Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was an unsuccessful poet whose suicide became a symbol of blighted artistic genius. Wallis used his friend George Meredith (1828-1909), also a struggling writer, as the model. Recent research has questioned whether Chatterton was living in poverty and if his death was suicide or accident (Nick Groom, 2004).
When the large painting of this subject was first exhibited as 'Chatterton' at the Royal Academy, Wallis added a quote from Christopher Marlowe: ' Cut is the branch that might have grown straight, And burned is Appollo's laurel bough'. A label on the verso of this painted version reads: The Death of Chatteton/ the original painting/ Study by H Wallis/-'The Marvellous Boy/ The sleepless soul, that perished in his pride'/ Wordsworth.
The Birmingham painting is a small version of the final painting which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856 and now in the collection of Tate. The above verso inscription suggests that this is a study; Another small version is in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, US which is more likely to be the replica.