ground floor, and he
prudently kept the blinds down for fear of being seen. Thirteen
years before, when he was making his fine collection of majolica
and Marc Antonios, he had forged the names of his trustees to a
power of attorney, which enabled him to get possession of some of
the money which he had inherited from his mother, and had brought
into marriage settlement. He knew that this forgery had been
discovered, and that by returning to England he was imperilling his
life. Yet he returned. Should one wonder? It was said that the
woman was very beautiful. Besides, she did not love him.

It was by a mere accident that he was discovered. A noise in the
street attracted his attention, and, in his artistic interest in
modern life, he pushed aside the blind for a moment. Some one
outside called out, 'That's Wainewright, the Bank-forger.' It was
Forrester, the Bow Street runner.

On the 5th of July he was brought up at the Old Bailey. The
following report of the proceedings appeared in the Times:-


Before Mr. Justice Vaughan and Mr. Baron Alderson, Thomas Griffiths
Wainewright, aged forty-two, a man of gentlemanly appearance,
wearing mustachios, was indicted for forging and uttering a certain
power of attorney for 2259 pounds, with intent to defraud the
Governor and Company of the Bank of England.

There were five indictments against the prisoner, to all of which
he pleaded not guilty, when he was arraigned before Mr. Serjeant
Arabin in the course of the morning. On being brought before the
judges, however, he begged to be allowed to withdraw the former
plea, and then pleaded guilty to two of the indictments which were
not of a capital nature.

The counsel for the Bank having explained that there were three
other indictments, but that the Bank did not desire to shed blood,
the plea of guilty on the two minor charges was recorded, and the
prisoner at the close of the session sentenced by the Recorder to
transportation for life.


He was taken back to Newgate, preparatory to his removal to the
colonies. In a fanciful passage in one of his early essays he had
fancied himself 'lying in Horsemonger Gaol under sentence of death'
for having been unable to resist the temptation of stealing some
Marc Antonios from the British Museum in order to complete his
collection. The sentence now passed on him was to a man of his
culture a form of death. He complained bitterly of it to his
friends, and pointed out, with a good deal of reason, some people
may fancy, that the money was practically his own, having come to
him from his mother, and that the forgery, such as it was, had been
committed thirteen years before, which, to use his own phrase, was
at least a circonstance attenuante. The permanence of personality
is a very subtle metaphysical problem, and certainly the English
law solves the question in an extremely rough-and-ready manner.
There is, however, something dramatic in the fact that this heavy
punishment was inflicted on him for what, if we remember his fatal
influence on the prose of modern journalism, was certainly not the
worst of all his sins.

While he was in gaol, Dickens, Macready, and Hablot Browne came
across him by chance. They had been going over the prisons of
London, searching for artistic effects, and in Newgate they
suddenly caught sight of Wainewright. He met them with a defiant
stare, Forster tells us, but Macready was 'horrified to recognise a
man familiarly known to him in former years, and at whose table he
had dined.'

Others had more curiosity, and his cell was for some time a kind of
fashionable lounge. Many men of letters went down to visit their
old literary comrade. But he was no longer the kind light-hearted
Janus whom Charles Lamb admired. He seems to have grown quite
cynical.

To the agent of an insurance company who was visiting him one
afternoon, and thought he would improve the occasion by pointing
out that, after all, crime was a bad speculation, he replied:
'Sir, you City men enter on your speculations, and take the chances
of them. Some of your speculations succeed, some fail. Mine
happen to have failed, yours happen to have succeeded. That is the
only difference, sir, between my visitor and me. But, sir, I will
tell you one thing in which I have succeeded to the last. I have
been determined through life to hold the position of a gentleman.
I have always done so. I do so still. It is the custom of this
place that each of the inmates of a cell shall take his morning's
turn of sweeping it out. I occupy a cell with a bricklayer and a
sweep, but they never offer me the broom!' When a friend
reproached him with the murder of Helen Abercrombie he shrugged his
shoulders and said, 'Yes; it was a dreadful thing to do, but she
had very thick ankles.'

From Newgate he was brought to the hulks at Portsmouth, and sent
from there in the Susan to Van Diemen's Land along with three
hundred other convicts. The voyage seems to have been most
distasteful to him, and in a letter written to a friend he spoke
bitterly about the ignominy of 'the companion of poets and artists'
being compelled to associate with 'country bumpkins.' The phrase
that he applies to his companions need not surprise us. Crime in
England is rarely the result of sin. It is nearly always the
result of starvation. There was probably no one on board in whom
he would have found a sympathetic listener, or even a
psychologically interesting nature.

