Benjamin Haydon

From Academic Kids

Benjamin Robert Haydon (January 26, 1786 - June 22, 1846) was an English historical painter and writer.

He was born at Plymouth. His mother was the daughter of the Rev. Benjamin Cobley, rector of Dodbrook, Devon. Her brother, General Sir Thomas Cobley, was renowned for his part in the siege of Ismail. Benjamin's father, a prosperous printer, stationer and publisher, was well known in Plymouth. Haydon, an only son, at an early date showed an aptitude for study, which was carefully fostered by his mother. At the age of six he was placed in Plymouth grammar school, and at twelve in Plympton St Mary School, the same school where Sir Joshua Reynolds had received most of his education. On the ceiling of the school-room was a sketch by Reynolds in burnt cork, which Haydon loved to sit and look at. 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. Reading Albinus inspired him with a love for anatomy; but from childhood he had wanted to become a painter.

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Head of Selene's horse, 1809.

Full of energy and hope, he left home, on May 14, 1804, for London, and entered the Royal Academy as a student. He was so enthusiastic that Henry Fuseli asked when he ever found time to eat. Aged twenty-one (1807) Haydon exhibited, for the first time, at the Royal Academy, "The Repose in Egypt," which was bought by 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 increased his fame, resulted in a lifelong quarrel with the Royal Academy, whose committee had hung it in a small side-room instead of the great hall. That same year, he took on his first pupil, Charles Lock Eastlake, later destined to become one of the great figures of the British art establishment.

In 1810 his financial difficulties began when the allowance of £200 a year from his father was stopped. 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 Richard Payne Knight, who had denied the beauties as well as the money value of the Elgin Marbles. "The Judgment of Solomon," his next production, gained him £700, besides £100 voted to him by the directors of the British Institution, and the freedom of the borough of Plymouth. To restore his health and escape for a time from the cares of London life, Haydon joined his intimate friend David Wilkie in a trip to Paris; he studied at the Louvre; and on returning to England, produced "Christ's Entry into Jerumalem," 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 financial problems increased, and he was arrested but not imprisoned, the sheriff-officer taking his word for his appearance. Yet in October, 1821, he married a beautiful young widow with children, Mrs Hyman, to whom he was devoted.

In 1823 Haydon was imprisoned in the King's Bench, where he received consoling letters from leading men of the day. Whilst there, 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. During a second imprisonment in 1827, he produced the picture of the "Mock Election," the idea of which had been suggested by an incident in the prison. King (George IV) gave him £500 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 597 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 he was not given 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 General Tom Thumb was 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 committed suicide by shooting himself, 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 poverty and comfortably provided for; amongst the foremost of these friends were Sir Robert Peel, Count D'Orsay, Mr Justice Talfourd and Lord Carlisle.

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Portrait of William Wordsworth, 1842.

Haydon was well known as a lecturer on painting and design, and, from 1835 onwards visited all the principal towns in England and Scotland on lecture tours. Haydon's ambition was to see the chief buildings of Britain adorned with historical representations of her glory. He lived to see 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 (including one of his former pupils) considered that he had failed. Haydon's Lectures, which were published shortly after their delivery, showed that he was as bold a writer as painter. It may be mentioned in this connection that he was the author of the long and elaborate article, "Painting," in the 7th edition of the Encyclopędia Britannica.

Haydon's autobiography is one of the most natural books ever written, full of various and abundant power, and fascinating to the reader. His love for his art was both a passion and a principle. He found patrons difficult to manage; and did not have the tact to lead them gently. 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. He had confidence in his own powers and in the ultimate triumph of art. He proclaimed himself the apostle and martyr of high art, and believed himself to have a claim on the sympathy and support of the nation.

Readers of his autobiography were struck by 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. He had many enemies, actuated by motives as unworthy as his own were always high-pitched and on abstract grounds laudable.

Of his three great works--"Solomon," "Entry into Jerusalem" and "Lazarus"--the second is generally regarded as the finest. "Solomon" is shows his executive power at its loftiest, and of itself enough to place Haydon at the head of British historical painting in his own time. "Lazarus" is a more unequal performance, and in various respects open to criticism; 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., I855); and B. R. Haydon's Correspondence and Table Talk, with a memoir by his son, FW Haydon (2 vols,, 1876).


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