Benjamin Robert Haydon. Part 4.

The sad ending to life.

In the previous blog I told you about Benjamin Haydon’s trip to Paris with his friend David Wilkie.   The journey began at the end of May 1814 when the pair were able to take advantage of the ending of hostilities between England and France.  Whilst in the French capital the two artists spent time at the Louvre  and see the art collections gathered by Napoleon from across Europe.  

Portrait of Emperor Napoleon I by François Gérard (1815)

They also visited François Gérard’s studio.  Gérard was one of the foremost portrait-painters of the day and had eight of his portraits accepted at the 1808 Salon and fourteen in the Salon of 1810.  His portraiture depicted all of the leading figures of the French Empire and of the Bourbon Restoration, as well as all of the most celebrated men and women of Europe and his Paris studio was often a meeting place for upper-class society. 

Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul by François Gérard (1803)

When Haydon and Wilkie visited the studio Haydon was most impressed by Gérard’s portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte and he became captivated by the French leader.

Napoléon Bonaparte (‘Napoléon on St Helena’) by Benjamin Haydon (1830)

Haydon painted over two dozen of pictures of Napoleon, even bought his death mask and tried on one of the emperor’s hats.  In his portrait of Napoleon entitled Napoleon on St Helena we see the French leader in a thoughtful, meditative mood, pondering on his past triumphs and calamities.  One of the first of Haydon’s Napoleon portraits was for the lawyer, Thomas Kearsey, in 1829 and the following year it was exhibited at the Western Exchange.   A whole-length version above, entitled Napoleon Musing at St Helena was commissioned by Sir Robert Peel. Many others followed including Napoleon Meditating at Marengo and Napoleon Contemplating his Future Grave.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Benjamin Haydon (1839)

Having completed the depiction of the French leader pondering his triumphs and failures whilst on St Helena, Haydon wanted to produce a companion piece featuring the great British military leader, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.  The painting was to depict  Wellington overlooking the rolling fields at Waterloo at sunrise, a companion piece to Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena gazing across the sea at St Helena.

In a way the portrait has an element of sadness as we see the ageing hero, who is not adorned in his military uniform but is dressed in civilian clothes.  The painting completed in 1839 by Haydon is almost twenty-five years after the Battle of Waterloo and twenty years after Wellesley finally left the military and entered the world of politics.  In the work we see Wellesley looking out over the scene of his greatest triumph at Waterloo. The Duke who was seventy at the time of the portrait disliked sitting for his portrait, or at least he did at this time of his life

He was even more disinclined to lend Haydon the helmet and sword which we see in the left foreground. Haydon eventually persuaded the Duke to allow them to be used as “stage settings” for the work.  Haydon went on to paint twenty-five variants of the portrait, signifying his almost obsessive interest in the Duke.

The Raising of Lazarus by Benjamin Haydon (1821-23)

When Haydon began painting The Judgement of Solomon he had debts of more than £600. Two years later when he completed the work the size of his debt had doubled. In 1821 he embarked on his largest ever canvas (426 x 632 cms), The Raising of Lazarus and in that year, Haydon’s financial problems came to a head when he couldn’t fulfil his obligations to some people who had lent him money. He was admonished but only just avoided imprisonment.

Mary Hyman – a sketch by Benjamin Haydon

It was in late Spring that Haydon first caught sight of Mary Cawrse Hyman whilst he was walking with his friend, Maria Foote, and he recounted that first glimpse of Hyman. In his journal he recorded the moment:

“…Not far from my house she requested me to stop a moment whilst she left a letter with a lady who was going into Devonshire. I waited; a servant came down, and requested I walk up……and in one instant the loveliest face that was ever created since God made Eve smiled gently at my approach…”

Haydon was besotted with her beauty and would spend hours walking by her home hoping to catch a glimpse of her. One “fly in the ointment” with Haydon’s hopes of happiness was that she was married and had two young sons, Orlando and Simon.

Later he made a sketch of her, from memory, in his journal and inscribed it:

“…My lovely Mary when first I saw her…”

Mary Haydon as the Delphic Sibyl, by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1821)

Mary’s husband, a Devonport jeweller, was much older than his wife and was unwell. He actually died in 1821, three years after Hayman had had that first encounter with Mary. Mary Hyman and Benjamin Haydon married on October 10th 1821 at Church of St Mary le Bone. His friend David Wilkie witnessed the ceremony and he and Haydon drank many toasts to a successful marriage. This ready-made family added more financial pressure on Haydon and a day after the marriage ceremony Haydon was arrested because of he was unable to pay his creditors. Haydon, accompanied by the Sheriff’s Officer, went to the home of David Wilkie to see if his friend would stand guarantor for the debt but Wilkie was reluctant until Haydon managed to negotiate with his landlord a longer time to repay him and so Wilkie agreed to help his friend. Haydon in typical fashion wrote to Wilkie the following day berating him for his unfriendly behaviour. Wilkie, who had reluctantly agreed to stand guarantor, was horrified by Haydon’s words, said to be a mixture of sarcasm and truth, upbraiding him for his unfriendly behaviour.

The Mock Election by Benjamin Haydon (1827)

On December 12th 1822 Mary gave birth to their first child, a son, Frank. He was the first of eight children fathered by Haydon, although sadly, five died in infancy. Haydon’s financial difficulties increased with the enlargement of the family and lack of sales of some of his works and this resulted him spending time in the debtor’s prison on a number of occasions.

