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A Thomas Griffiths Wainewright page

writings about, and inspired by the artist, forger, poisoner

The Dictionary of National Biography (1901)

  WAINEWRIGHT, THOMAS GRIFFITHS (1794-1862), poisoner and art critic, son of Thomas Wainewright of Chelsea, by his wife Ann (1773-1794) was born at Chiswick in October 1794. His mother was the daughter Dr. Ralph Griffiths [q. v.], publisher of the 'Monthly Review,' to whom he owed his second name. Having lost both his parents in infancy, Wainewright was adopted by his grandfather, and brought up at Linden House, Turnham Green (cf. FAULKNER, Chiswick, 1845, p. 466; the house was pulled down in 1878, see PHILLIMORES Chiswick, pp. 246-8). Dr. Griffiths had not altogether approved of his daughter's marriage in 1793, and on his death in September 1803 he was careful to deduct the amount of his daughter Ann's portion from the sum in the new four per cent annuities which he bequeathed in trust to his grandson, Thomas Griffiths. The latter went to school at the well-known academy of Charles Burney, where he evinced remarkable skill as a draughtsman. On leaving school his position at Linden House served him as an introduction to literary and artistic circles, he met Fuseli and Flaxman, and he adopted the affected tone of a youthful dilettante. It seems probable that he worked for some months during 1814 in the studio of Thomas Phillips, and there is a tradition that while the academician was engaged upon the well-known portrait of Byron, Wainewright executed a less flattering likeness of the poet on his own account (see Notes and Queries, 8th ser. i. 455; Allahabad Morning Post, 26 March, 1892). Finding his apprenticeship irksome, he is said to have entered first the guards and then a yeomanry regiment; but after a brief experience of the army, in the course of which he imbibed a taste for whisky punch, he sold his commission and turned to art-journalism as a more congenial profession. A severe illness, accompanied by hypochondria and neurotic symptoms, may have contributed to this change of plan. Under the pseudonyms of Egomet Bonmot and Janus Weathercock he was a fairly frequent contributor to the 'London Magazine' from to 1820 to 1823. John Scott (1783-1821) [q.v.], the editor, knew something of Wainewright, and secured his services from the outset; and he wrote with a fluency that is often fulsome on such topics as 'Sentimentalities on the Fine Arts' and 'Dogmas for Dilettantes.' His Connection with the periodical brought him into contact with Hood, Allan Cunningham, Hazlitt, De Quincey, and Charles Lamb, who spoke of 'kind, light-hearted Wainewright' as the magazine's best stay. Such a description is a testimony to his insinuating manner. De Quincey says that there seemed a tone of sincerity and native sensibility about Wainewright's judgments upon Da Vinci, Titian, and others of the great masters, 'as in one who spoke for himself and was not merely a copier from books.' De Quincey was interested in him for this reason, and hence also came a claim upon the attention of Lamb. The verdict of other contemporaries describes him at about this time as an over-dressed young man, 'his white hands bespangled with regal rings, with an undress military air and the conversation of a smart, lively, heartless, voluptuous coxcomb.' Procter mentions among his attributes an effeminate manner, thick, sensual lips, and wavering voice, scarcely above a whisper. More singular than the verdict of Charles Lamb is the indulgent eye with which so acute a critic as Hazlitt regarded Wainewright's prose, especially when one remembers the acrimony with which he attacked the 'florid euphemisms' of 'Vivian Grey' in his essay on the 'Dandy School.' The real apostle of this school was Wainewright.

  Soon after he began writing for the 'London' Wainewright became an exhibitor at the Royal Academy, his pictures there comprising 'A Romance from Undine' (1821), 'Paris in the Chamber of Helen' (1829), ' The Milkmaid's Song' (1824), 'Scene from "Der Freisch¨tz"' (1825), 'Sketch from La Gerusalemme Liberata' (1825). He excelled, it is said, not in oils, but in watercolour and monochrome sketches and in crayon drawings. The British Museum print-room possesses a sepia drawing by him, coarse and indelicate both in subject and treatment, but by no means devoid of technical skill (it is officially entitled 'a lady passing two lovers who are seated on a bank embracing,' purchased from Mr. Phillips in 1885).

