There are certain anecdotes that no matter how often you hear them, they always invoke the same emotion. Thus, whenever the artist B R Haydon is mentioned I am immediately engulfed by a sense of pathos.
Benjamin Robert Haydon was destined from childhood to be an artist. More than just a painter, he thought about art, wrote about it, taught, campaigned and preached on the subject. His early ambition was fostered by his parents and at the age of 18 in 1804 he left his Plymouth home full of hope as he entered the Royal Academy schools in London. His commitment was immediately obvious and three years later he entered his first exhibit at the Royal Academy, a painting entitled The Repose in Egypt. It was purchased to adorn the home of one, Thomas Hope. Another commission followed but when the Royal Academy failed to give the new painting the prominent place he thought it deserved, he foolishly picked a quarrel with the Academicians that blighted his relationship with them.
Until this point he was cushioned by an annual allowance from his father, but seeing that his son seemed to be doing well, B R Haydon senior stopped the payment. Young Benjamin was already in debt but fortunately he sold another painting The Judgement of Solomon for a substantial £700 thus averting disaster – for the time being. He promptly borrowed more money and took the chance to go to Paris to view the paintings that had been amassed at the Louvre museum by the now defeated Emperor Napoleon 1st. When he got back to England he was arrested for non-payment of debts but just avoided a prison sentence.
Benjamin had already decided that true art lay in painting huge subjects on an heroic scale and he petitioned Parliament to set up a “committee to inquire into the state of encouragement of historical painting.” Two significant events had taken place by this time – he had married Mary Hyams, an old friend and widow with two children – and he was committed to the King’s Bench for debt. Out of necessity he began painting portraits and for a while he seemed to have found a solution to his fragile financial situation. Unfortunately the satirist and wit Theodore Hook, who had launched a popular though scurrilous Sunday magazine, John Bull wrote a withering criticism of Haydon’s work. For whatever reason, Benjamin’s client list fell off and he blamed Hook for his latest crisis. In 1827 he was again in the King’s Bench and while he was there he painted a scene that he called “The Mock Election.” He sold it to King George IV for a life-saving £500. Suitably encouraged he began more works in the same genre but the king was not interested – a change of heart Haydon attributed to the influence of his Keeper of the King’s Pictures, William Seguier.
During the following decade lurching from financial crisis to crisis, he produced numerous works of art. His grand portrayal of the Reform Banquet included 597 individual portraits. In a similar style, followed a Meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society but these monumental works had a limited market. One of the problems for Haydon was the size. He had very poor sight and resorted to wearing two and even three pairs of glasses that he had to keep adjusting each time he looked at a different area of the canvas. This may well have affected the finished work.
Benjamin then embarked on a tour of Britain, lecturing across England and Scotland to societies and institutions about the importance of public, historical art. En route he took note of the major buildings where such artworks might be installed. He made copious notes, commenting on everything he saw and writing about the many contemporaries who crossed his path, creating a valuable insight into Georgian society.
In 1834 a disaster struck London when the Palace of Westminster was virtually destroyed by fire. Haydon immediately met with the PM Lord Melbourne to impress on him the importance of decorating the new Houses of Parliament with uplifting art and paintings from the British past. The commission for this rebuilding was under the auspices of Prince Albert. A competition was announced to select the best artists and Haydon immediately set to work to prepare two cartoons for submission. The scheme and its execution was bogged down by controversy and it was 1843 before the results were announced. Neither “The Curse of Adam,” or “Edward the Black Prince,” was selected. He was overwhelmed with disappointment, not least because he felt that his former students who might have had some influence, had betrayed him.
In 1846 in an attempt to rally his fortunes he hired the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly and mounted an exhibition. He sent out 400 invitations and on the first day watched from the window as crowds gathered outside. A cruel trick awaited him for in an adjoining salon, General Tom Thumb, the circus midget was holding an audience. Upwards of a thousand people came to see him. Four visitors ventured into Benjamin’s show. So it continued every day. A group of fellow artists and contemporaries, including Charles Dickens and Edwin Landseer made it their business to come and see Tom Thumb – but they do not appear to have bothered to include the adjoining exhibition in their outing. A grand total of 12 people seem to have made the effort and the outlay for laying on the exhibition left him again in debt.
Now aged sixty, he was forced to persuade his friend Elizabeth Barrett to hide his paintings and notebooks at her home as they were once more under threat from the bailiffs. In a London sweltering under 90 degrees of heat, on the morning of June 22 1846 Haydon walked from his home to the shop of a gunsmith and purchased a pistol. He returned home, locking himself in his studio and wrote a pile of letters to his wife and children, to Sir Robert Peel and other important people in his life. He also completed a long and complex will. At this time his wife knocked on his door to announce that she would shortly be going out. When she had gone, he placed her portrait and the painting on which he was working, together with his letters and diary in front of him then taking his pistol he pointed it to his head and fired. The wound did not prove fatal and Benjamin, fetching a cutthroat razor twice slashed his throat. Poor Anne was to discover her husband’s corpse.
Despite his lifelong commitment to painting and that his works are to be found in many major collections, he could not live with the belief that he was a failure.