His second such incarceration was in 1827 when Haydon was in King’s Bench Prison for debt. It was whilst staying here that he observed other inmates putting on a sham election in order to open a poll for the election of a member to plead for their parliamentary rights, which had been taken from them once they were imprisoned. It was proposed that they should elect a member of parliament to represent Tenterden, (a slang name for the prison).  Three candidates stood for election, one of whom was Lieutenant Meredith, a veteran of the Peninsula War. It was just like a normal election with addresses made by the candidates’ placards were printed and affixed to the walls of the prison and the electors were invited to attend the poll on Monday morning, the 16th of July.  Haydon recalled the riotous scene:

“…… As I approached the unfortunate, but merry, crowd, to the last day of my life I shall ever remember the impression… baronets and bankers, authors and merchants, painters and poets… dandies of no rank in rap and tat-ters… all mingled in indiscriminate merriment, with a spiked wall, twenty feet high, above their heads…”

King George IV bought the painting and gave Haydon 500 guineas.

Chairing the Member by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1828)

Probably Haydon’s best-known non-biblical works were painted around 1829.  In August 1828 he completed his large oil on canvas work entitled Chairing the Member. Haydon had been so encouraged by the sale of The Mock Election to George IV that he painted a companion piece, Chairing the Member, and returned to the prison to make drawings of some of the inmates. Later a third painting of contemporary life depicted in his painting entitled Punch and May Day in the New Road at Marylebone. He had great hopes that George IV would buy these works as well but he was to be disappointed, a setback he blamed on the actions of the Keeper of the King’s Pictures, William Seguier.

Chairing the Member is a crowd scene, the main characters of which are in a riotous mood brought on by an excess of alcohol.  In the background, we can see two men being hoisted aloft on the shoulders of their friends.  In the centre foreground we observe a man wearing a red waistcoat and coat, white breeches and a Napoleonic hat carrying a long pole attempts to challenge three guards, who stand on guard, seemingly unaffected by the riotous behaviour of the crowd.  A small child also grips the pole.  To the right we see a man slouched drunkenly on a stool still gripping a bottle of ale.  A woman, adorned in a black dress and wearing a white bonnet with pink ribbons, holds the man’s shoulders to prevent him falling off the stool.  A small child with a hoop stands in front of the seated man and places her hand on his thigh in order to steady him.  To the left, on the ground, we see a man slumped under a table, atop of which are glasses and glass decanters of wine.  Also, below the table, on the ground by the fallen man’s feet, is a small barrel in which are a pineapple and two other bottles wine. The whole disorderly scene is closely watched by an elderly man from an upstairs window on the right and, to the left, another man hangs out of an upper window below a red flag and toasts the revellers.  The painting is now part of the Tate Britain collection.

Punch or May Day by Benjamin Haydon (1829)

In 1829, a year after the completion of Chairing the Member, Haydon completed another work that depicted people enjoying themselves.  Initially Haydon had thought to entitle the work, Life, as it would encapsulate everyday life of everyday people but he later gave the work the title, Punch or May Day.  Hayden resolved to highlight the contrasts of everyday life. We see a crowd of mixed classes, ages and races who happily mingle with a costumed procession and a Punch and Judy show in the Marylebone Road.   On the right we see a marriage coach in which are a bride and groom.  In the background we see a hearse.  The newlyweds, tranquil and happy, look out of the window of their coach at the mayhem of the Punch and Judy performance with all its violence.  Even the May Day celebrations and procession in Marylebone Road, which were pagan traditions, is set against a backdrop which includes the Christian church of St Marylebone.  Taking part in this parade is a young dancing chimney sweep with blonde curls and soot-blackened face. The boy’s lively countenance contrasts with the artist’s treatment of the austere black footman standing at the back of the wedding coach.  In the left foreground we see a barefooted female slumped on the ground next to a table of wares which she is trying to sell.  Haydon believed he was a great history painter but also believed, like the woman selling her goods, he and his paintings were similarly under-appreciated.  In contrast, next to the beggar woman, and attentively watching the Punch & Judy show is a man dressed in the finest expensive clothes.  Look closely and you will see he is just about to have his pockets picked by a young pick-pocketer. Standing by the wedding coach and peering around the cavalry officer is a Bow Street runner, who is watching the antics of the thief. Behind the dandy is a rosy-cheeked farmer up from the country. Close to the Punch & Judy stage, a woman holds up her baby aloft so she could see the puppets close up. Haydon had been living in London for twenty-five years and he had enjoyed the capital’s vibrancy and in this painting he had aimed to encapsulate this energy and the diversity of the inhabitants.

Venus and Anchises by Benjamin Haydon (1826)

Haydon became well known as a lecturer on painting, and in 1835 he began to travel around England and Scotland on lecture tours. He was also a fervent believer that the country’s public buildings should be decorated with history paintings showing the glories of the nation’s past.  No doubt he believed he could supply such great works.

Curtius Leaping into the Gulf by Benjamin Haydon (1843)

Curtius Leaping into the Gulf was a painting Haydon completed in 1843 and depicts an ancient Roman legend, the young Marcus Curtius, throwing himself into a huge crack in the ground that had opened up in Rome. According to legend, the Roman gods were satisfied with Curtius’s sacrifice and the crack closed again.  In this work, Curtius is a self-portrait of Haydon Whether it was just a coincidence that Haydon should choose the act of suicide for his Curius painting we will never know but what is known that Haydon talked about suicide as an escape from his own life on a number occasions and he had often discussed suicide and the reasons why a person would end their own life.  He was a devote Catholic, so for religious reasons he would never countenance the taking of his own life and yet by the mid-1840s life had become very difficult as a result of his financial difficulties and his constant begging of his friends to alleviate his poverty.  He was becoming desperate.  The day before his death he was out walking with his son, Frank, and expressed how he gained pleasure on the idea of throwing himself off the Monument and dashing his head to pieces.  The viewing gallery at the top of the Monument in London was a favourite place for people wanting to commit suicide and this was only curtailed when the whole of the gallery was encased in an iron cage.  Frank was worried by his father’s mood and pleaded with him to discard any thoughts of taking his own life.  Back home, Frank told his mother about her husband’s dark thoughts but she laughed it off. 

