1924-03-01, English, Article, Journal or magazine article edition: THOMAS GRIFFITHS WAINEWRIGHT (1 March 1924)

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THOMAS GRIFFITHS WAINEWRIGHT (1 March 1924)
 
Bookmark: https://trove.nla.gov.au/version/257630510
Physical Description
  • 1987 words
  • article
  • illustration
  • Journals
  • Magazines
Published
  • xna, S.U. Smith, B. Stevens and C.L. Jones, 1924-03-01
Language
  • English

Edition details

Title
  • THOMAS GRIFFITHS WAINEWRIGHT (1 March 1924)
Appears In
  • Art in Australia., no.7, 1924-03-01
Other Contributors
  • By C. MacLAURIN
Published
  • xna, S.U. Smith, B. Stevens and C.L. Jones, 1924-03-01
Physical Description
  • 1987 words
  • article
  • illustration
  • Journals
  • Magazines
Series
Part Of
  • Art in Australia.
  • Third series, No. 7 (1 March 1923)
  • Marcie Muir collection of Australian children's books.
Subjects
Summary
  • THOMAS GRIFFITHS WAINEWRIGHT By C. MacLAURIN Editor’s Note. —Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, an English subject painter, urns born towards the close of the eighteenth century. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1821 to 1825 and wrote many art criticisms for “The London Magazine” under the name of Janus Weathercock. He is chiefly notorious for his misdeeds. Accomplished as he was with pen and brush, it is to his most popular medium — strychnine—that nine—that he owes his historical reputation. Of his crimes—murder and forgery—the ivorld knows little, but for a tabulation of his virtues it is necessary to turn to the glowing account of himself in his application for ticket-of-leave after serving six and a half years of servitude in Tasmania. This application, in his own hand-writing, is here reproduced duced through the courtesy of the Mitchell Library. Unfortunately, very little information is available with regard to Wainewright’s pictures here reproduced for the first time. Most of them were executed in the presence of warders during the time he was serving a life sentence in Hobart for forgery. The originals are still in Tasmania, and the photographs were kindly procured for “Art in Australia” by Mr. Clive Turnbull from J. W. Beattie, of Hobart. N preparation for this little study I have had to read essays by three famous essayists, Wainewright himself, W. Carew Hazlitt, grandson of the critic, and Oscar Wilde; and the comparison is interesting. Wainewright’s wright’s essays, which to Charles Lamb seemed “capital,” would now to many appear rather jocose; seen through our knowledge of what Wainewright really was, they would probably be considered typical of the supposed “heartless” period of the Regency, in which, because George IV. was, to say the least of it, unconventional, we therefore assume that every man of the time must resemble him. In Hazlitt, writing in 1880, one seems to detect the trail of Thackeray, for already spots on Dickens were beginning to appear, and the great Victorian gods were beginning to tumble, probably temporarily. And since 1891 —even so recently as that —Wilde’s essay, Pen, Pencil, and Poison, already begins to seem a trifle demode, so quickly does our taste in essay change, though the paradoxes and wit still shine as brightly as in Lady Windermere’s Fan . Reading Gaol had left its mark upon him; and though later he wrote an explanation of his own life, we can trace the germs of it in his essay on Wainewright. The famous poisoner was born in 1796; his mother died in giving to him life; and ultimately he passed into the charge, first of his grandfather, father, afterwards of his uncle. He married a Miss Madeline Abercrombie, crombie, whom Hazlitt takes to have been the accomplice of his crimes, apparently on little evidence. He took to writing essays for a living, dealing with art matters under fantastic pseudonyms, such as “Janus Weathercock” and “Egomet Bonomi”; and, as I say, his style seems nowadays rather jocose than witty, though he could strike real purple patches of tenderness when he wished, and he delivered some keen criticism. But anything less like to the gentle style of Charles Lamb would be impossible to find; and yet the two were friends, at least of a sort. He collected objects of art, and really seems to have loved them, for he had undoubted taste. Like Oscar Wilde himself, he had a doctor for a father. Tiring of literature, he, like Disraeli and Wilde, thought to conquer the town by flamboyance; his beautiful rings, his antique cameo breast-pin, his luxurious scents, his gorgeous waistcoats, coats, his expensive pictures, were thought to mark a new era in writing. Then he took to forgery to pay for these wonders; and last of all hit upon the brilliant idea of insuring people for large sums, and poisoning them for the value of their policies. This he achieved with strychnine, which was then not very well understood; and his uncle, Griffiths, was the first to pay the penalty of being kind to Wainewright. Then he poisoned Helen Abercrombie, his wife’s sister, a charming and beautiful girl, who died suddenly one afternoon when his wife and he were out walking, much to Mr. Wainewright’s distress. Alas! the insurance companies would not pay up; and in the course of years —for justice in England ever walked with lagging footsteps—Wainewright wright came to gaol, not for the murders, but for his forgeries upon the Bank of England. Not being desirous of bloodshed, the bank did not prosecute so mercilessly as they were entitled to do, and no doubt the governors thought themselves mighty kind fellows for sparing a fellow-creature the gallows. They were satisfied with transportation to Tasmania, where he ultimately died of an apoplexy in 1831. To use Wilde’s phrase, he was transported for “what, if we remember his fatal influence upon the prose of modern journalism, was certainly not the worst of his sins.” It is said that his epic feats of poisoning, of which I have not troubled to narrate even the half, were but his mode of selfexpression, expression, born of his naturally artistic soul. I doubt if Wilde himself ever realised why he was put into Reading Gaol; in which ignorance he only agreed with the thoughts of a great many people ever since. In the times of Queen Elizabeth, according to the Rev. W. Harrison’s Elizabethan England , his particular offence would have been classed with atrocities like “hunting by night with painted faces” and“letting out of ponds,” and, doubtless