His love of art, however, never deserted him. At Hobart Town he
started a studio, and returned to sketching and portrait-painting,
and his conversation and manners seem not to have lost their charm.
Nor did he give up his habit of poisoning, and there are two cases
on record in which he tried to make away with people who had
offended him. But his hand seems to have lost its cunning. Both
of his attempts were complete failures, and in 1844, being
thoroughly dissatisfied with Tasmanian society, he presented a
memorial to the governor of the settlement, Sir John Eardley
Wilmot, praying for a ticket-of-leave. In it he speaks of himself
as being 'tormented by ideas struggling for outward form and
realisation, barred up from increase of knowledge, and deprived of
the exercise of profitable or even of decorous speech.' His
request, however, was refused, and the associate of Coleridge
consoled himself by making those marvellous Paradis Artificiels
whose secret is only known to the eaters of opium. In 1852 he died
of apoplexy, his sole living companion being a cat, for which he
had evinced at extraordinary affection.

His crimes seem to have had an important effect upon his art. They
gave a strong personality to his style, a quality that his early
work certainly lacked. In a note to the Life of Dickens, Forster
mentions that in 1847 Lady Blessington received from her brother,
Major Power, who held a military appointment at Hobart Town, an oil
portrait of a young lady from his clever brush; and it is said that
'he had contrived to put the expression of his own wickedness into
the portrait of a nice, kind-hearted girl.' M. Zola, in one of his
novels, tells us of a young man who, having committed a murder,
takes to art, and paints greenish impressionist portraits of
perfectly respectable people, all of which bear a curious
resemblance to his victim. The development of Mr. Wainewright's
style seems to me far more subtle and suggestive. One can fancy an
intense personality being created out of sin.

This strange and fascinating figure that for a few years dazzled
literary London, and made so brilliant a debut in life and letters,
is undoubtedly a most interesting study. Mr. W. Carew Hazlitt, his
latest biographer, to whom I am indebted for many of the facts
contained in this memoir, and whose little book is, indeed, quite
invaluable in its way, is of opinion that his love of art and
nature was a mere pretence and assumption, and others have denied
to him all literary power. This seems to me a shallow, or at least
a mistaken, view. The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing
against his prose. The domestic virtues are not the true basis of
art, though they may serve as an excellent advertisement for
second-rate artists. It is possible that De Quincey exaggerated
his critical powers, and I cannot help saying again that there is
much in his published works that is too familiar, too common, too
journalistic, in the bad sense of that bad word. Here and there he
is distinctly vulgar in expression, and he is always lacking in the
self-restraint of the true artist. But for some of his faults we
must blame the time in which he lived, and, after all, prose that
Charles Lamb thought 'capital' has no small historic interest.
That he had a sincere love of art and nature seems to me quite
certain. There is no essential incongruity between crime and
culture. We cannot re-write the whole of history for the purpose
of gratifying our moral sense of what should be.

Of course, he is far too close to our own time for us to be able to
form any purely artistic judgment about him. It is impossible not
to feel a strong prejudice against a man who might have poisoned
Lord Tennyson, or Mr. Gladstone, or the Master of Balliol. But had
the man worn a costume and spoken a language different from our
own, had he lived in imperial Rome, or at the time of the Italian
Renaissance, or in Spain in the seventeenth century, or in any land
or any century but this century and this land, we would be quite
able to arrive at a perfectly unprejudiced estimate of his position
and value. I know that there are many historians, or at least
writers on historical subjects, who still think it necessary to
apply moral judgments to history, and who distribute their praise
or blame with the solemn complacency of a successful schoolmaster.
This, however, is a foolish habit, and merely shows that the moral
instinct can be brought to such a pitch of perfection that it will
make its appearance wherever it is not required. Nobody with the
true historical sense ever dreams of blaming Nero, or scolding
Tiberius, or censuring Caesar Borgia. These personages have become
like the puppets of a play. They may fill us with terror, or
horror, or wonder, but they do not harm us. They are not in
immediate relation to us. We have nothing to fear from them. They
have passed into the sphere of art and science, and neither art nor
science knows anything of moral approval or disapproval. And so it
may be some day with Charles Lamb's friend. At present I feel that
he is just a little too modern to be treated in that fine spirit of
disinterested curiosity to which we owe so many charming studies of
the great criminals of the Italian Renaissance from the pens of Mr.
John Addington Symonds, Miss A. Mary F. Robinson, Miss Vernon Lee,
and other distinguished writers. However, Art has not forgotten
him. He is the hero of Dickens's Hunted Down, the Varney of
Bulwer's Lucretia; and it is gratifying to note that fiction has
paid some homage to one who was so powerful with 'pen, pencil and
poison.' To be suggestive for fiction is to be of more importance
than a fact.



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