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.