Thomas Griffiths Wainewright was one of the most mysterious and compelling figures of the Romantic era. He was a painter, critic, essayist, associate of Fuseli and Blake, friend of Hazlitt and Lamb, and one of the most monumental egos in an age famous for its swelled heads. He was also a forger and a fraud, and probably the murderer of his wife's mother and sister. He spent the last decade of his life a convict in Tasmania. Most of his friends and associates disowned him, and his work was largely forgotten. The legacy of Wainewright's crimes, not to mention his self-possession, have not fallen into complete obscurity, however. They inspired Bulwer-Lytton's novel Lucretia, Dickens' short story Hunted Down, as well as the characters Jonas in Martin Chuzzlewit, and Rigaud in Little Dorrit, and more recently, Australian novelist Hal Porter's The Tilted Cross. Wainewright is probably best known as the leering central figure of Oscar Wilde's impish study, "Pen, Pencil, and Poison," which aligns genius of grace, style, and artistic accomplishment with an avowed tendency toward imitation and forgery and a sinister delight in intrigue and crime.
A fitting subject for a revisionist biography. But this is not exactly what Poet Laureate Andrew Motion gives us in his latest biography, Wainewright the Poisoner. Labelling his work, "an experiment," Motion offers a fictional confession for the painter-criminal, recalling in his last days the "difficulties" of his strange life. Motion attempts what has of late been so often tried, and what has, sadly, so often failed: a biography of someone we know very little about through which to pontificate on how little we can ever know about anything. Wainewright is, as Motion says, a "nothing" that is also a something, not a person, but a creation of all the forces of the post-industrial age: money, fashion, the press, the state. Motion asks some important questions: what is a person? What is art? What are guilt and crime? And if the answers are not forthcoming here, it is at least a testament to Wainewright's life and career that he affords an opportunity for the asking. It is unfortunate, though, that Motion's inquiry does not raise them much above the level of speculation.
Though he was by profession a painter, Wainewright cut a profoundly literary figure. He was born in 1794, at Linden House in the fashionable London suburb of Chiswick. His mother, of whom we learn nothing other than that she was a devoted reader of Locke, died in childbirth. His father died before he was nine (p. 12). His grandfather was Thomas Griffiths, founding editor of the Monthly Review, friend of Samuel Johnson and patron of Oliver Goldsmith. Wainewright was educated at the school of Dr. Charles Burney, brother of Fanny. Burney's program was almost solely based on the imitation and memorization of the classics. The ample library and entrancing environs of the school helped relieve much of the boredom and tyranny the students faced in the classroom. While at school, Wainewright discovered a penchant for caricature and painting, and, having been encouraged in this line by Burney, was placed under the tutelage of John Linnell, best known to us now as the close friend and associate of William Blake. He was then apprenticed to the portraitist Thomas Phillips. Under Phillips, Wainewright had his first "Romantic" encounter. He produced two portraits of Lord Byron while the poet was sitting for Phillips. Byron apparently admired a pair of yellow gloves that Wainewright had taken to wearing in imitation of Byron himself.
Following an unmemorable stint in the army, Wainewright met and married Eliza Ward. The couple moved to London where Wainewright quickly established himself as an artist and gadfly. He joined the circle of painters around Henry Fuseli at the Royal Academy. By this time Fuseli was already well established in the art world for such intense and imaginative paintings as The Nightmare and The Lazar House. For Motion, writing as Wainewright, Fuseli's style symbolizes the simultaneously spiritual and "sinister" aspects of Wainewright's self-fashioning:
The visionary power of his work created a dimness, a bloodless pallor, a mental blight which was visible to the corporal senses... Recollect how the damsel [in The Nightmare] slumps upon her bed, while the vile incubus gloats over her. Poor unprotected girl! Recollect then how the demon is the product of her own brain, and no one will be amazed that my Professor was called the Painter in Ordinary to the Devil.p. 68
At Fuseli's studio, Wainewright befriended Blake, becoming an ardent admirer and collector of his work, and Theodore Von Holst, with whom Wainewright produced some of the most evocative and erotic art of the period. Wainewright's sisters-in-law, Helen and Madeline Abercrombie, became two of Fuseli's best known models, the former posing for the well-known Undine.
