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: