Cultured criminal

Wainewright the Poisoner

Andrew Motion <em>Faber & Faber, 305pp, £20</em>

ISBN 057119401

Painter, critic, lavish host, forger and murderer - Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847) is the embodiment of Oscar Wilde's flamboyant claim that there is no essential incongruity between crime and culture. Wilde, like many writers before and after him, was fascinated by Wainewright's fusion of vice and virtue, criminal and victim, within one body. The man who exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy of Arts and whose friends included William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, John Clare and William Blake became, later in life, a synonym for evil and the subject of increasingly melodramatic rumour: that he killed his sister-in-law because she had thick ankles; that he flourished a poison-filled ring to see off his adversaries; that he was, in Havelock Ellis's words, "a perfect picture of the instinctive criminal in its most highly developed shape". The beauty of Andrew Motion's new study of Wainewright is that, by fair means or foul, it draws all of these elements into a dynamic, convincing whole - and, in so doing, recreates quite brilliantly the spirit of a Romantic age obsessed with questions of identity and death.

Born in 1794, Wainewright was raised by his grandfather, who was the editor of England's first literary magazine, the Monthly Review, and publisher of John Cleland's Fanny Hill. Educated by Fanny Burney's brother, Charles, Wainewright was apprenticed to a series of artists, one of whom allowed him to paint Byron's portrait. When he was 20, Wainewright joined the army for the sake of the uniform, but returned to London a year later to become the art critic for the London Magazine. By that time he was accustomed to a lifestyle far beyond his means, and he turned his artfulness to a darker purpose. Beginning with the forgery of deeds governing a trust fund set up by his grandfather, the crimes with which Wainewright is associated soon escalated to the lucrative murder of three relatives: his uncle, from whom he inherited a house; his mother-in-law, who had too many fortune-seeking companions; and his sister-in-law, who died of strychnine poisoning shortly after taking out life insurance worth £16,000. Having escaped to France, Wainewright foolishly returned to England and was convicted of forgery - then a capital offence - and transported to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), where he spent the rest of his life in the most barbarous penal system that England ever created.

Motion's method in embellishing the bare bones of Wainewright's story is both ingenious and entertaining. Faced with insufficient information to construct a linear narrative, and overwhelmed by the stuff of legend and anecdote, he has eschewed more orthodox biographical techniques in favour of allowing Wainewright to tell his own story. In 21 confessional chapters, supposedly written in the last years of his subject's exile, Motion mingles extracts from Wainewright's extant texts with other writings from the period and his own imaginings, supplementing each section with notes that give background information, expand on historical characters and address the lies or exaggerations in Wainewright's own account. The result is not the frustrating compromise that such an experiment could have easily been, but a book with as many faces as its subject.

Motion's maverick approach to fact succeeds because of the skill with which he establishes a personality for Wainewright, a voice that may not be as authentic as those in more familiar biographies, but is at least as strong. The confession is a re-creation of happier times underpinned by bitterness and regret. It combines cynicism with a savage and extreme insistence on beauty for its own sake. And it is the product of a mind that was remarkable in its resilience, yet often dangerously close to nervous collapse. Motion delights in being Wainewright, which leads occasionally to self-indulgent, purple passages of prose, but which results more often in richly re- imagined re-creations of documented events.

Wainewright's descent into debt and despair, his imprisonment at Newgate and subsequent transportation to Tasmania are chronicled: the unhappy Wainewright, in the end, is forced to face the futility of his art and, perhaps worst of all, the knowledge that, despite his longing for fame, all he achieved was infamy.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul