An 1889 oil painting by Louis Édouard Fournier, The Funeral of Shelley, depicts a somber ceremony as the body of Percy Bysshe Shelley is cremated on a Tuscany beach, July 18, 1822.
The scene is wildly inaccurate in all its details.
Death shadowed Mary Shelley’s life. Her very birth came at a terrible cost as her mother died within ten days. As a young woman, Mary would lose three of her four children to childhood illness, and she was still recuperating from a miscarriage that almost killed her when her beloved Percy drowned at sea.
The Shelleys, in perpetual flight from political reprobation, scandal and persistent debt, had settled in Italy by 1819. There, though he had no experience as a sailor — he couldn’t even swim — Percy had purchased a boat. In early July of 1822, he sailed to Livorno to meet with Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt to discuss a project for a new radical magazine. On the 8th, Percy and three other men set out on their return trip to Lerici. They never arrived.
The official story has Percy’s boat caught and sunk in a sudden squall. Mary would attribute the tragedy to a faulty design that capsized the vessel. Another story circulated that the boat was deliberately rammed, Shelley’s assassination for holding subversive views.
On July 12, Percy’s body washed ashore on a beach near Viareggio and was promptly buried there by locals. Italian health laws prescribed cremation and on July 18, Shelley’s friends and fellow authors carried out the grim ceremony.
Fournier’s 1889 painting depicts a bleak, windswept beach, the witnesses swaddled in heavy coats against the cold. At the back, Mary Shelley kneels in prayer. In the foreground, friends and fellow authors Edward John Trelawny, Hunt and Byron strike dramatic, grieving poses. A peaceful Shelley, as if asleep, is stretched out on his smoking pyre. But it’s all wrong.
July 18 was actually a hot, sunny day. Mary Shelley, as was the custom of the times, did not attend. Leigh Hunt sat out the event in a nearby carriage. Byron, upset at the proceedings and suffering from the heat, cooled off in the surf, eventually to swim out to his own boat, leaving Trelawny alone on the beach. Shelley’s body, badly decomposed, the face and hands gone, was burned in a metal furnace lugged out to the shore by hired help.
In the end, Trelawny plucked Shelley’s carbonized heart from the ashes as a gruesome souvenir for himself, but he was eventually persuaded to give it to Mary, who preserved the relic for the rest of her life. Contrary to various reports, the heart was not returned to Shelley’s grave or buried with Mary, in 1851. It was interred with their son, Percy Florence Shelley, in 1889, the very year that Fournier painted The Funeral of Shelley.
There was nothing of the romantic gesture, suggested by Fournier’s art, in the actual cremation of Shelley’s remains. His friends had gathered in respect and duty, to oversee the proper and speedy disposal of his body. In life, Percy Shelley had been ostracized and censored as a subversive. The news of his demise was reported in the conservative Courier of London with cold sarcasm: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or not.”
By 1889, almost seventy years on, Shelley’s disrepute had faded from popular memory and he was now acclaimed as one of the great poets, his works studied and revered. Shelley’s deserved fame was largely due to Mary having tirelessly spent the second half of her life collecting, editing, praising and promoting his writings. It was this Shelley, the poet genius who died tragically young, that Fournier elevated with his highly imaginative interpretation.
The Funeral of Shelley (sometimes referred to as The Cremation of Shelley) is Louis Édouard Fournier’s most famous painting. Fournier (1857-1917) was best known for his large-scale frescoes, notably the superb mosaic friezes — recently restored — decorating the Grand Palais on the Champs-Élysées, in Paris.
The painting currently resides at the Walker Art Gallery, an institution of the Art Museums of Liverpool.