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.