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Monday, May 2, 2016

Henry Wallis

Roman Theatre, Taormina, attributed to Henry Wallis
Copyright, Jim Lane
Picture Taormina, 2012, Jim Lane 
I always get something of a thrill when I come upon a painting done a century or two ago of a place in Europe which I've personally visited. That was the case a few days ago when I found Roman Theatre, Taormina (above), attributed to Henry Wallis. For those who have never heard of Taormina or Henry Wallis, let me explain. Taormina is easy, it's a small touristy town perched about halfway up a small, coastal mountain about halfway down the southern coast of Sicily between Messina and Catania. If that doesn't help much, Messina is an industrial city just across the narrow passage from the toe of the Italian boot. Catania is a little larger than Taormina just past Mount Etna. Both places would be in deep lava if the volcano ever blew its top. Henry Wallis is more difficult to explain; I'll get to him later. Taormina in a pretty little town, elongated, stretching a mile or so from a set of elevators going down about five stories to a parking garage designed for tourists cars and buses to keep them off the narrow, totally inadequate streets of the two-thousand-year old vacation spot. Taormina was founded by the Greeks, remodeled by the Romans, and expanded by virtually invading hoard to come along since then. At the upper (northern) end of the pedestrian friendly town is a Roman theater (likely Greek originally) now mostly in ruins. Our British painter, Henry Wallis, probably around 1900, climbed up the grassy hill overlooking the theater (and much of the lovely coast), set up his easel, and applied paint to canvas. Now why didn't I think of that? (I painted the town square (above, left) instead.)

Gerard Johnson Carving Shakespeare's Funerary Monument, 1857, Henry Wallis
Henry Wallis
Henry Wallis was born in London in 1830. His father is unknown. In 1845 his mother married Andrew Wallis, a prosperous London architect, at which time Henry took his stepfather's surname. The young Wallis' artistic training was quite thorough. He was admitted as a probationer to the Royal Academy Painting School in 1848. Later he studied in Paris at Gleyre's atelier and at the Academie des Beaux Arts between the years 1849 and 1853. Around 1857, heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Wallis painted Gerard Johnson Carving Shakespeare's Funerary Monument, (above). The work is so similar in style, composition, and content as to be easily confused with the work of John Everett Millais' as seen in his Christ in the House of his Parents (scroll down).

The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born, 1853, Henry Wallis
Shakespeare's House, Stratford
upon Avon, 1856, Henry Wallis
As one might guess, Henry Wallis was a great admirer of William Shakespeare as seen in his 1853 painting The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born, (above). One wonders why he didn't furnish the place more completely in an authentic Elizabethan manner using a little Shakespearean cre-ativity. A bed would have been a nice touch. Wallis certainly held nothing back when it came to his 1856 painting Shakespeare's House, Stratford upon Avon (left). The skull must have been left over from a recent production of Hamlet. The dog may be a reference to Crab in Two Gentlemen from Verona. Notwithstanding his infatuation with Shakespeare, Henry Wallis' most famous painting is of the 18th-century English poet, Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide at the age of seventeen. Titled The Death of Chatterton (below) and dating from 1856, the Tate now owns the original. However, the painting proved so popular Wallis made and sold two smaller versions, currently held by the Birmingham Museum Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art. The figure of the poet was modelled by the young poet, George Meredith. (Wallis later had an affair with Meredith's wife.)

Thomas Chatterton was an impoverished, teenaged poet who took his own life at the age of seventeen by drinking arsenic. Later generations of similarly under-appreciated young artists came to idolize him in much the same manner as more recent fans have Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley.
About the same time, Wallis also painted The Stonebreaker (below), from 1857. It turned out to be far less popular than The Death of Chatterton, prompting Wallis to comment that, "Dead poets are more saleable than dead laborers." Wallis himself died in 1916. He was eighty-six.

The Stonebreaker, 1857, Henry Wallis

Portrait of Mary Ellen Meredith,
the artist's wife. He married her twice.
(Don't ask, it's a long story.)



  1. Thank you again for such an interesting article. I read it in a pause between my classes and enjoyed this moment very much thanks to you.

  2. Constantin--

    My thanks to you for following my writings.