  By means of occasional work with his pen and pencil, and by now and again a smart bit of cozening in the capacity of art dealer, Wainewright endeavoured to eke out the scanty annuity of 200l. or thereabouts which he derived from the legacy of his grandfather. His normal expenses were enhanced in 1821, for in that year he married Frances Ward, the daughter by her first husband of Mrs. Abercromby, a widow residing at Mortlake. The married couple lived at Twickenham, and then in Great Marlborough Street, and we hear of Wilkie, Macready, Lamb, Talfourd, and other persons of distinction dining at their house. Wainewright had no reason to be ashamed of his cellar; he exhibited to his guests the paces of his fine horse Contributor. His inherent taste for luxury was displayed in his majolica, his proof engravings, his exotic plants, and similar foibles. The financial pressure must already have been very great when in 1826, in the names of his trustees, he forged an order upon the Bank of England to pay him a moiety of the capital sum to the interest of which alone he was entitled.

  Next year Wainewright made a final venture as an author by the publication of a curious and rare little volume, entitled 'Some Passages in the Life of Egomet Bonmot, Esq. Edited by Mr. Mwaughaim, and now first published by M E' (London, 1827, 12mo, British Museum); it consists of some forty-seven pages, of which at least forty are devoted to sneers at rival authors.

  In 1828 Wainewright and his wife were invited to go and reside under the roof of their bachelor uncle, George Edward Griffiths, at Linden House. Within a year of their going there Griffiths died 'suddenly,' and the house and property, now considerably reduced in value, passed to Wainewright, who was by this time head over ears in debt. He now arranged for his wife's mother and two half-sisters, Helen and Madeleine, to make their home at Linden House. In l830 he insured Helen's life for sums of 3,000l. and 2,000l. respectively in the Palladium and Eagle offices; the insurance in both cases covered only a short period of from two to three years. Other negotiations of a similar kind were obstructed by the 'obstinacy' of Helen's mother. Conveniently for Wainewright's purpose, she died very suddenly in August 1830. He proceeded to quadruple the amount insured, and then removed temporarily from Linden House to lodgings at 12 Conduit Street. There, on 21 Dec. (the day to which a bill of sale on Wainewright's effects had been allowed to stand over), Helen Abercromby died in great agony, the symptoms of her brief illness being described by her nurse as identical with those of her mother and George Griffiths; her age when she died was twenty-one years and nine months. Wainewright's remarkable foresight failed him in but one point; owing to the many suspicious circumstances attending the proposals made in the name of Miss Abercromby, the insurance offices refused to pay, and it was with the utmost difficulty that he managed to raise a loan of 1,000l. on the security of his claims. With what remained of this, after paying the most pressing of his creditors, he crossed over in the spring of 1831 to Boulogne. His career during the next six years is almost a blank, but he is known to have spent a considerable term in prison at Paris. The police there the conclusion of the second and fuller trial the jury (who had previously disagreed) found promptly for the defendants on the ground of misrepresentation and of Miss Abercromby having no real interest in the insurance (3 Dec. 1835; see Times, 4 Dec.)

  In June 1837 Wainewright returned to England, and shortly after his arrival in London was arrested at a Covent Garden hotel by Forrester, the Bow Street runner, upon a warrant obtained against him by the Bank of England for the forgery of 1826. He was tried at the Old Bailey on 6 July. Having pleaded guilty to uttering the forged cheque, the bank consented to waive the capital charge, and he was sentenced by the recorder to transportation to Van Diemen's Land for life. While in Newgate he was recognised by Macready, who was being shown over the gaol in company with Forster and Charles Dickens. He is stated to have tacitly admitted that he poisoned Helen Abercromby, and to have urged in extenuation that she had very thick ankles. To a Lombard Street visitor he is said to have retorted, 'Sir, you city men enter upon your speculations and take your chances of them. Some of your speculations succeed, and some fail. Mine happen to have failed.' More plaintive in tone is the Pinchbeck petition (full of maudlin 'art sentiment' and insolent twaddle about 'the ideal') addressed in 1844 to Sir John Eardley Wilmot, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen's Land. The ticket-of-leave which he petitioned for was refused. He is said to have executed a number of pastel and watercolour portraits while a convict at Hobart Town, and he died in the hospital there in 1852.

