2020 marks 250 years since the death of Bristol-born poet Thomas Chatterton. A Poetic City is a multi-partner, city-wide programme led by Bristol Cultural Development Partnership (BCDP) that explores the legacy of this iconic literary figure.
(An image popularly identified as that of Thomas Chatterton, Bristol Reference Library BRL327 – actually based on a portrait by J Morris of his own son)
A Poetic City builds on existing knowledge of Chatterton’s life and times; celebrates Bristol’s current vibrant and diverse poetry scene; and aims to inspire poets of the future.
Chatterton’s story also provides an opportunity to examine a range of contemporary themes such as: artistic credulity and credibility; fake news and fake art; young artists; arts and mental health; on-going barriers to accessing culture in the city; the nature of celebrity; the resurrection of the Gothic; and the nurturing of creativity.
The programme was launched in February 2020. Key milestone dates at which most projects were due to converge were in March (Lyra poetry festival), September (Bristol Open Doors) and October-November (Bristol Poetry Institute Annual Reading, the University of Bristol Autumn Art Lectures and Chatterton’s birthday). The Covid 19 situation has necessitated several changes to the timetable with some events moving online and the possible extension of the programme into early 2021.
- Romantic Bristol: Writing the City – creating two new interpretation layers to this free smartphone app: one on Chatterton and one on contemporary poetic responses to his life and work.
- The Poetic City Comic and A Poetic City Poetry Anthology – two new publications distributed free across the city.
- Writers in residence at Royal West of England Academy, St Mary Redcliffe, Glenside Hospital Museum and Red Lodge.
- Piloting of a new interpretation scheme for the Chatterton room at St Mary Redcliffe.
- Gathering of ideas for a new Chatterton sculpture commission.
- Development of new tourism content on the theme of Literary Bristol.
- Suicide awareness programme at Glenside Hospital Museum.
- Exhibition at the RWA centred on Henry Wallis’ painting ‘The Death of Chatterton‘.
- Special themed events within the Bristol Festival of Ideas, including partnering with the Bristol Poetry Institute Annual Reading.
- A wide range of talks, workshops, panel discussions, walking tours, poetry readings, and symposiums.
News of events and other activity will be regularly posted on the A Poetic City Facebook page and in the Festival of Ideas blog, along with links to background material (both historic and current-day).
Follow the project on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolPoeticCity
Supporters and partners/
A Poetic City is supported by funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, using money raised by National Lottery players
The steering group includes representatives of organisations who will deliver key areas of activity. Among these are Bristol Culture (Bristol Archives, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, M Shed), Bristol Libraries, Destination Bristol, Glenside Hospital Museum, Literature Works, Lyra poetry festival, the Royal West of England Academy, St Mary Redcliffe and the University of Bristol (Bristol Poetry Institute, School of Art History).
A Poetic City follows previous commemorative partnership programmes coordinated by BCDP, using historic events to explore present-day issues and contribute to the shaping of the future. They include Bristol2014, the largest regional First World War centenary programme, and Homes for Heroes 100, celebrating 100 years of council housing estates.
(North Porch, St Mary Redcliffe, from John Britton’s history of the church published 1813, Special Collections, University of Bristol Library, Restricted C514. The Muniments Room – now known as the Chatterton Room – is above the porch.)
Thomas Chatterton was born on 20 November 1752 at the schoolmaster’s house of Pile Street School, Bristol where his late father had taught writing. In January 1753, he moved with his widowed mother, Sarah, and sister, Mary, to an elderly relation’s home on Redcliffe Hill. His mother supported the family from the pittance she earned as a seamstress and sewing mistress. Chatterton was sent to Pile Street School as a pupil when he was five years old, but he was soon asked to leave having been assessed by his teacher as too ‘dull’ to teach. He was instead taught to read by his mother at home.
In 1760, he became a blue-coated charity pupil at Colston’s School. Aged ten, he joined two of the city’s circulating libraries and became a keen and wide-ranging reader. A favourite reading spot was by the Canynges’ tomb in St Mary Redcliffe church. Aged 14, he was apprenticed as a legal scrivener (a copier of papers) to the attorney John Lambert and regularly met with literary-minded fellow apprentices in a local tavern. The group referred to themselves as the ‘Spouting Club’.
