Wainewright the Poisoner, a review

by Andrew Motion

Faber & Faber, 2000. £20

It seems unlikely that anyone has not noticed that the Poet Laureate has had published a new book on Thomas Wainewright, once owner of Linden House in Turnham Green. This book has received more reviews since it appeared than most other books ever achieve. This is not a complaint, more of an observation, but is the book worthy of so much attention? I think that the answer is yes, it is.

Wainewright is not a major character in British history, readers will know of him because of his association with one of the great houses of this area and because of his notoriety as a ‘poisoner’ but he first came to Motion’s attention as an early admirer of Keats and because of Wainewright’s activities as a print collector.

Wainewright was an artist, literateur and collector of objets d’art, but not a major figure in any of these fields although he was good enough to have become a fashionable artist if he had applied himself.

His major claim to fame (or perhaps infamy) is because he is suspected of having poisoned three people. Whether he did or not is thus of sufficient interest to have already attracted at least three full scale biographies and a number of shorter ones. Does this latest book fill a niche that the others do not fill? I believe that the answer is yes, although when I heard about Motion’s new title I had doubts about the ‘experimental’ way in which it is written, that is as a fictional ‘confession’ of Wainewright backed up by notes on the sources at the end of every chapter.

In fact I believe that the experiment does work. Motion has assimilated the sources very well, and knowing those sources makes it very interesting to see how he uses them. The fictional approach does illuminate the details of the life and the source notes are frequently very detailed. Motion has done a great deal of work on filling in minor details of Wainewright’s life and background and finding his paintings. The book is well illustrated and includes examples of some of Wainewright’s excellent portraits. It is a pity that none of the illustrations are in colour. This is a book which is very well worth reading.

Peter Hammond

Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 9 (2000)

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