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Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths (1794–1847)

by V. W. Hodgman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847), artist and writer, was born in October 1794 at Richmond near London, the son of Thomas Wainewright and his wife Ann, daughter of the publisher, Ralph Griffiths. His mother died at his birth and his father survived her by only a few years. The boy was brought up by his grandfather, Dr Ralph Griffiths, and after his death by an uncle, George Edward Griffiths. Wainewright was educated at Greenwich Academy where the headmaster, Dr Charles Burney, was another relative. At 19 Wainewright began studying painting under John Linnell and Thomas Phillips. In April 1814 he bought a commission in the 16th Regiment, but resigned after only thirteen months service. About this time he suffered a severe illness accompanied by hypochondria which affected him for the rest of his life.

As well as painting he began writing for the London Magazine under the pseudonyms of Janus Weathercock, Egomet Bonmot and Cornelius Van Vinkbooms. His articles soon won him entrée to literary circles where he became friendly with Lamb, Hazlitt, Hood, de Quincey, Charles Dickens and others. At 26 he began exhibiting his paintings at the Royal Academy where he came strongly under the influence of Henry Fuseli. The work Wainewright produced in England was so similar to that of Fuseli that it was sometimes confused with that of the master.

On 13 November 1817 he married Eliza Frances Ward, the daughter by a previous marriage of Mrs Abercromby. His grandfather had left him the income from £5250, which amounted to some £200 a year. Wainewright placed the capital sum of his inheritance in trust for his young wife, arranging that the money would go to her at his death. However, he lived above his income and was soon heavily in debt; by forging the signatures of his cousin, Edward Foss, and his father, Edward Smith Foss, a solicitor, to a power of attorney in July 1822 he obtained £2250 of his capital from the Bank of England. Two years later with a second forgery he obtained the remaining £3000.

In 1828 he and his wife went to live with his uncle, George Edward Griffiths, who soon died, leaving him his house and some money. In 1830 'old Mrs Abercromby' died a few days after making her will in favour of Mrs Wainewright. The two other daughters, Helen and Madeleine Abercromby, came to live with the Wainewrights. Almost immediately Helen, still only 20, took out life policies with various insurance companies for some £16,000. Ten months later Helen Abercromby died after a brief illness. The insurance companies were suspicious and refused to pay. Wainewright, as executor, brought an action for recovery. After long delay the case was heard before Judge Abinger on 29 June 1835, but the jury disagreed. When the case was heard again the verdict was in favour of the defendants on the grounds of 'concealment by Miss Abercromby and an evasion of the statute'. Wainewright had left his wife and son in 1831 and remained out of England for six years. Numerous writers have suggested that Wainewright poisoned his uncle, his mother-in-law and his sister-in-law but, however suspicious the circumstances, there is no known evidence to show that any of the three died from other than natural causes. In the court action between Wainewright and the insurance companies the judge instructed the jury that there was 'no evidence of other crime than fraud'.

During Wainewright's absence in France the Bank of England discovered his forgeries and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He returned to England, was arrested on 9 June 1837 and charged with having attempted to defraud the Bank of England with a forged power of attorney. Although the governor of Newgate gaol on behalf of the Bank of England had persuaded him, with a promise of merely nominal punishment, to plead guilty, he was sentenced to transportation for life. In his own words, he was 'forthwith hurried, stunned with such ruthless perfidy, to the Hulks at Portsmouth, and then, in five days, aboard the Susan, a convict transport bound for Van Diemen's Land'. He arrived at Hobart Town on 21 November.

He worked at first on the roads in a chain-gang and was quartered in the prisoners' barracks in Campbell Street; later he was transferred to the Hobart Hospital as a wardsman. His health started to decline. The doctors were unable to diagnose the complaint, which was probably disseminated sclerosis. He was allowed some freedom and this enabled him to practise his beloved painting. Many of the portraits he produced at this time are among the best of his works and were mostly painted in gratitude for small favours by the subjects. In 1844, helped by the hospital authorities, he petitioned the governor for a ticket-of-leave, but his conditional pardon was not granted until 14 November 1846. He died of apoplexy at St Mary's Hospital on 17 August 1847.

Immediately after his death Wainewright began to appear as a vile monomaniac and poisoner in envenomed 'reminiscences' such as T. N. Talfourd's Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (London, 1848) and William Crooke's article in the Spectator (Melbourne), 14 July 1866. Highly-coloured fiction based on his alleged misdoings and character, for example, Lord Lytton's Lucretia, or The Children of Night (London, 1853) and Charles Dickens's Hunted Down (Philadelphia, 1860; London, 1870), added to a legend which was accepted by later biographers, J. T. Fields, A. G. Allen, Jonathan Curling and John Lindsey. Yet to his friends he had been a 'facetious, good-hearted fellow', a Georgian dandy, fond of dress and a collector of engravings and early editions, gems and antiques. He was of good family, accepted socially, well educated, talented and an accomplished artist, but something of an enigma. The portraits he painted during his ten years in Hobart Town show little imitation of Fuseli's extravagance, and some forty of these known to exist are works of art in their own right, full of sensitivity and perception. By leaving him with happiness only when he was painting, the harsh conditions and mental anguish that he suffered may also have stimulated his originality.

Wainewright published 'Some Passages' in the Life, etc. of Egomet Bonmot, Esq. (London, 1825) and his collected Essays and Criticisms (London, 1880) were edited by W. Carew Hazlitt.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 16
  • J. Curling, Janus Weathercock (Lond, 1938)
  • R. Crossland, Wainewright in Tasmania (Melb, 1954)
  • CSO 5, 8 and 11 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • convict records (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • G. T. W. B. Boyes diary (Royal Society of Tasmania)
  • humble petition of T. G. Wainewright (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

V. W. Hodgman, 'Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths (1794–1847)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wainewright-thomas-griffiths-2762/text3919, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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