Chatterton was fascinated by the medieval period. He was inspired by the fifteenth-century manuscripts his late father had taken from St Mary Redcliffe when researching the Chatterton family history and began creating his own mock-medieval parchments. He invented the character of Thomas Rowley, a medieval monk whose varied workload allowed Chatterton to generate fictional maps, correspondence, business accounts, verse and research notes. He produced a mixture of what he claimed was original material and his transcriptions of other documents he had discovered. Some today would suggest that he was an imaginative creative writer rather than a forger.
In the light of his ‘discoveries’, Chatterton was taken under the wing of a local antiquarian book collector, George Symes Catcott, and was introduced to William Barrett, who was working on a history of Bristol. Barrett accepted many of Chatterton’s invented stories at face value, incorporating them into what he had hoped would be a definitive account of the city. Chatterton also attempted to engage the interest of the writer and politician Horace Walpole. However, Walpole showed the examples of manuscripts he had been sent to the poet Thomas Gray who declared them to be forgeries.
In his own right Chatterton was also writing love poems (often written to order), eulogies, elegies, bawdy doggerel, political letters, satires, anti-slavery poems, short narratives and descriptive verse.
Chatterton consistently derided Bristol as a degraded city of commerce in comparison with the Bristowe he had imagined in the guise of Rowley as a fantastic city of light. His general disdain for the mercantile city was offset by his admiration for Bristol’s civic heritage; the work of such charitable local merchants as William Canynge (an actual historical figure who had a fictional friendship with Rowley); his home district of Redcliffe; and the church of St Mary Redcliffe itself.
Bristol had a thriving, culturally diverse intellectual and artistic life in the late eighteenth century but Chatterton was excluded from the more influential circles. This was in part due to class barriers but also because of Chatterton’s ambition to be an independent, professional writer rather than someone dependent on a wealthy patron or who wrote as a leisure pursuit.
Chatterton left Bristol for London on 24 April 1770. He had been released from his apprenticeship; was frustrated with his lowly social position; and believed that his genius had been spurned in his home city. He was impatient for recognition. Friends raised five guineas to help him on his way.
Chatterton died at his lodgings on Brooke Street, London on 24 August 1770. To some extent it could be argued that Chatterton’s lasting fame is dependent on his early death, as depicted in Henry Wallis’ painting ‘The Death of Chatterton’ (1856), now in the collection of Tate Britain. The fact he was buried on sacred ground in a mass grave at Shoe Lane Workhouse cemetery might indicate that his death was not considered to be suicide at the time. It was probably the result of an accidental overdose of arsenic and opium for medicinal purposes (he was being treated for ‘the pox’). Although poor, he was not destitute as he had been busy earning money for contributions to various political and satirical journals, as well as drafting burlesque plays and musical comedy dramas.
In a letter home he had written:
Bristol’s mercenary walls were never destined to hold me – There, I was out of my element; now I am in it – London! Good God! how superior is London to that despicable place Bristol – here is nothing of your little meanesses, none of your mercenary securities which disgrace that miserable Hamlet.
However, the suicide story continues to persist because it accords so well with the notion of the misunderstood, self-destructive genius. His youth adds to the poignancy of the myth.
In 1777, the first collected edition of Rowley’s poetry was published, edited by Thomas Tyrwhitt, who had come to have his doubts about the works’ authenticity but whose introduction to the book refrained from declaring them to be modern forgeries. He waited until the third edition before making this statement – by 1782 it was generally acknowledged they were fakes. A collection of Chatterton’s work under his own name – Miscellanies in Prose and Verse – was published in 1778.
Chatterton’s death intrigued the Romantic poets who followed a generation later and Bristol-born Poet Laureate Robert Southey, among others, tended to play up Chatterton’s supposed mental anguish as an explanation – and excuse – for his eccentricities and martyrdom. For them the suicide story was highly probable. They also valued Chatterton’s championing of the pastoral and of antiquity at a time of increasing industrialisation and as a reaction against the Age of Reason. More importantly, they were inspired by the creative powers evident in his imagining of a new Bristol.
The rise of Romanticism in Bristol – beginning with the publication by Joseph Cottle of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 – marked the start of a new era of ideas and literary enthusiasms in the city.