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Andrew Motion, Wainewright the Poisoner. London: Faber and Faber, 2000. ISBN: 0-5711-9401-X. Price: £20 (US$26).[Record]

  • Alex Dick

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  • Alex Dick
    University of Toronto

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, …