In 1822, Wainewright was invited by John Scott to contribute to his new journal, the London Magazine. Modelled in part on the meandering prose of Laurence Sterne, "my beloved Yorick," and penned under the pseudonyms Janus Weathercock, Cornelius Van Hinckbooms, Egomet Bonmot, Wainewright's articles in the London give voice to the contradictions of Romantic art and letters. With these alter-egos, Wainewright could shift easily from one perspective to another, underscoring, Motion argues, a dynamic sense of self, mind, and expression which is also the subject of many of the essays. Wainewright lambastes current art exhibitions for their monotony and sameness, and celebrates Renaissance art, especially Michelangelo and Marlowe, for its vigour and originality. Through Scott, Wainewright met many of the leading lights of the later Romantic scene: Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, John Clare, Barry Cornwall, Thomas Noon Talfourd, Henry Carey, Thomas De Quincey. These friendships attest to Wainewright's intellectual prominence, however short lived. The contradictory positions that they collectively represent suggests an agility and mobility in Wainewright's own thinking that is the often unspoken trademark of the Romantic consciousness itself.
Wainewright's downfall came in the midst of his success, as downfalls often do. It had one cause: money. In July 1822 and then again in May 1823, short of cash and desperate for credit, Wainewright presented a note of power of attorney containing the forged signatures of his uncle and cousins to the Bank of England to procure the principal of an inheritance of £5000 that had been held in trust for him since his Grandfather's death. When that same uncle died, Wainewright inherited the family home, Linden House, and, he presumed, the family fortune. Sadly, ease and comfort continued to elude, the family fortune being considerably less than Wainewright had been led to believe. He was forced to go further into debt, and when income was not forthcoming, to give up his beloved estate and the better part of his famed collection.
At this point in the tale, things become somewhat vague. Wainewright's mother-in-law, Mrs. Abercrombie, herself encumbered by financial woes, was forced to sell her rooming-house and, with her son and two daughters, moved to Linden House in 1828. She died soon after in horrific convulsions caused by a mysterious stomach ailment. After losing the house, the family was forced to move back to London. Promising that they would soon leave the country, Wainewright duped his wife and sisters into a series of elaborate insurance frauds. Eliza and Helen took out a series of life policies with a number of different companies. A week later, Helen took deathly ill with symptoms very like her mother's and died, apparently having been poisoned by an unhealthy combination of oysters and stout. The inquest determined the cause of death to be misadventure. Although he collected several hundred pounds from his sister's policies, it was not enough to satisfy his creditors, and, in the meantime, Helen's sister Madeline married one of them and began to pressure Wainewright to hand over to her the proceeds of Helen's policies, as Helen had apparently written in her last will. Wainewright fled to France.
His flight reawakened suspicions about the mysterious circumstances of the deaths. He was finally apprehended in May 1837 and sent to Newgate prison. The evidence against him in the murder cases was, however, insufficient for trial. Strychnine, the poison that the court suspected Wainewright of using was by this time readily available, but it was difficult to detect forensically. Even the testimony of the family servant was circumstantial. Instead, Wainewright was convicted of the forgery committed seven years before, though he insisted on his innocence on the principle of being heir-at-law. Although he was initially assured of leniency in the case, given the nature of the inheritance and the lapse of time, justice was severe. He was transported to Hobart town, Van Dieman's Land in July 1837. He never returned.
The final section of the book on Wainewright's incarceration is illuminating and interesting. The description of life on board the prison "hulks" is extremely compelling, not least because it is a relatively little-known but very prevalent aspect of early-nineteenth-century life. Wainewright started his new life on a chain gang, and, after a lengthy illness, became a hospital orderly. In spite of his frustration, he held the doctors and the citizens of the town who befriended him in high regard, and they returned the compliment. In 1844, having served six years, and with the blessings of the colonial government, Wainewright applied for a ticket-of-leave. His official imprisonment was rescinded, but he could not leave the island. Instead he returned to painting, producing some lively and graceful portraits of the colonial citizenry of Hobart Town. He died there in August 1847.