Bartholomew Fair by Benjamin Haydon

The next morning Haydon asked his wife to travel to Brixton to invite over one of his journalist friends, David Coulton, to discuss some business.  That next morning with his wife out of the house, Haydon went to the premises of Isaac Rivière, a gun-maker, and bought himself a pocket-sized pistol.  He arrived back home within the hour and locked himself in his painting studio, with his unfinished work, The Blessings of Justice: Alfred and the First Trial by Jury on an easel.  A portrait of his wife sat on a smaller easel.  He wrote a will, but as it had not been witnessed, was invalid.  He wrote short letters to some of his friends.  One letter was to Sir Robert Peel in which he wrote:

“…Life is unsupportable!  Accept my gratitude for always feeling for me in adversity – I hope I have earned for my dearest Wife security from Want…”

He also wrote a letter to his wife:

“…God bless thee, dearest love.  Pardon this last pang, many thou has suffered from me.  God bless thee in dear widowhood.  I hope Sir Robert Peel will consider I have earned a pension for thee.  A thousand kisses.  Thy husband & love to the last…”

He also wrote a short note to each of his sons and daughter asking them to look after their mother and lead a good and honest life.  He then opened his diary which he had been keeping for the last thirty-eight years and wrote in it:

God forgive me – Amen


Of B.R.Haydon

‘Stretch me no longer on this tough World’ – Lear


He then cocked his pistol and shot himself in the head.  His wife and daughter heard the bang but thought it came from the nearby barracks and ignored it.  The pistol Haydon had bought that morning was of such a low calibre the bullet although fracturing his skull, did not penetrate his brain.   Not to be thwarted he picked up one of his razors and made two cuts to his neck and throat.  His wife and daughter still had no idea of what was happening and both left the house.  Benjamin Robert Haydon lay on the floor and bled to death.

The Maid of Saragossa by Benjamin Haydon

Benjamin Robert Haydon died in his London home on June 22nd 1846, aged 60.  His wife survived him by eight years, dying on July 25th 1858 aged 61.

I recounted this life story of Haydon over four blogs and yet I have only scratched the surface of his life.  Before you judge Haydon, and if you would like to find out more about this talented painter, then I do recommend you reading  Paul O’Keeffe’s biography: A Genius for Failure, The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon. It was from this book that I got the majority of information for these blogs.

Benjamin Robert Haydon.

Part 3. The Elgin Marbles affair

Judgement of Solomon by Benjamin Haydon

The eventual sale of Haydon’s painting, Judgement of Solomon, to a pair of Plymouth bankers, Sir William Elford and his partner, Mr T J Tingcombe gave Haydon a much needed seven hundred guineas but although that lessened his debt, he still owed more than four hundred guineas to various other creditors.  Even before the sale of the work Hayden had decided that he would complete another monumental biblical painting and ordered in the large canvas measuring 396 x 457 cms, a metre taller and a metre wider than his Judgement of Solomon canvas, which was considered colossal at the time.  Haydon believed that the finished work would bolster his artistic stature as a great historical painter.  The subject of the painting would be the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem a few days before his crucifixion.

Christ’s Triumphant entry into Jerusalem by Benjamin Haydon (1812-16)

In August 1814, despite his dire financial situation, Haydon took a two-month trip to Paris with Wilkie, He returned to London and started his monumental biblical painting.  A month later he was struck down with severe eye trouble and had to take time off to recuperate on the south coast.  News came in September that lifted his spirits.  He had been made Freeman of Plymouth for his “extraordinary merit as a historical painter and particularly for his recent painting”.  His latest biblical painting progressed slowly and for the last three months of the year he set about recruiting models for the depiction.

The painting was not completed until the end of 1816.

Portrait of Leigh Hunt by Benjamin Haydon (1813)

The monumental painting was halted for a short time to allow Haydon to complete a portrait of his friend James Henry Leigh Hunt which he had started a couple of years previously.  Leigh Hunt was an English essayist, critic and poet who had worked in the War Office before becoming editor of The Examiner, a journal that had been founded by his brother John Hunt, and had articles also written by another brother Robert Hunt.  It was a controversial publication often writing stinging attacks on the government and the royalty, some in the shape of personal attacks on the Prince Regent.  In 1813 the government tried the three brothers and for their attacks on the unpopular prince regent and they were sentenced to two years imprisonment. Leigh Hunt, who continued to write for The Examiner whilst languishing in the Surrey County Gaol. He was regarded as a martyr in the cause of liberty.  He was released from prison in February 2nd 1813.  John Hunt had approached Haydon to paint his brother’s portrait.  The portrait shows Leigh Hunt as a pale-faced man with round cheeks and pouting lips.  The broad, floppy white collar gave him a young appearance, younger than his thirty-one years. The portrait had not been a labour of love for Haydon who wrote about the different feelings he had painting his large biblical painting against his feelings about painting the portrait:

“…I miserably feel……different sensations after concluding [the portrait] to those after a day’s work on my Picture [Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem].  The one was all the timid, mean sensation of a face; the other all the swelling, bursting glories of realising….visions of imaginations.  I feel the beauties of individuality as much as any one, the sharpness and softness of flesh, the delicacy of touch, and calm sweetness of breath & melting, racy flush of colour, but if all these tend to elicit a mean character, of what value are they?…”

After this experience, Benjamin Haydon refused to paint another portrait and this determination lasted eight years.

