Wednesday 25 February 2009

Benjamin Robert Haydon

It would have been quite natural for an ordinary mind to think blindness a sufficient obstacle to the practice of an art, the essence of which seems to consist in perfect sight…

Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), known throughout his life as a historical painter of some merit, has had little enduring success in the art world. It is rather through his autobiography, letters and memoirs that Haydon lives on today, and it is through these that his character lives on: a man with all the traits of genius with little of the requisite artistic talent.

Haydon’s life was marked by a combination of chronic eye disease, burgeoning debt and a feverish desire to assert himself as the greatest painter of his day. His determination was relentless, his passion untiring, and his character so infectious (or ‘contagious’ as Aldous Huxley puts it in his introduction to the out-of-print 1926 edition) that he seems to have genuinely convinced some of the great poets and critics of his time – including Keats, Hazlitt and Wordsworth – that he really was a genius of the first order. Keats’s On Seeing the Elgin Marbles was addressed to Haydon, who played a foremost role in persuading the British government to buy the frieze from Lord Elgin. Haydon responded to Keats characteristically:

I know not a finer image than the comparison of a Poet unable to express his high feelings to a sick eagle looking at the Sky!—when he must have remembered his former towerings amid the blaze of dazzling Sun beams, in the pure expanse of glittering clouds!—now & then passing Angels on heavenly errands, lying at the will of the wind, with moveless wings; or pitching downward with a fiery rush, eager & intent on the objects of their seeking—You filled me with fury for an hour, and with admiration for ever.”

Clearly this of Keats’s resonated with Haydon – what else was the partially-sighted historical painter but a sick eagle, forced to correct the errors of perspective in his colossal canvases by peering at one part of a painting close-to, inspecting it in a mirror, and viewing it through several pairs of strong convex spectacles stacked in front of one another from a distance? Yet Haydon’s belief in his own powers was unshakable: “My Picture today struck me […] as the most enchanting of all sights. […] It came over [me] like a lovely dream. I sat & dwelt on it like a young girl on a lover (when she is unobserved). I adored the Art that could give such sensation”.

Although Haydon’s writing is peppered with vanity and often downright vulgar, his memoirs and autobiography are nonetheless a touching and well-written insight into a man who was a forceful and inspirational member of the Keats circle. The impression we get from Haydon’s memoirs of his life – and death – is tragicomic in the extreme: in 1846, at the age of sixty, he paid a large sum to hire a portion of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly to exhibit two new paintings, The Banishment of Aristides and The Burning of Rome. Just next door, the American dwarf Tom Thumb was performing in a circus show to which thousands flocked, ignoring Haydon’s exhibition entirely. His diary reads: “Tom Thumb had 12,000 people last week; B. R. Haydon, 133½ (the ½ a little girl). Exquisite taste of the English people!” After months of desperate prayers, humiliation and an accumulation of debts that amounted to around £3,000, Haydon locked himself in his studio, his wife and daughter next door, and shot himself in front of the enormous painting he was working on. Not killed by the shot, he then cut his throat twice with a razor, his strength of character unfailing to the end. His adoration of Shakespeare marked the last words in his journal, “Stretch me no longer on this rough world”.

1 comment:

  1. Off-topic: in case you haven't heard of them already, take a look at . Two things about this piece are particularly amusing; the "literary novel" of the title and the fact that they treat English writers as Europeans. One can easily imagine a US edition of "Old Filth" complete with commentary and whatnot. Two nations divided by a common language...


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