It is for its overriding sense of the tenuousness of both its subject and its mandate that Wainewright the Poisoner caused something of a stir when it was published in the UK. Little specific historical information about Wainewright has survived the nineteenth century, at least, Motion claims, not enough to establish definitive proof of Wainewright's guilt in the murders for which he has become so notorious. Not so, opines Marc Vaubert de Chantilly, an antiquarian book-seller, Wainewright researcher, and self-proclaimed "biographical purist." Upwards of 300 documents relating the details of Wainewright's life and crimes are available at the London public records office and at libraries and archives across Britain. Of particular note is a "virtual confession" to the home secretary written by Wainewright as he awaited deportation to Van Dieman's Land: "Am I, " he asked, "to hear farther... on the subject of my giving a full account and revelation of the circumstances [of the deaths]... I am ready & can point out the places where Medicines were procured &c. &c. It will—you must see—complete the affair..." As reported in The Manchester Guardian, Motion countered that this confession, as well as a number of other attempts by the prosecution to ascribe to him the utterance of his own guilt, do not establish any clear indication that Wainewright intended to indict himself. Motion did not, as the press intimated, make up any part of Wainewright's story. On the contrary, such accusations are merely puritanical outrage. Motion's purpose was "to employ various imaginative ways of bringing my subject back to life... Truth can be very slippery and many faceted and certainly was in the case of Wainewright" (The Guardian, Feb 26, 2000, p. 3).
Slippery indeed. For this is no biography in the traditional sense. Nowhere in Wainewright the Poisoner is there evidence of the comprehensiveness of detail and minutia that made Keats and Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life such successful if conventional life studies. And that is exactly the point. What we get is precisely what Motion's Wainewright tells us we will get: "Not the whole truth (for such a thing is impossible), and not the only truth (ditto), but not a lie" (p. 3). To judge Motion purely on the basis of documentation is, therefore, to do this book a disservice. Motion seems to want to make us confront the deeper facts of life-writing, other than those of dates and times and names, the facts that all life-writing is to a great extent fiction just as all lives are to some extent inventions. Was Wainewright a murderer? Almost certainly. Yet Motion's Wainewright does everything he can to cloud the circumstances of the deaths. The title, Wainewright the Poisoner does not so much reveal the fact of Wainewright's guilt, but rather mocks ironically our assurance of his guilt after a century-and-a-half of legal and fictional speculation. The disingenuousness of Motion's Wainewright is part and parcel of our own fascination with such mysterious figures and our inability to come to any consensus about their deeds or motives:
There we were over Southwark Bridge, and properly on our way. At this point I stopped paying attention to my surroundings. The feeling that had been swelling within me ever since leaving Newgate, the feeling that each turn of the wheels was severing me from the past, was now so strong I truly believed I had become a stranger to myself. In a final, appalling conflagration, the faces of my friends spun through the mists behind me, whizzing up into the heavens and vanishing. Whirling around them, in a million particles of dust and ashes, ascended everything that had been my pride and joy. Shards of my beautiful china. Scraps of prints I had almost blinded myself by gazing upon. Paint flecks and graphite fragments of my treasures by Fuseli and Blake. Canvas threads from Holst, who took me in when the rest of the world spurned me. All gone into oblivion. All blast out of my life. My love for them, which I had trusted would prove a right to possession, had turned out to be worth nothing. I myself was nothing. A nothing manacled and shamed, with no voice left to influence what might become of me.pp. 8-9
Perhaps the greatest insight of the book is that the modern condition is itself a product the culture of money, print, and fashion which in our more confident moments we seek to repudiate.
By the same token, the lesson of life-scripting that Wainewright teaches is that form is very much the foundation of essence. A true biography, Motion insists, must be conscious of this. In the forward (a tantalizing essay in itself), Motion openly pits his semi-fictional portrait of Wainewright against "the juggernaut of nineteenth-century studies" and its dismissal of Wainewright as "a cardboard villain with artistic pretensions and a pair of fancy moustaches" (p. xvii). Motion offers instead "a mixture of different forms—some imaginative, some factual... dedicated to rescuing Wainewright from obscurity, and to bringing him back to life as a plausible and dynamic force" (p. xviii). As he explains, "unless biographers are prepared to think differently about their work, [Wainewright] is likely to stay... over-simplified and demonized, his once vivid experience faded, his art ignored, his voice lost, his role in the lives of more famous contemporaries overlooked." our responsibility to history includes a duty to forgotten lives" (p. xvii). This is not an attempt to obscure biographical fact; it is an attempt to reinvent biography.
