Benjamin Robert Haydon - Encyclopedia

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BENJAMIN ROBERT HAYDON (1786-1846), English historical painter and writer, was born at Plymouth on the 26th of January 1786. His mother was the daughter of the Rev. Benjamin Cobley, rector of Dodbrook, Devon, whose son, General Sir Thomas Cobley, signalized himself in the Russian service at the siege of Ismail. His father, a prosperous printer, stationer and publisher, was a man of literary taste, and was well known and esteemed amongst all classes in Plymouth. Haydon, an only son, at an early date gave evidence of his taste for study, which was carefully fostered and promoted by his mother. At the age of six he was placed in Plymouth grammar school, and at twelve in Plympton St Mary school. He completed his education in this institution, where Sir Joshua Reynolds also had acquired all the scholastic training he ever received. On the ceiling of the school-room was a sketch by Reynolds in burnt cork, which it used to be Haydon's delight to sit and contemplate. Whilst at school he had some thought of adopting the medical profession, but he was so shocked at the sight of an operation that he gave up the idea. A perusal of Albinus, however, inspired him with a love for anatomy; and Reynolds's discourses revived within him a smouldering taste for painting, which from childhood had been the absorbing idea of his mind.

Sanguine of success, full of energy and vigour, he started from the parental roof, on the 14th of May 1804, for London, and entered his name as a student of the Royal Academy. He began and prosecuted his studies with such unwearied ardour that Fuseli wondered when he ever found time to eat. At the age of twenty-one (1807) Haydon exhibited, for the first time, at the Royal Academy, "The Repose in Egypt," which was bought by Mr Thomas Hope the year after. This was a good start for the young artist, who shortly received a commission from Lord Mulgrave and an introduction to Sir George Beaumont. In 1809 he finished his well-known picture of "Dentatus," which, though it brought him a great increase of fame, involved him in a lifelong quarrel with the Royal Academy, whose committee had hung the picture in a small side-room instead of the great hall. In 1810 his difficulties began through the stoppage of an allowance of £200 a year he had received from his father. His disappointment was embittered by the controversies in which he now became involved with Sir George Beaumont, for whom he had painted his picture of "Macbeth," and Payne Knight, who had denied the beauties as well as the money value of the Elgin Marbles. "The Judgment of Solomon," his next pro duction, gained him £700, besides £ioo voted to him by the directors of the British Institution, and the freedom of the borough of Plymouth. To recruit his health and escape for a time from the cares of London life, Haydon joined his intimate friend Wilkie in a trip to Paris; he studied at the Louvre; and on his return to England produced his "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem," which afterwards formed the nucleus of the American Gallery of Painting, erected by his cousin, John Haviland of Philadelphia. Whilst painting another large work, the "Resurrection of Lazarus," his pecuniary difficulties increased, and for the first time he was arrested but not imprisoned, the sheriff-officer taking his word for his appearance. Amidst all these harassing cares he married in October 1821 a beautiful young widow who had some children, Mrs Hyman, to whom he was devotedly attached.

In 1823 Haydon was lodged in the King's Bench, where he received consoling letters from the first men of the day. Whilst a prisoner he drew up a petition to parliament in favour of the appointment of "a committee to inquire into the state of encouragement of historical painting," which was presented by Brougham. He also, during a second imprisonment in 1827, produced the picture of the "Mock Election," the idea of which had been suggested by an incident that happened in the prison. The king (George IV.) gave him £soo for this work. Among Haydon's other pictures were-1829, "Eucles" and "Punch"; 1831, "Napoleon at St Helena," for Sir Robert Peel; "Xenophon, on his Retreat with the ` Ten Thousand,' first seeing the Sea"; and "Waiting for the Times," purchased by the marquis of Stafford; 1832, "Falstaff" and "Achilles playing the Lyre." In 1834 he completed the "Reform Banquet," for Lord Grey - this painting contained 197 portraits; in 1843, "Curtius Leaping into the Gulf," and "Uriel and Satan." There was also the "Meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society," energetically treated, now in the National Portrait Gallery. When the competition took place at Westminster Hall, Haydon sent two cartoons, "The Curse of Adam" and "Edward the Black Prince," but, with some unfairness, he was not allowed a prize for either. He then painted "The Banishment of Aristides," which was exhibited with other productions under the same roof where the American dwarf Tom Thumb was then making his debut in London. The exhibition was unsuccessful; and the artist's difficulties increased to such an extent that, whilst employed on his last grand effort, "Alfred and the Trial by Jury," overcome by debt, disappointment and ingratitude, he wrote "Stretch me no longer on this rough world," and put an end to his existence with a pistol-shot, on the 22nd of June 1846, in the sixty-first year of his age. He left a widow and three children (various others had died), who, by the generosity of their father's friends, were rescued from their pecuniary difficulties and comfortably provided for; amongst the foremost of these friends were Sir Robert Peel, Count D'Orsay, Mr Justice Talfourd and Lord Carlisle.

