Saturday 24 September 2016

What lies beneath: William Shelley by Amelia Curran

William Shelley by Amelia Curran (1775-1847), oil on canvas (1819), Pforzheimer Collection, New York Public Library

Niall MacMonagle

Published 31/08/2015 | 02:30

William Shelley by Amelia Curran
William Shelley by Amelia Curran

He was 20; she was 16. They loved each other. They ran away and even though he disapproved of marriage (and royalty, religion and meat-eating) they married. They lived in York, in the Lake District, in Dublin - where he supported Irish independence and promoted atheism.

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In London he fell in love with another 16-year-old, left his pregnant wife and child. They then had a child and married soon after his first wife drowned herself.

In all, this second marriage produced three children, two of whom died in infancy, including his favourite, William, the subject of this portrait.

They lived for a while in Switzerland, moved to Italy where he drowned, aged 30, during a storm at sea.

Days later his body was washed ashore, his face and hands having been eaten by fish. Buried in quicklime on the beach because of Tuscany's strict quarantine laws, a month later the body was exhumed, cremated and his ashes were buried in Rome beside his favourite son "Willmouse". And I am not making this up.

Little William Shelley, son of the poet Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, did not live to see his fourth birthday. He developed malaria and died on June 7, 1819 at noon. The little lad was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Shelley, a heartbroken father, wrote to a friend that his "little favourite had improved greatly both in mind and body before that final fever seized him. It was impossible to find a creature more gentle and intelligent ... his beauty, the silken fineness of his hair, the transparence of his complexion, the animation and deep blue colour of his eyes were the astonishment of everyone."

In Dublin, Shelley had met the Irish artist Amelia Curran. Later, in Rome, she painted this portrait. Like everyone else in this intricately jig-sawed story - Amelia Curran is another strikingly interesting individual.

Her sister Sarah was engaged to be married to Robert Emmet. Amelia converted to Catholicism and John Henry Newman presided at her funeral Mass. And she gave this blond little boy eternal beauty, eternal health, eternally blue eyes.

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