The Triptych Altarpiece
of Harriet Westbrook Shelley
Harriet Westbrook, a tavern keeper's daughter, married Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1812 at the age of sixteen. Percy was nineteen. Two years later he left her for Mary Godwin. Divorce on the grounds of incompatibility was not allowed at that time in England. Percy and Mary fled to Italy. They returned to England in 1816; and ten months later Harriet, pregnant by an unknown lover, drowned herself in the Serpentine River in Hyde Park. She was not found for two weeks. Six years later, Percy drowned in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Leghorn, when his boat was capsized in a sudden storm.
The poem on the two side panels is a self-elegy written in first person in the voice of Harriet. It is composed in Spenserian stanzas, used first by Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queen, and thereafter by many English poets as a favorite for elegies. Adonais, Shelley's elegy to Keats upon his death, was written in Spenserian stanzas. A stanza consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter and one line of iambic hexameter, in a fixed rhyme. I wrote the poem on Arches Lavis Fidelis, in eight-foot sheets, which I antiqued and wheat-pasted to primed cabinet-grade plywood panels. The calligraphy was done with ink and a chinese brush.
The painting in the central panel depicts Harriet, or her ghost, rising from the water at midnight, under a full moon, to seek the ghost of Percy. The poem is her recitation, or incantation, before she departs. The painting is lifesize, oil on 14 oz. linen, 96 by 44 inches. The frame was designed by me and built by my father, Phillip Mathis, and me in his woodshop. It is dark-stained mahogany, 4.5 x 1.5 for the center panel, 3.75 x 1 in. for the two side panels. The central pediment above the figure is gold-leafed with 22 ct. gold, and antiqued. It is topped by a handcarved and painted fish, spouting a stylized fleur of water upon which perches a seahorse. The flanking pediments, over the text, are silver leafed and antiqued. They are surmounted by a turned finial and a painted and silvered fish. The wave pattern at the top of the three pediments is unique, as far as I know.
The altarpiece also includes a bronze sculpture, which I first sculpted in clay, of Harriet before she wakes. It sits at the top of the stairs leading up to the altar, or main platform. The triptych rests upon a freestanding base or riser, two feet high and nine feet wide, covered with black velveteen. There are three steps leading up to the platform. In the middle of the platform, behind the sculpture, is a weathered black neo-classical concrete basin. It is filled with dirt and water and dead leaves and a single conchshell. Fully assembled, the work is 14 ft., 9 in. high x 9 ft. wide x 4 ft. deep.
It may be the first artwork in history to combine these media as it does.