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For: [Letter] 1887 June 27 [to] [Dalziel Brothers] / W.M. Rossetti [William Michael Rossetti].

The Truth about Shelley's Cremation

by Rachel Goldberg

In June of 1882, William Michael Rossetti wrote a letter to the engraving company, Dalziel Brothers, saying that Edward J. Trelawny disliked certain factual errors in an engraving that portrayed the death of their good friend Shelley. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a Romantic poet who drowned on July 18, 1822, while he was out on his yacht during a storm. Trelawny was a fellow author and a good friend of Shelley's. He conducted the cremation of Shelley and took care of burying his ashes. Trelawny was even buried next to Shelley after his own death in 1881. The engraving discussed in the letter was based on a sketch that Trelawny's daughter, Letitia, drew of the cremation of Shelley on a beach by the Gulf of Spezzia. Trelawny had spoken with Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite author and friend, about a mistake in the engraving. Rossetti then proceeded to send a letter to the Dalziel Brothers requesting for a change in the work to make it accurately reflect what had happened during Shelley's cremation. Although the wood-cut engraving of "the burning of Shelley's body" was rectified after Rossetti wrote his letter, paintings of the event were still romanticized. The reason for this is because the real proceedings that occurred seem less glorious.

The error that Trelawny was uncomfortable with was the incorrect representation of the number of people present at the funeral. The letter stated that the engraving had "3 figures towards the foreground." Edward Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and Lord Byron, Shelley's closest friends, were all present at his funeral, but only two of them stood near the burning fire, Trelawny and Byron. According to them, Leigh Hunt was waiting in the carriage during the service.

Another fact not mentioned in the letter was that Trelawny felt that the scenery on the beach and the weather were depicted correctly; however, the size of the fire and the amount of smoke were incorrectly shown. According to Trelawny, the original engraving was slightly romanticized since there were clouds of smoke billowing from the burning fire. Trelawny stated in several of his written recollections of the event that since it was a hot and humid day in August, there was no smoke at all, just "vapoury exhalation." He continued on to recommend what could be done to change this mistake when he said that "the thinnest white gauze would represent it..."

The original engraving that was criticized in Rossetti's letter was never printed. The mistakes that Trelawny pointed out were rectified; however, paintings done after this engraving still seemed to be inaccurate. Many artists continued on to paint the scene of Shelley's cremation, but they chose to portray the event in their own way. W.B. Yeats had said that in the late 1880s, "provincial sketching clubs displayed pictures by young women of the burning of Shelley's body."

The 1889 painting "The Funeral of Shelley," by Louis Edouard Fournier is one example of artwork that was the artist's own interpretation of the funeral. The painting is meant to be more of a romantic rather than an accurate piece. Fournier's painting portrayed the solemn day as cold, dreary, and grey, while Trelawny's recollection was that it was very hot and sunny August day. An error relating to the funeral's attendance was the figure of Mary Shelley, Percy's widow, kneeling in the background. In reality, Mary Shelley did not attend her husband's funeral. Fournier placed her in as the kneeling, distraught widow to make the funeral more dramatic. Another inaccuracy is that Shelley's body had been decomposing for several days before it was cremated due to the fish and waves of the sea during the days after he had drowned. He was cremated five weeks after he drowned, shortly after his body was found washed ashore. Trelawny described the body when he wrote, "the scalp was off, was of a dingy hue and the face entirely destroyed and fleshless; the remains of the body were entire, having been protected by the dress." The burning body in Fournier's rendition of the funeral events looked like a full, non-decomposed body peacefully resting atop the fire.

Paintings of Shelley's funeral were done even decades after Shelley's death. These paintings, however, do not accurately represent the funeral like the original corrected engraving. After all of the trouble to make the portrayal his cremation ceremony accurate, friends of Shelley were still unable to prevent dramatizations from occurring in the paintings based on the funeral of Shelley that were to come years later. Although the paintings were not true to the facts, Romantic artists would continue to paint the cremation of Shelley as a romanticized and exaggerated scene.

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