Despite the money, seven hundred guineas, Haydon had received for his Solomon painting together with a one hundred guinea prize for it from the British Institution, he was still deeply in debt which had been exacerbated by his two-month “holiday” in France. His financial situation was so bad that he had to make his first visit to a moneylender asking for one hundred guineas, He described the man as:

“… a little low fellow, with red eyes, his lids hanging down over his pupils so that he was obliged to throw his head back & look at you through the slit, as it were, his eye lids made…”

The moneylender had a novel way of making a profit from the transaction as he made Haydon buy a poor quality sketch of Rubens for twenty guineas before he gave him the loan !

Christ’s Agony in the Garden by Benjamin Haydon

George Philips, the MP for Ilchester in Somerset, had approached Haydon with regards a five hundred guinea commission to paint the biblical work depicting Christ’s Agony in the Garden.  Haydon received 100 guinea on account and two months later a further 100 guineas.  In 1815 Haydon once again approached Philips to solicit more money, despite not having started the commission, nor had he completed his painting entitled Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem.  His work on his paintings had to stop that September as his eyesight was deteriorating and he was advised to convalesce on the south coast and he moved to Brighton.  After a month, the solitude caused him to become depressed but that was alleviated with the arrival of his friend, David Wilkie.

Haydon sleeping – A sketch by David Wilkie (1815)

While staying with Haydon in Brighton Wilkie made a quick sketch of his friend whilst he was asleep. The sketch depicts the artist lying on his side, arms crossed over his chest, right hand resting on a book, still wearing his glasses. It is a sketch of great tranquility, one portraying his friend as being somewhat gentle, carefree but with a certain vulnerability. This was at the mid-point in Haydon’s life with no inclination of what was coming. Haydon and Wilkie returned to London a month later.

A portrait depicting the Elgin Marbles in a temporary Elgin Room at the British Museum surrounded by museum staff, a trustee and visitors, 1819

Benjamin Haydon fell in love with the Elgin Marbles from the very first encounter with them accompanied by his friend David Wilkie, when the two of them visited the makeshift museum in a shed at the bottom of a garden of Gloucester House.  Haydon declared they were the most heroic style of art combined with all the essential details of actual life.  He spent hours and days in Lord Elgin’s garden shed/museum making copies of the figures and the artefacts so they could be used for his Dentatus painting Haydon would constantly think, speak and write of the Elgin’s Marbles until his death. 

In December of 1798 Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin and Eleventh Earl of Kincardine, was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey. Lord Elgin decided to undertake a survey of the Temple of Minerva (the Parthenon) at Athens to record and remove Greek antiquities, fearing their destruction in the ongoing conflict between the Greeks and the Turks.  Elgin decided he would engage, at his own expense, a team of artists and architects to produce plaster casts and detailed drawings of ancient Greek buildings, sculptures and artefacts.  Later it was decided to remove about half of the Parthenon frieze, fifteen metopes, and seventeen pedimental sculpture fragments and Elgin and his team arranged to bring back casts and sketches that might serve to improve the general “taste” in Britain. They became known as the Elgin Marbles and were removed from Ottoman Greece and between 1801 and 1812 and then were transported to Britain by agents of the Earl of Elgin.  According to Elgin, the act of removing the artefacts was with permission of the Ottoman officials who, at the time, exercised authority in Athens. The truth with regards this “permission” has since been queried.  The bringing to Britain of these structures was not well-received in all quarters with Lord Byron, at the time, likening Elgin’s actions as a form of vandalism and looting. 

Visitors at the British Museum looking at sections of the frieze of the Elgin Marbles

In 1816 Lord Elgin, newly divorced and deeply in debt, needed to sell the Marbles to the UK government in an attempt to recoup the £74,240 it had cost him to remove them and bring them to England.  However, there was one big problem for Elgin, as he and the government had differing views as to their worth.   The diplomat and Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs under the then British Prime Minister, Lord Castlereagh, valued them at £62,000.  Artists such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, a future President of the Royal Academy and Benjamin West, the incumbent President of the Royal Academy and sculptors such as Joseph Nollekens, John Flaxman and Richard Westmacott were sounded out by the government’s Select Committee as to what they believed the Marbles were worth and most believed they were of a superior standard, although most declined to put a figure on them.  The government turned to the Art Connoisseurs, art experts, with a more refined and more intricate knowledge about art and artists who advised institutions and investors. One such connoisseur was Richard Payne Knight,  Britain’s “leading” antiquarian, who was outspoken about the Marbles being of “mixed quality”, some of which were “second-rate” and he advised the government that they should pay Elgin no more than £25,000 which he still believed was twice what they were worth on the open market. 

Much to his annoyance Benjamin Haydon, who loved the artefacts and spent days copying them, was not consulted about their worth.  However, this did not stop him voicing his opinion on the matter.  Between the completion of the Select Committee’s meetings and the publication of their report about the value they put on Elgin’s Marbles, Haydon launched a bitter attack in the pages of the Examiner, a leading intellectual journal expounding radical principles, and the Champion, a radical eight-page newspaper.  His article entitled On the Judgement of Connoisseurs being preferred to that of Professional Men, he was critical of the Government listening to the advice of Connoisseurs (such as Payne Knight) rather than the advice of artists and sculptors.  He went on to write that in no other profession is the opinion of the man who has studied a subject for his amusement preferred to that of him who has devoted his soul to excel at it, adding that no man would trust his limb to a connoisseur in surgery.

