The painting I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today interests me on three counts. Firstly, I stood in front of the original two days ago when I visited the Walker Gallery in Liverpool. Secondly, I made many trips on ships to La Spezia in Italy and suffered the ferocity of the storms in the Gulf of Genoa as well as spending many afternoons with glasses of chilled wine on the beachfronts at Lerici and Viareggio, which is the setting for the painting. Last but not least, our country is currently embroiled in newspaper scandals and journalistic wrongdoings and I am reminded of the cynical journalistic saying that one doesn’t want to let truth ruin a good story. When I look at today’s painting and realise how Fournier has not let the truth interfere with his pictorial rendition of the story of Shelley’s funeral. He has depicted the setting not based on true happenings but what in his mind made a “good painting”. The painting, which hangs in the Liverpool Walker Gallery, is entitled The Funeral of Shelley and the artist, Louis Édouard Fournier which he completed in 1889 and which was to become one of his most famous works.
Firstly, let me give you a brief outline on the life and death of the famous poet. Percy Bysshe Shelley, born in 1792, the eldest of six children, was to become one of the greatest English Romantic poets of all time. His fame was further enhanced by his close friendship with his fellow giants of the poetic world, John Keats and Lord Byron. Shelley continually courted scandal and would have been a great asset and a target for the current tabloid press and paparazzi. He endured an unhappy existence at Eton College where he was continually ostracised by his fellow students. He performed poorly but still managed to be accepted at the University College Oxford. His tenure there was curtailed after just a year when he was expelled for publishing a controversial pamphlet entitled The Necessity for Atheism.
Four months after his expulsion from the university, which destroyed his relationship with his father, he eloped and married a sixteen year-old schoolgirl Harriet Westbrook. Although the couple had a daughter, Ianthe, the marriage was a disaster, mainly due to Shelley’s attitude to life and to his wife. After three years of marriage, Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife and ran away with another young girl, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the sixteen year old daughter of William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movemen,t and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. The three travelled to France and eventually settled in Switzerland.
In 1816 Shelley’s first wife drowned herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park London and three months later Mary Godwin became the second Mrs Shelley. Two years later the Shelleys left England and went to live in Italy. They moved around the country and for the next three years lived in a number of Italian cities including Rome and Venice and finally settled in Pisa.
In July 1822 Shelley travelled from Lerici in his 20ft schooner, Don Juan to Livorno to meet up with his friend and author,Leigh Hunt, who had just arrived in Italy in order to discuss a new literary project they were launching. The seven hour trip was made in good weather and Shelley, his ex-Royal Navy friend, Edward Williams and a young deckhand Charles Vivian made Livorno safely. However their return journey proved very different as the boat was hit by a violent storm three hours into the voyage. The sailing ship sank and the reason for this is still a matter of conjecture. Possibly the small vessel was undermanned and unable to cope with the adverse weather, possibly poor navigational and seamanship decisions were made by those on board or maybe it was down to a poor boat design. Notwithstanding all these suppositions, the boat was engulfed by large seas and sank fifteen miles off Viareggio and all on board drowned, their bodies were found washed ashore ten days later. Italian quarantine regulations stipulated cremation of such bodies and thus Shelley’s body was cremated on the beach at Viareggio.
So now let us look at Fournier’s painting. The setting is a bleak windswept beach on what looks like a dull overcast and gray day and by the way the people are dressed in heavy coats, an extremely cold day. The centre of the painting is taken up by a lit funeral pyre atop of which, lying on his back as if asleep, is the peaceful-looking dead poet. There are a number of mourners or helpers in the background but standing near the burning pyre we see three men and just to the left of this group is a woman on her knees in prayer. A coach can be observed in the background. The woman is Shelley’s widow Mary and the three men, from left to right, are his friends and fellow authors, Edward John Trelawney, Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron. So before us we have a true pictorial account of the cremation of Shelley on the cold windswept Viareggio beach, or do we?
Actually, we don’t. Fournier has used a great deal of “artistic licence” to create a very moving painting but factually it is incorrect on a number of counts and we know this from the writings of Edward Trelawney who attended the cremation. The day of Shelley’s cremation was a hot humid summer day with clear blue skies and little wind and not the cold windswept one as Fournier has depicted. Shelley was cremated on the beach at Viareggio but the depiction of him lying on top of the burning pyre almost as if asleep is false as his body had been in the water for ten days. It was bloated and a lot of his flesh had been eaten away from those parts of his body which had not been still covered by his clothes. It was known that Mary Shelley was not present at the cremation, as was the English custom, for health reasons. For Shelley’s wife Mary, life had not been easy. Her mother died ten days after giving birth to her and she herself lost three of her four children with childhood illness and in fact at the time of Shelley’s drowning she was still recovering from a miscarriage which almost ended her own life. Edward Trelawney in his book, ‘Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron’ wrote that Leigh Hunt never moved out of the carriage and Lord Byron was so shocked by the sight of the body and because of the oppressive high temperature of the day withdrew and went swimming in the sea.
Shelley had in many English circles made himself very unpopular with his subversive and atheistic views and utterings and his death at the time was not greeted with universal sorrow. In the conservative newspaper of the time, The Courier, his demise was reported with some sarcasm stating:
“….Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or not….”
In the course of looking at numerous paintings I have seen many idealised landscapes which are made up of various settings morphed into one beautiful location. We have seen portraits which have been altered to flatter the sitter so I suppose we should not condemn Fournier out of hand for his depiction of the Shelley’s funeral as his soul aim was to create a moving and poignant pictorial account of that special day and this I believe he has achieved.