justly, have been rewarded with “hanging, ing, bowelling and quartering,” if not burning. “Hunting by night with painted faces” may have represented a well-known London sport, * nominally abolished in Sydney, of which our soldiers were the not unwilling victims in the Waterloo and Horseferry Roads, often to their great distress later, when the germs of V.D. became active. Wainewright may have been an artist in words and with the pencil; but his chosen method of self-expression by poison was indescribably scribably stupid, not to say ugly. Nowadays it would be impossible to insure a person without “an insurable interest,” owing to the probability bility of just such crimes as his, while the selection of strychnine would be worse than stupid. Wainewright has been far too greatly admired by such as Wilde. He may have been an artist born before his time; but he was not only very ignorant of poisoning, he was a fool. And, whatever we may think of Oscar Wilde’s crime, there can be no doubt whatever that to send an unsuspecting woman into the outer dark through the hideous portals of strychnine poisoning was atrociously wicked, however we may look at it; no artistry could excuse it, and no real artist would ever dream of trying that mode of self-expression. Art, to be art, must be beautiful; and any artist who has ever seen anybody dying of strychnine will never want to see the horrid sight again ; even ultra-modern art is less beautiful. But through it all Wainewright was proud to remain a gentleman and a speculator, just like those fellows on the Stock Exchange, as he quaintly said; the only difference was that he was discovered at his speculating. To mingle with low fellows like convicts was a punishment ment to him worse than death, to use his own lament. The Rev. Harrison, writing about 1388, had not the slightest doubts about English justice; his only fear was that the punishments were too trivial. Just fancy doing no more than hang, bowel, and quarter a girl for hunting by night with painted face! Harrison is really far more * In all solemnity I should point out that “hunting by night with paynted faces” referred to a crime warded against by an "Acte of Henry VII. against unlawful hunting in forests and parks” whereby diverse murders and other inconveniences were prevented. Perhaps the young ladies of the Waterloo Road were, in the long run, nearly as murderous. amusing than Wainewright at his best, and is never jocose. The English were such brave fellows that they did not fear death, not in the least like these low foreigners. Torture was the only thing they feared, but the silly English law would not permit it, except the peine forte et dure , inflicted with the utmost horror; but that was only to obtain money for her gracious majesty, not for any less worthy motive. You can almost hear the awful adjective “unEnglish” as you read his Elizabethan pages. The reverend gentleman’s humour is quite unconscious, scious, like the humour, say, of a leader writer. Wainewright’s portraits, painted in gaol when years of good conduct had procured him some remission of the severity of his confinement, finement, are said to show the influence of his own cruel face. But it was also said that at least two fellow-prisoners had to suffer corporeally poreally for his urgent need for self-expression. I wonder how he got the necessary strychnine. In Wilde’s essay we can see the degrading influence of Reading Gaol—there can be no doubt about that, at least. And yet, did he not say in The Ballad of Reading Qaol, “for all men kill the thing they love,’’ or something like that? Sex is somehow related to art. Art is supposed to be, in Freudian phrase, a sublimation of sex. There is a perversion of male lust called Sadism, that inflicts cruelty upon the object of its love. But is it fair to classify Wainewright, who murdered his victims in cold blood, with the noble army of sadists, who, though hideously cruel even to the shedding of blood, are at least human? Was Wainewright wright afflicted by a perversion of a perversion of what in its turn is a sublimation? The brain reels at this effort of Freudian mysticism; indeed, it needs the eye of faith to perceive it, and one can well see why some doctors are calling Freud the “old mystic of Vienna.’’ Is it not simpler to say that Wainewright was merely an inhuman brute who had none of that “herd-instinct’’ which we now believe to be at the root of man’s civilisation? And, that he, fortified by the absence of that most necessary instinct, mocked at the normal men of society? As usual, the imaginative artists see more truly than truth itself, and probably R. L. Stevenson, with his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of which ghastly pair Mr. Hyde must necessarily be the conqueror, saw the depressing facts of human nature more clearly than Oscar Wilde. But Art has its limitations if Society is to remain a decent congeries of people living in peace and mutual protection. Beauty is as inexorable as sex, if man is to survive in civilisation. That is where Plato still remains our greatest teacher, and once more the wheel of speculation covers full-circles. Fac-simile reproduction of Wainewright’s application for Ticket-of-leave, from the original in the Mitchell Library, N.S.W. Drawing by T. Griffiths Wainewright of Major de Gillern, Commandant of Rocky Hills Convict Station, E. Coast, Tasmania, with Mrs. de Gillern and Miss Lucy Scott, grand-daughter of Governor Davey. This sketch was in the possession of the late Judge Adams of the Tasmanian Bench, but was stolen some years ago. Its whereabouts are now unknown. Portrait of a Young Woman. By T. Griffiths Wainewright. Portrait. By T. Griffiths Wainewright. Reproduced by courtesy of W. F. Dennis Butler, Esq. Tasmania. Portrait Group. By T. Griffiths Wainewright. Reproduced by courtesy of Harold Bisdee, Esq. Tasmania. Les Felines. Oil painting by Charles Watelet. Recently purchased for the National Art Gallery of N.S.W. Reproduced by permission of the Trustees. Entered for The Archibald Prize, 1923. Portrait of Professor Masson. Oil painting by W. B. Mclnnes. Portrait of W. Lister Lister. Oil painting tn? Lawson Balfour. Entered for the Archibald Prize, 1923. Portrait of Daryl Lindsay. Oil painting by George Bell. Entered for the Archibald Prize, 1923
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Identifier
  • N1 (LC)

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