Haydon’s comments are thought to have irked the government, which finally offered Lord Elgin £35,000 for the Marbles which he reluctantly accepted.  Haydon however, due to the article in the journals, had made a name for himself and he even had the article translated into a number of foreign languages.  There was a downside to this for Haydon who incurred the wrath of the “Connoisseurs” and in particular Lord Mulgrave who had made plans for Haydon with the British Institution directors.  They were shelved as they believed Haydon’s criticism of Richard Payne Knight was a criticism of them.  Once again Haydon had upset the “establishment”  On April 19th 1816, after the Parliamentary Select Subcommittee that had been appointed to make recommendations concerning the purchase of Lord Elgin’s collection announced that they were in favour of the purchase and in June 1816, granted £35,000 to Lord Elgin in exchange for the sculptures.

Many of the public believed that the government should not waste their money on buying Elgin’s Marbles and instead, be spending the money on much more needy things such as alleviating poverty and feeding the people during the time of famine.  A John Bull satirical cartoon appeared in the newspaper in 1816 highlighted the problem.  In the cartoon by George Cruikshank entitled The Elgin Marbles! or John Bull buying stones at the time his numerous family want bread, John Bull’s family are starving during the famine caused by the catastrophic harvest of 1816. During the same summer the 7th Earl of Elgin persuaded the British government to purchase the sculptures he had removed from the temples of the Athenian acropolis. The cartoon depicts the Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Castlereagh, as a sinister salesman trying to lure John Bull into buying some statues. It depicts Castlereagh saying:

“…Here’s a Bargain for you Johnny! Only £35,000!! I have bought them on purpose for you! Never think of Bread when you can have Stones so wonderous Cheap!!…”

………………………………… be continued

The majority of the information I have used in this and the subsequent blogs on the life of Benjamin Haydon came from an excellent second-hand book, published in 1998, I came across entitled A Genius for Failure, The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon by Paul O’Keefe.  If you are interested in Haydon’s life, I can highly recommend you try to get yourself a copy.

In this particular blog further information I gleaned regarding the Elgin Marbles came from the Foundations website:

Benjamin Robert Haydon. Part 2

His lifelong quarrel with the Royal Academy,

In 1805 Hayden met another student who had arrived to study at the Royal Academy Schools and the two became great friends.  He was David Wilkie, who had begun his artistic training at Edinburgh’s Trustees Academy at the age of fifteen.

Pitlessie Fair by David Wilkie (1804)

One of his first paintings Wilkie exhibited was Pitlessie Fair which was inspired by examples of seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish paintings and also by Scottish folklore and cultural traditions celebrated in contemporary literature. This was well liked when shown in London and resulted in several prestigious commissions. The first meeting of Haydon and Wilkie was described in Wilkie’s biography, Life of Sir David Wilkie by Allan Cunningham.  Haydon recalls that meeting at the RA:

“…We sat and drew in silence for some time; at length Wilkie rose, came and looked over my shoulder, said nothing, and resumed his seat.  I rose, went and looked over his shoulder, said nothing, and resumed my seat.  We saw enough to satisfy us as to each other’s skills…”

‘The Egyptian Room’ by Thomas Hope as seen in the magazine ‘Household Furniture & Interior Decoration’ (1807).

In 1807, when twenty-one-year-old Haydon had his first work shown at the Royal Academy exhibition.  It was his work entitled The Repose in Egypt, and it was purchased by Thomas Hope for the Egyptian Room at his town house, a house designed by Robert Adam in Duchess Street, Portland Place, London, which he remodelled with a series of themed interiors.

In November 1807 Haydon’s mother who had been seriously ill travelled from Plymouth with Haydon and his sister to get further medical help in London. However she never made it to the English capital and died at the Windmill Inn, a coach stop at Salt Hill, just west of Slough.

Assassination of L. S. Dentatus,   After Benjamin Robert Haydon. Engraving by William Harvey (1821)

As far as his artwork was concerned, Haydon could not have wished for a better start to his professional career as an artist. Following on shortly after the sale of his biblical painting Haydon received a commission from the Henry Phipps, 1st Earl of Mulgrave, for a large history painting featuring the Roman general, Lucius Siccius Dentatus.  Mulgrave himself had been a general in the Army as well as a prominent politician.   The subject of the work was that of the celebrated Roman Tribune, Dentatus, who is seen making his last desperate effort against his own soldiers, who attacked and murdered him in a narrow pass. It took Haydon two years to complete and was ready for exhibiting at the 1809 Royal Academy Exhibition. 

With his historical painting of Dentatus completed Haydon had to decide where it should be exhibited.  Many of his friends such as Sir George Beaumont and David Wilkie, as well as his tutor, Fuseli, had seen the painting and were full of praise for what he had achieved.  Beaumont pressed Haydon to exhibit the work at the British Institution where it could vie for the 100 guinea premium (prize) which was awarded to the best painting of historical or poetical composition but Haydon wanted this new work of his to be exhibited along with the greats of the Royal Academy.  He was scornful with regards the standard of art and artists showing at the British Institution and dismissive of the prize money, saying:

“…If [Benjamin] West and all the Academicians were to be my competitors, nothing would give me greater delight, even if I lost it – less glory would be lost, and more won if I gained it.  But to contend with a parcel of mannered, ignorant, illiterate boys, without science or principle [at the British Institution], if I were successful would be no honour, and if, unsuccessful, I should never hold up my head again.  Besides what do I care for prizes?  I want public approbation and fame – this is the only prize I esteem…

It is that last sentence that tells us so much about Haydon’s character !

