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
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
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
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.