  In his supersensual propensities, his fondness for cats, and in other respects, Wainewright presents some notable points of similarity to the notorious French criminal Lacenaire. His literary talent has been exaggerated, and he has no claim whatever to rank with erratic men of genius such as Villon or Cellini, or Casanova or Verlaine. His personality has, however, attracted a good deal of attention from the modern school of criminologists as presenting a perfect example of 'the intuitive criminal' in his most highly developed state — fortunately a very rare phenomenon. His life, too, inspired some well-known fiction. In Bulwer Lytton's 'Lucretia' he appears as Varney, and Lucretia Clavering is supposed to be Mrs. Wainewright. The sight of him in Newgate and what he subsequently learned of his history suggested to Charles Dickens the melodramatic novelette 'Hunted Down.'

  A number of Wainewright's 'Essays and Criticisms,' contributed to the 'London Magazine,' were edited by Mr. W.C. Hazlitt with a biographical introduction in 1880 (London, 8vo). Opposite p. xxix appears a reproduction of a pretty head in red chalk, a drawing by Wainewright of his unhappy victim, Helen Abercromby. No portrait the murderer is known to exist.

  [Hazlitt's Introduction, 1880; Twelve Bad Men, ed. Seccombe (a detailed study of Wainewright by Mr. A.G. Allen, who compares his modus operandi with that of William Palmer, the Rugeley poisoner); Phillimore's Historical Notes on Chiswick, 1897; Talfourd's Memoirs of Charles Lamb; Macready's Diary and Reminiscences; i. 225-6, De Quincey's Works, ed. Masson, v. 246-51; B.W. Procter's Autobiographical Fragment and Notes, 1877; Vizetelly's Glances Back; Mrs. Crosland's Landmarks of a Literary Life, 1893, 105-6; Thornbury's Old Stories Retold; Ellis's Criminal, 1890, pp. 12, 96, 127, 153, 178, 195; Gent. Mag 1829, i. 189; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. i. 454, iii 307; Mémoires, Revelations et Poésies de Lacenaire, Paris, 1836; Fortnightly Review, January 1889 (an æsthetic 'study' called 'Pen, Pencil, and poison,' by Oscar Wilde).]



Gentleman's Magazine (1829-feb, i. 189)



Notes and Queries (8th S. I. June 4, 1892, pp. 454-55)

  PORTRAIT OF BYRON. — A friend of mine in India has sent me the following cutting:—

  "A picture sold at Christie's the other day has a peculiar interest. It is a portrait of Lord Byron. Whilst the poet was sitting to T. Phillips, R.A., T.G. Wainewright was assisting the artist in his studio, and painted this particular portrait on his own account. This circumstance was related to the late Mr. Cooke by Henry W. Phillips, the artist's son. This is the same Wainewright whose career as a poisoner and forger was such a cause célèbre forty years ago, and whose extraordinary exploits afforded subject for Dickens's 'Hunted Down' and for Lytton's 'Lucretia.' — Allahabad Morning Post, March 26.

  I should be glad to hear from one of your correspondents some further particulars about that picture. As I did not know of its existence, it does not appear in my published list of busts and portraits of Lord Byron. What was the date of the sale; and who was the purchaser?


   Schloss Schwöbber, Grupenhagen, Hanover.


Notes and Queries (8th S. III. April 22, 1892, p. 307)

  T.G. WAINEWRIGHT, the art critic and poisoner, exhibited the following pictures in the Academy: 1821, 'A Romance from Undine'; 1822, 'Paris in the Chamber of Helen'; 1824, 'The Milkmaid's Song'; 1825, 'Scene from "Der Freischüts"'; 1825, 'Sketch from "La Gerusalemme Liberata."' I should be glad if any one could tell me if any of these pictures are extant; and, if so, where; and if they have been reproduced in any form.


  Union Society, Oxford.