  Haydon believed to achieve this sought after fame his work had to be shown in the Great Hall of the Royal Academy’s Exhibition.  One morning on April 1809, Haydon and a couple of companions carried the massive painting along The Strand and deposited it at the Royal Academy in Somerset House.  The full title of Haydon’s beloved work was The Celebrated Old Roman Tribune, Dentatus, Making his Last Desperate Effort against his own Soldiers, who Attacked and Murdered him in a Narrow Pass.

The Hanging Committee selected Haydon’s work for the exhibition and Fuseli had positioned it in the Great Hall.  However Benjamin West, the President of the Royal Academy had it moved to the dark Ante-Room, which is the way Haydon described its positioning, albeit others disagreed.  West’s reasoning being that the Great Hall was a space reserved for Academicians’ paintings.  Haydon never forgave the Academy for what he looked upon as a personal insult.  Twenty-five years later he recounted his feelings with regards the affair.  He wrote:

“…I lost my Patrons – & sunk into a species of despair & embarrassment from which I have had occasional gleams of Sunshine but never permanent fortune….[It] threw a cloud on the whole of my life – embarrassments, exasperations followed….I lost all employment & sunk to a Prison…”

Lord Mulgrave did buy the painting and paid Haydon two hundred and ten guineas.

Haydon’s fury at how his painting had been treated by the Academy festered for many years despite being warned by some of the Academicians, including Constable, that his attitude towards the Academy and the Academicians was unacceptable and would work against him.

Although the leading lights of the Royal Academy did not agree with Haydon, regarding the positioning of his painting at the Academy Exhibition, the well-known writer and art critic wrote the following in the May 29th 1809 edition of The Examiner:

“…From the trash with which it is mostly filled and from its indistinct light the Anti-room seems to be considered by the Academy, as I am sure it is by the tasteful visitor, little more than a mere vestibule to the larger room and is therefore frequently hurried over with scarcely a glance.  If however the visitor will allow me to be his intellectual caterer, I advise him to pause as he enters this sepulchral Anti-room and I am confident that in Mr Haydon’s picture of Dentatus making his last desperate effort against his soldiers who murdered him in a narrow pass, no.259, he will enjoy a treat served up by the hand of a genius and displayed with a refinement of science and of art…”

A Life Class at the Royal Academy, Somerset House by Thomas Rowlandson (1811)

Following shortly after Haydon’s clash with the Royal Academy he was engaged in a protracted argument with one of his patrons, Sir George Beaumont, over a commission to paint Macbeth.  It was all to do with the size of the painting and the figures within the depiction. Haydon was not deterred by this unfortunate situation as he felt that the work could be exhibited at the British Institution and he would secure the three hundred guineas prize. On the strength of that hope Haydon began to borrow money. Alas, the three hundred pound prize was not given to Haydon who was offered just thirty guineas to cover the cost of framing. Haydon was devastated. To add to his worries, his success on selling some of his work had a downside. His father viewing his son’s success stopped paying him his annual allowance of £200 which added to his son’s financial problems.

Having passed the test of drawing from plaster Haydon was allowed to enter the life-drawing sessions using live models.  An idea of what those classes were like can be gleaned from Thomas Rowlandson’s image of these classes, such as his 1811 painting entitled A Life Class at the Royal Academy, Somerset House.  It depicts Royal Academy students and Royal Academicians seated on semi-circular benches facing the model on a platform.  These classes ran for two hours every night during term-time.  Tuition at these classes was provided by visiting artists who were Royal Academicians.  There were nine visitors each year and their stint lasted one month.   The Royal Academy website offers an amusing anecdote about Rowlandson and his image of the Life Drawing class:

“…Rowlandson was himself a student at the Royal Academy from 1772-1778 when the life class was still in Old Somerset House. He is said to have nearly been expelled after firing a pea- shooter at the female model during the life class.  This characterisation of the Academicians and RA students as lechers is typical of Rowlandson’s caricatures…”

In Patricia Phagan’s 2011 book,  Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England, she talks about Rowlandson’s interest in the Royal Academy School’s life drawing classes:

“…there was something compulsive in his repeated depiction of the seductive or voyeuristic relationships of grotesque old men and busty young women, or of the traitorous triangle of young wife, young lover, and old husband…”

The Judgement of Solomon by Benjamin Haydon (1812)

In 1812 Haydon made a start on his new painting that would be entitled The Judgement of Solomon.  The new painting was a depiction based on the Hebrew biblical story about King Solomon who made a ruling in a case featuring two women both claiming to be the mother of a child. Solomon revealed their true feelings and relationship to the child by suggesting the baby be cut in two, each woman to receive half. With this strategy, he was able to discern the fraudulent mother as the woman who entirely approved of this proposal, while the actual mother begged that the sword might be sheathed and the child committed to the care of her rival.

Study of head for ‘The Judgement of Solomon” by Benjamin Robert Haydon, c.1812–4

At this juncture in Haydon’s life, he was in debt, owing six hundred pounds to various creditors and he was constantly approaching friends for more financial help, many of whom had already loaned him money and had not been paid back. This was the start of Haydon’s financial decline and it was beginning to affect Haydon’s mental health.

………….to be continued

The majority of the information I have used in this and the subsequent blogs on the life of Benjamin Haydon came from an excellent second-hand book, published in 1998, I came across entitled A Genius for Failure, The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon by Paul O’Keefe. If you are interested in Haydon’s life, I can highly recommend you try to get yourself a copy.

Benjamin Robert Haydon

The beginning.

Benjamin Robert Haydon

I was watching the film Mr Turner for the second time the other day and often on a second viewing of a film or the second reading of a book you come across things that you didn’t see the first time around.  During the second viewing of the film about Turner I noticed a minor character in it who Turner referred to as Haydon.  He was depicted as a “fussy” man who had great money troubles and was constantly approaching Turner for a financial loan.  I had never come across an artist named Haydon and it peaked my interest.  So, let me share with you a look at the life and works of a very troubled, whom some would say, was a very talented English artist.  Let me introduce you to Benjamin Robert Haydon.

Benjamin Robert Haydon by William Nicholson RSA (c.1820)

Benjamin Robert Haydon was born in Wimpole Street in the south coast English garrison town of Plymouth on January 26th, 1876.  He had a younger sister Harriet; another sister, Sarah, had died in infancy.  His father was Benjamin Robert Haydon who had married his wife Mary, one of eight children and the second daughter of the Rev. Benjamin Cobley, curate of Shillingford and later, the rector of Dodbrook, near Kingsbridge, in the county of Devon.  Haydon’s father was a well-to-do printer, stationer and publisher and had a shop in Plymouth at 75 Market Place.  He was also an amateur “special correspondent” to the Bristol Journal, who as he lived in a garrison town, he enjoyed writing about the valorous exploits of the English military heroes fighting for their country in various parts of the world.

The Banishment of Aristides from Athens by Benjamin Haydon

In 1792 Benjamin Haydon, then aged six, first attended school and it was the start of his interest in sketching and he would often draw rough portraits of his school friends..  The following year, 1793, England and France went to war and it was that same year that seven-year-old Benjamin Haydon attended the Plymouth Grammar School run by the headmaster, the Reverend Dr. Bidlake.  Bidlake, Haydon recalled the head painted and played the organ and realising the young Haydon had a love and aptitude for sketching gave him and one of his fellow pupils some painting lessons.    That fellow student was Samuel Prout who would later become a renowned watercolourist, and one of the masters of watercolour architectural painting.  Bidlake encouraged Haydon to paint landscapes en plein air but this was countered by the advice given to him by a Neapolitan worker in his father’s business, a Mr. Fenzi, who would regale excitedly about the works of Raphael and Michelangelo.  Haydon was excited about what he saw and heard and remembered Fenzi’s words of advice about ignoring landscape painting and concentrate on figurative painting:

“…Do not draw de landscape; draw de feegoore, Master Benjamin…”

When Haydon was eleven years old he contracted measles and was laid up in bed.  He recalled the time well, as his father visited his bedside to excitedly announce the British naval victory at Cape St Vincent.  Later Haydon recalled the excitement in the household with the news of Horatio Nelson’s naval victories.

Plympton Grammar School

(Photograph taken 28 August 2001 © Mr Gerald Rendle)

In 1798, at the age of twelve, Haydon left Plymouth Grammar School and was admitted as a boarder to All Hallows School in Honiton, some sixty miles from his home.  Here the headmaster was Reverend William Hayne who was tasked by Haydon’s father to help his son improve his art.  In 1800 Reverend William Hayne was offered a teaching post at Plympton Grammar School and he accepted and moved his family and pupils to Plympton St Maurice.  In a way it was a return home for Haydon who had spent his early years nearby.  Fifty years earlier the grammar school had been where the artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, studied and Reynold’s father had been the headmaster.  In all, Haydon had been under the tutelage of Reverend Hayne for two years at Honiton and a further six months at Plympton Grammar where he rose to become head boy at the age of fifteen and by which time he had acquired a good understanding of the Latin, Greek, and French languages.

Haydon left the school and the world of the classic literature and had to decide on his next move.  However, that decision was taken away from him by his father who saw his son as being his successor in the family business and so had his son move to Exeter where he studied business and as Haydon saw it, the dry tuition of profit/loss and ledgers.  He was not enamoured by the world of finance and bookkeeping.  His course lasted six months at which time he returned home to Plymouth where he was indentured for a period of seven years as an apprentice to his father.  Life could not have been worse according to young Haydon who hated everything about the job.  He hated everything – his father’s customers, serving behind the counter in his father’s shop, working on his father’s accounts.  Nothing pleased him and he would spend long periods of time sulking at his lot in life.

Benjamin Haydon came to the conclusion that his future lay ahead as an artist.  His father and his grandfather both had similar thoughts at Benjamin’s age but they soon faded and Benjamin’s father believed the same would happen to his son’s great artistic ambitions.  Heated and constant family arguments followed on a daily basis over young Haydon’s future, so much so, Haydon became ill and suffered severe inflammation of his eyes.  Benjamin’s father believed this would put an end to his son’s fantasies of becoming an artist and told him he could never become an artist as he couldn’t see properly, but he was mistaken for his son was not to be deflected.

Discourses by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Haydon believed that his eyesight problem was not a major stumbling block and he was buoyed by the words of Joshua Reynolds in his first Discourse he delivered to the Royal Academy during the opening session in January 1769. Reynolds set out his theories on art in a series of fifteen lectures in the Royal Academy Schools, which were later published as Discourses on Art.  It was all about the fact that nothing would be achieved without hard work.  Reynolds said:

“…But young men have not only this frivolous ambition of being thought masters of execution inciting them on one hand, but also their natural sloth tempting them on the other. They are terrified at the prospect before them of the toil required to attain exactness. The impetuosity of youth is disgusted at the slow approaches of a regular siege, and desires, from mere impatience of labor, to take the citadel by storm. They wish to find some shorter path to excellence and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other means than those w4iich the indispensable rules of art have prescribed. They must, therefore, be told again and again that labor is the only price of solid fame, and that whatever their force of genius may be, there is no easy method of becoming a good painter…”

Haydon met Samuel Northcote, one of his father’s customers and hearing of young Haydon’s wish to become an artist Northcote advised him to study anatomy.  Haydon took that advice and purchased a book at the Plymouth Naval Hospital Auction entitled Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body written by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus in 1749   It cost him two pounds ten shillings, an amount he did not have !  This attitude to buying things he could not afford would haunt him all his life.  Haydon rushed home and spoke to his father who grudgingly gave him the money.  Haydon immersed himself in the anatomy book and after two weeks of constant studying the drawings and information, he claimed that he knew every muscle and every bone in the human body.

