The Painter Who Died For His Art

Selfie: Haydon produced this self-portrait around 1845. It is on display at London's Natioal Portrait Gallery
Selfie: Haydon produced this self-portrait around 1845. It is on display at London's Natioal Portrait Gallery

by Ray Setterfield


June 22, 1846 — In any book of spectacular failures a chapter would have to be devoted to Benjamin Robert Haydon who died on this day.

Born in 1786, he was a British painter who specialised in grand historical pictures – though not successfully.

To put it bluntly – and the Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists does just that, he was “an English painter and writer – a mediocre artist, but a fascinating personality.”

According to the Dictionary, he aimed to bring a new seriousness to British art “by producing historical and religious works in the Grand Manner and through them to educate and improve public taste.”

His life, which was punctuated by bankruptcy, imprisonment, and disputes with patrons, the Dictionary adds, “was a story of bombastic frustration and stubborn opposition to the establishment (particularly London’s Royal Academy), as he fought continuously for personal recognition. However, his talents fell far short of his lofty ambitions.”

Ever since childhood Haydon had wanted to be a painter and in 1807, when he was 21, it seemed that the door to his ambition had opened. The Royal Academy put on display his painting entitled The Repose in Egypt.

The delighted artist then set to work on another painting, Dentatus, which he completed in 1809. Again, it was accepted for display by the Royal Academy but instead of being hung in the great hall Dentatus was relegated to a side room. Haydon was furious and savagely berated the Academy’s leading figures, causing a lifelong rift.

Nothing, however, could diminish his zeal which he described as "enthusiasm stimulated by despair almost to delirium."

William Cosmo Monkhouse, an art critic of the time, reported in 1812 that Haydon once painted for fifteen hours at a stretch, lived for a fortnight on potatoes, and when he received the news of his father's death he went on with his work.

When he began another painting, Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, Haydon wrote in his diary on April 29, 1815: ‘Never have I had such irresistible and perpetual urgings of future greatness. I have been like a man with air-balloons under his armpits and ether in his soul." But failing eyesight and various diversions meant it took him six years to complete the work.

Art, however, was not Haydon’s only passion, as he revealed in a diary entry on June 14 1815: “My feelings, my heart, yearn & are sick for a sweet woman on whose bosom I could lay my head & in whose heart I could confide. I would marry her from any class of life if she had elegant & tender feelings . . . could I but meet with one!”

It seems that on the question of romance Haydon’s hopes were both raised and dashed because he adds in the same entry:

“At a house where I visited, a most elegant, lovely servant opened the door; an exchange of feeling took place in our eyes. When she came in nothing could be more graceful. The Mistress & family talked of her kindness of heart, elegance of manner, and said she had a mind above her situation.

“This affected me. I longed for her to be pure & virtuous, but alas, the next time I went a hang of the head & smile of intelligent meaning gave indications of an easy conquest. I was melancholy, as I have often been, at such disappointments . . . when I had highest views . . .”

Haydon’s romantic torment was not to last, though, because in 1821 he married Mary Hyman, a beautiful widow with two young children, whom he had loved for some years. They would spend the rest of their lives together and bring seven more children into the world.

But around this time Haydon’s creditors were becoming active. His financial difficulties began in 1810 when his father, a prosperous printer, stationer and publisher, stopped paying his son an annual allowance of £200. He did so thinking that the artist could stand on his own feet after he had sold a couple of paintings for worthwhile amounts.

But the loss of these funds, a lack of commissions and the expense of a growing family plunged Haydon into such financial woe that he spent two months in a debtors’ prison in 1823 and served another term there in 1827.

To boost his income Haydon reluctantly turned in 1825 to portrait painting, which at first brought welcome success. But then the periodical John Bull published a savage review of his work in the genre. Haydon later blamed the article for his loss of clientele and for his falling back into massive debt.

One critic around this time described Haydon as “conceited, obstinate, and irritable. He was always quarrelling – now with the Royal Academy, now with individuals, and gradually relapsed into the conviction that he was an ill-understood and ill-used man.”

Still, he doggedly pursued his painting passion or, as William Cosmo Monkhouse put it, “he struggled on pitiably; he was thrice imprisoned, his wife lost her little fortune, and five of his children died.”

However, Haydon’s courage and energy never failed, Monkhouse said, “and he was constantly occupied with schemes for the promotion of art in England, especially the decoration of public buildings and the establishment of schools of design.”

Over the years Haydon's name was up for election at the Royal Academy, but he never received a single vote. In 1826 he sought reconciliation with the academicians, but though they received his overtures in a friendly way, the rift was never healed.

Finally, around 1843 he painted The Banishment of Aristides and put it on display in London at a gallery that he had hired. Unfortunately, the American little person Tom Thumb – then described as a dwarf – was appearing at the same venue and he pulled in 12,000 visitors over the Easter week. Only 133 people came in to see Haydon’s painting.

While working on his last grand effort, Alfred and the Trial by Jury, wracked by feelings of rejection and disappointment, at the same time facing huge debts of over £3,000, Haydon decided on suicide, writing in his diary: "Stretch me no longer on this rough world."

But even that went wrong. After shooting himself the bullet failed to kill and he had to finish the job by cutting his own throat. He was 61 years old.

No matter what the critics said, Haydon firmly believed that he had divine support. The year before his death he wrote: "The moment I touch a great canvas I think I see my Creator smiling on all my efforts. The moment I do mean things for subsistence, I feel as if He had turned His back."

One man who did turn his back was author Charles Dickens. He wrote in 1846 that "all his life Haydon had utterly mistaken his vocation.

“No amount of sympathy with him and sorrow for him in his manly pursuit of a wrong idea for so many years — until, by dint of his perseverance and courage it almost began to seem a right one — ought to prevent one from saying that he most unquestionably was a very bad painter, and that his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed.”

Dickens went on to say that Haydon's art was “quite marvellous in its badness”.

Published: June 7, 2020

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