Haydon began his first lecture on painting and design in 1835, and afterwards visited all the principal towns in England and Scotland. His delivery was energetic and imposing, his language powerful, flowing and apt, and replete with wit and humour; and to look at the lecturer, excited by his subject, one could scarcely fancy him a man overwhelmed with difficulties and anxieties. The height of Haydon's ambition was to behold the chief buildings of his country adorned with historical representations of her glory. He lived to see the acknowledgment of his principles by government in the establishment of schools of design, and the embellishment of the new houses of parliament; but in the competition of artists for the carrying out of this object, the commissioners (amongst whom was one of his former pupils) considered, or affected to consider, that he had failed. Haydon was well versed in all points of his profession; and his Lectures, which were published shortly after their delivery, showed that he was as bold a writer as painter. It may be mentioned in this connexion that he was the author of the long and elaborate article, "Painting," in the 7th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. To form a correct estimate of Haydon it is necessary to read his autobiography. This is one of the most natural books ever written, full of various and abundant power, and fascinating to the reader. The author seems to have daguerreotyped his feelings and sentiments without restraint as they rose in his mind, and his portrait stands in these volumes limned to the life by his own hand. His love for his art was both a passion and a principle. He found patrons difficult to manage; and, not having the tact to lead them gently, he tried to drive them fiercely. He failed, abused patrons and patronage, and intermingled talk of the noblest independence with acts not always dignified. He was self-willed to perversity, but his perseverance was such as is seldom associated with so much vehemence and passion. With a large fund of genuine self-reliance he combined a considerable measure of vanity. To the last he believed in his own powers and in the ultimate triumph of art. In taste he was deficient, at least as concerned himself. Hence the tone of selfassertion which he assumed in his advertisements, catalogues and other appeals to the public. He proclaimed himself the apostle and martyr of high art, and, not without some justice, he believed himself to have on that account a claim on the sympathy and support of the nation. It must be confessed that he often tested severely those whom he called his friends. Every reader of his autobiography will be struck at the frequency and fervour of the short prayers interspersed throughout the work. Haydon had an overwhelming sense of a personal, overruling and merciful providence, which influenced his relations with his family, and to some extent with the world. His conduct as a husband and father entitles him to the utmost sympathy. In art his powers and attainments were undoubtedly very great, although his actual performances mostly fall short of the faculty which was manifestly within him; his general range and force of mind were also most remarkable, and would have qualified him to shine in almost any path of intellectual exertion or of practical work. His eager and combative character was partly his enemy; but he had other enemies actuated by motives as unworthy as his own were always high-pitched and on abstract grounds laudable. Of his three great works - the "Solomon," the "Entry into Jerusalem" and the "Lazarus" - the second has generally been regarded as the finest. The "Solomon" is also a very admirable production, showing his executive power at its loftiest, and of itself enough to place Haydon at the head of British historical painting in his own time. The "Lazarus" (which belongs to the National Gallery, but is not now on view there) is a more unequal performance, and in various respects open to criticism and censure; yet the head of Lazarus is so majestic and impressive that, if its author had done nothing else, we must still pronounce him a potent pictorial genius.

The chief authorities for the life of Haydon are Life of B. R. Haydon, from his Autobiography and Journals, edited and compiled by Tom Taylor (3 vols., 1853); and B. R. Haydon's Correspondence and Table Talk, with a memoir his son, F. W. Haydon (2 vols., 1876). (W. M. R.)

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