Haydon’s constant battle with his mother and father as to his future continued with neither side relaxing their stance.  However, he must have finally worn them down as they finally agreed to him travelling to London and enrolling on a two-year course at the Royal Academy Schools.  They gave him an initial twenty pounds to cover the cost of lodgings which he secured in the Strand, close to Somerset House, the home of the Royal Academy.  The course was free of charge but to get a place on the course one had to be recommended by an Academician.  This was achieved through Haydon’s uncle Benjamin Cobley who contacted his friend and Academician, Prince Hoare.   Haydon left Plymouth on an overnight coach on the morning of May 4th 1804 and arrived in London the next day.

Haydon, on arrival in London, took lodgings at 3 Broad Street, Carnaby Market. One of the first outings Haydon made was to the Royal Academy’s thirty-sixth annual exhibition which was being held at Somerset House (The Royal Academy did not move to its present location at Burlington House on Piccadilly until 1868).  There was a one shilling entrance fee which entitled you to a catalogue and according to the catalogue outlined the reason for the charge:

“…it was to prevent the Rooms from being filled  by improper Persons, to the entire Exclusion of those for whom the Exhibition is apparently intended…”

Laocoön’s head

Haydon settled into his course at the Royal Academy Schools and studied hard.  He decided that his favoured painting genre would be that of historical paintings. The first stage of his admission to the Royal Academy Schools was to present a drawing from plaster casts and so he immediately went to a seller of plaster casts who had a shop in nearby Drury Lane.  Here he purchased a cast of Laocoön’s head, a famous pieces of Hellenistic sculpture, along with some casts of arms, hands and feet and these together with his copy of Albinus’ anatomy book he set about creating acceptable drawings.  He worked non-stop and described his daily ritual:

“…I rose when I woke, at three, four or five; drew at anatomy until eight, in chalk from my casts from nine to one and from half-one until five – then walked, dined and to anatomy again from seven to ten and eleven…”

Dissection of the neck from the 1794 book ‘Engravings, Explaining the Anatomy of the Bones, Muscles and Joints’ by John Bell.

Another early purchase Haydon made was a copy of the 1794 book Anatomy of the Bones, Muscles and Joints by John Bell and this was to supplement his Albinus book on anatomy.

 It took a while before he made meaningful friendships with the exception of his sponsor and Royal Academy’s Secretary of Foreign Correspondence, Prince Hoare, who, on seeing Haydon’s sketches introduced him to John Opie and James Northcote.  Opie concurred with Haydon as to the importance of studying anatomy whereas Northcote advised Haydon to forget about anatomy and historical paintings and concentrate on portraiture but Haydon would not be deterred.  At the meetings Haydon spoke to the two artists about whether he should take lessons from a master.  Once again Opie and Northcote had differing views.  Opie was for it, Northcote against it saying Opie was only interested in extracting money from Haydon and Haydon’s father.  In the end he decided to follow Opie’s advice about studying anatomy but Northcote’s advice with regards not working under a master painter.

The Nightmare by Fuseli (1781)

On Christmas Eve 1804 Prince Hoare introduced Haydon to the Academy’s Professor of Painting, the Swiss-born painter John Henry Fuseli.  Fuseli held the position at the Royal Academy as Keeper, who carried overall responsibility for the Royal Academy Schools.  Haydon had seen Fuseli’s “strange” works such as his 1781 painting The Nightmare and his 1802 painting, Uriel watches Saturn on his Flight to Earth, a print of which he remember seeing in his father’s shop and so was delighted to visit this great master in early January and show him his sketches.  Fuseli was duly impressed with Haydon’s works and granted him admission to the RA Schools as a Probationer.

A sheet of anatomical drawings of the bones, muscles and tendons of the arm and hands by Benjamin Haydon  (ca. 1805)

One of Haydon’s early tasks he had to perform at the RA School was to copy a cast but the object was set up some distance from him and he realised that his poor sight was going to pose a problem and so had to purchase a pair of spectacles.  Haydon continued to work hard and such attitude found favour with Fuseli. 

The statue of the athlete Discobulus by Myron (c.450BC)

In March 1804, having completed the task of drawing the figure of Discobolus he received his “ticket” and became a ”Student of Painting”.  Shortly after, Haydon was summoned home by his family as his father was dying.  However, despite still being a patient at Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth his father had recovered and Haydon remained in the city that summer.  Haydon immediately sought permission from the hospital authorities to draw from their collection of preserved human bones with dried muscle. He drew obsessively, combining his depiction of the specimens with poses typically found in anatomical textbooks. 

Anatomical drawing of the bones and muscles of the lower leg by Benjamin Haydon (1805)

The result was an album with a collection of anatomical drawings.  Haydon believed that anatomy was the key to comprehending the ‘principles of heroic form’ which would then result in successful completion of grand historical works which was still his artistic aim. His ambition was to become the greatest historical painter England had ever known.

……to be continued

The majority of the information I have used in this and the subsequent blogs on the life of Benjamin Haydon came from an excellent second-hand book, published in 1998, I came across entitled A Genius for Failure, The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon by Paul O’Keefe. If you are interested in Haydon’s life, I can highly recommend you try to get yourself a copy.