Certainly the intent of Motion's "mixture" is worthy. The problem is that while forcing both the fiction and the biography card Motion never quite decides what game he actually wants to play. As a work of fiction, the confessional narrative suffers from a high degree of pretentiousness. It is just too reflective, too critical. As Motion explains, many of the words he "borrows" for the biography come from Wainewright's own surviving writings. Fair enough. But this does not stop the fictional confession from tending toward late-twentieth-century truism and cliché. "It is a curious thing," Motion's Wainewright ponders, "but when I look back through my life, some parts of it are strange, and others familiar, regardless of their actual distance from me" (p. 48). For Motion, Wainewright is not simply an under-appreciated Romantic painter and critic, but the existential hero of the modern era, moving, or perhaps caught, amidst the preoccupations not necessarily of his, but definitely of our age: art and ennui, memory and experience, image and truth: "If I am vain today about my success, it will avail me nothing—and lose me nothing.... the honour I crave—the honour everyone here craves—turns out to be nothing more than the fate of being squashed and squeezed into invisibility, jostled and jangled into blindness, seen and not to be seen" (pp. 121-2).
To be fair, the writing is far from bad. The account of the boredom and intermittent violence on board the prison hulks which transported British convicts to Botany Bay and Australia is particularly notable for its grimness. Wainewright's recurrent surprise at the turns of his adventures is also refreshingly sincere:
The shock of this discovery [that Van Dieman's Land was hospitable] was soon assimilated, only to be replaced by another and differently disturbing notion. This island, this Sodom of misery and epitome of vice, this satellite of humanity, where inhumanity flourished: it was beautiful!p. 223
Motion is, of course, describing Wainewright himself, a beautiful lost soul in an island of suffering and violence. There are also occasionally brilliant touches of Motion's poetic fancy. "What the world sees when it looks at a man is a sort of nothing, if all it sees are the busy moments of the day. It is a simplification of the truth. It is the rind of the apple, not the flesh and the pips; the shell, not the sweet nut within; the visible top of the iceberg, not the gloomy, vast, and sub-aqueous mass" (p. 149).
Nevertheless, for those of us who have spent serious time thinking about the modern condition, such sentiments do seem a trifle obvious. Indeed, as a biography, the tone is frequently too contemplative to be convincing. Most, if not all, of the factual information about Wainewright and his life is found or embellished in Motion's copious notes, printed at the end of each chapter. Moving back and forth between text and notes is something that one grows accustomed to in academic criticism, and one is never sorry to be able to consult documented sources. But here the notes take up practically as many pages as the text itself and the constant shuttling back and forth often disrupts Motion's otherwise fluid ruminations in the character of Wainewright. Frequently, these notes become fully fledged essays in themselves. In one, for instance, Motion speculates on the lack of secure evidence at Wainewright's trial. Having established, moreover that Wainewright never confessed leads to a meditation of "TGW's preoccupation with the Self, and with nothing" (p. 173), which leads in turn to remarks on the Romantics' "interest in extreme states of mind" and that "they formed a powerful cocktail which—when mixed with the personal causes of his own ‘giddiness', and with the influence of Fuseli and Holst—created a climate of sinister possibilities" (p. 174). All riveting stuff, if one is penning detective stories. But in reducing the Romantic imagination to a bloody mary, Motion completely distorts its complexity, its implications, and Wainewright's contributions to our understanding of it.
No doubt Motion intended this study for a general readership, though his dig at "the juggernaut of nineteenth-century studies" suggests at least some willingness to engage with his fellow literary researchers. The book's value, all experimentation aside, lies in its enlivening of the art and publishing worlds and the horrors of the legal and prison systems, subjects that remain very much on the margins of Romanticism proper. Appreciating Wainewright not just as a proto- or post-Romantic, but as an early Tasmanian painter, and a fine one at that, goes a long way to bringing to light areas of study that we might otherwise avoid. Perhaps what is needed is the serious study of Wainewright's life and art that Motion did not write.