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A Famous Evening of Genius & Laughter in Literary London, 1817
In December Wordsworth was in town, and as Keats wished to know him I made up a party to dinner of Charles Lamb, Wordsworth, Keats and Monkhouse, his friend; and a very pleasant party we had. I wrote to Lamb, and told him the address was `22 Lisson Grove, North, at Rossi's, halfway up, right hand corner'. I received his characteristic reply: `My dear Haydon, I will come with pleasure to 22 Lisson Grove, North, at Rossi's, halfway up, right hand side, if I can find it. Yours C. Lamb. 20 Russel[sic] Court, Covent Garden East, halfway up, next the corner, left hand side.'
Benjamin Robert Haydon, Autobiography
Benjamin Robert Haydon, history painter and host of the Immortal Dinner, was in no doubt as to his status: genius. In close partnership with the Almighty, whom he cajoled and pleaded with on page after page of the twenty-six volumes of his diaries, he would, he knew, succeed in his aims. These were clear-cut and precise: to restore the noble and sublime form of history painting — or High Art, as he preferred to call it — to its standing in the golden days of Raphael; to refine the public's taste in the visual arts; and to incite the government to play itspart in this moral and elevated purpose by commissioning works of art — preferably his — to decorate public buildings; and lastly, that he himself, Benjamin Robert Haydon, should paint the greatest pictures ever seen on the very grandest scale, and so lead the way towards making his country supreme in art throughout the civilized world. The inspiring size of his canvases made him tingle with excitement; he loved the challenge of their scale and the heightened emotion generated by their mythic or historically dramatic content. Looking at one of his paintings, he exclaimed, `What fire, what magic! I bow and am grateful.' And of his Judgment of Solomon, `that wonderful picture', he asked himself.' `Ought I to fear comparison of it with the Duke of Sutherland's Murillo, or any other picture? Certainly not!'
The host of the Immortal Dinner arrived in London from Devonshire in 1804, aged eighteen, to study at the Royal Academy schools, the programme of his future career ready framed in his mind. He never wavered from it through the appalling vicissitudes of his life, which were to include imprisonment for debt on three separate occasions, the death of several of his children, and ostracism from the Royal Academy. In the realization of part of his dream — the government's setting of a competition for the decoration of the newly rebuilt House of Lords — his own designs were not even considered, and the humiliation of this blow was no doubt a factor in his eventual suicide. Posterity remembers him more for his friendships and his wonderful diary and autobiography than for his painting. Most of his vast and grandiose canvases are now rolled away and forgotten, while his early chalk drawing of Wordsworth's head recently reappeared on the market, selling for a considerable sum, so endorsing his patrons' disregarded advice to turn from history painting to portraiture. His campaigns against the art establishment tended to escalate into wearying Ancient Mariner-like naggings that his friends came to dread. But he was right after all. The reforms for which he so persistently agitated are today the accepted norm.
Haydon had a large head (an intellectual head, he felt) and looked, as Aldous Huxley put it, `as if Mussolini had been strangely blended with Cardinal Newman'. In some portraits, however, the Mussolini element is absent and he appears gentle and kindly. His fellow artist and friend David Wilkie drew him in 1815, for example, showing him asleep and vulnerable, spectacles on his nose, his hairline already receding. He suffered from very poor eyesight and had even been blind for a short period after a childhood illness, and when painting he wore several pairs of strong concave spectacles balanced one upon another, removing and replacing them as he moved close up to his canvas or stood back to consider its progress. Distortions in his work are probably due to this frustrating routine. As he painted he whispered rapidly and incessantly to himself.
Because Haydon was so sure of his genius, and because he did possess many of the attributes of that status, including the defining infinite capacity for taking pains, and because his tremendous energy and conviction were so compelling and magnetic, his friends accepted his estimate of himself. And when he was overcome, as later he increasingly was, by bouts of despair, their confidence in him succeeded again and again in restoring his equilibrium, so that he would bounce back triumphantly, his astonishing vanity seemingly undented. That Wordsworth should address a number of sonnets to him — Haydon was well aware of the honour this represented, but did not question its appropriateness — and that Keats at the very outset of his career also wrote a fine sonnet `Great spirits now on earth are sojourning' partly in his honour, and that Leigh Hunt and several others fêted him in laudatory verse, is a measure of his impact on the literary world of the day.
Two years after his arrival in London the twenty-year-old Haydon was commissioned by Lord Mulgrave, the influential connoisseur and patron of the arts, to paint a picture on the subject of the death of the warrior Dentatus, known as the Roman Achilles, showing him at the moment of his assassins' attack. The young artist was overjoyed: the recognition he felt to be his right had come early. With a fine sense of occasion he knelt down and prayed for blessings on his career:
I poured forth my gratitude for His kind protection during my preparatory studies and for early directing me in the right way, and implored Him in His mercy to continue that protection which had hitherto been granted me. I arose with that peculiar calm which in me always accompanies such expressions of deep gratitude, and looking fearlessly at my unblemished canvas, in a species of spasmodic fury I dashed down the first touch. I stopped, and said: `Now I have begun; never can that last moment be recalled.'
Every Wednesday, as he worked on this first canvas, he mixed his paints on a piece of pasteboard which he then carried down to Lord Stafford's gallery to compare his colours with those of Stafford's Titians.
Haydon enjoyed working on a commission for a lord because, it has to be said, he was a terrific snob. Unfortunately this did not lead to him to behave with a suitably flexible attitude to his patron's pronouncements. If he felt he knew more about the subject, then he said so, often causing offence to Lord Mulgrave or Sir George Beaumont, the two most important patrons of the arts who were to come his way. John Constable warned him to be more tactful, and events would show the wisdom of this caution; but he was incapable of moderating his behaviour, even though it might endanger those forays into high society he so much enjoyed. He wrote in an ecstasy of bliss about one such visit, later in his life, to Lord Egremont at Petworth, where he was warmly welcomed and shown to a magnificent bedroom:
I really never saw such a character as Lord Egremont. `Live and let live' seems to be his motto. He has placed me in one of the most magnificent bedrooms I ever saw. It speaks more for what he thinks of my talents than anything that ever happened to me. Over the chimney is a nobleman kneeling. A lady of high rank to the right. Opposite, Queen Mary. On the right of the cabinet, Sir Somebody. The bed curtains are of different coloured velvets let in on white satin.
What a destiny is mine! One year in the Bench, the companion of gamblers and scoundrels — sleeping in wretchedness and dirt, on a flock bed low and filthy, with black worms crawling over my hands — another, in a splendid house, the guest of rank, and fashion and beauty! As I laid my head on my down pillow the first night I was deeply affected, and could hardly sleep.
As to Egremont himself, Haydon found him `literally like the sun' shining on one and all, so that `the very flies at Petworth seem to know there is room for their existence, that the windows are theirs'.
At breakfast in walks Lord Egremont; first comes a grandchild, whom he sends away happy. Outside the window moan a dozen black spaniels, who are let in, and to them he distributes cakes and comfits, giving all equal shares. After chatting with one guest, and proposing some scheme of pleasure to others, his leathern gaiters are buttoned on, and away he walks, leaving everybody to take care of themselves. At seventy-four he still shoots daily, comes home wet through and is as active and looks as well as many men of fifty ... I never saw such a character, or such a man, nor were there ever many.
On leaving Petworth he copied his bread-and-butter letter into his diary, ending: `In earnestly hoping your lordship may live long, I only add my voice to the voices of thousands, who never utter your lordship's name without a blessing.' But in spite of this effusion Haydon was never invited again. Perhaps he tried to borrow money from his host, or perhaps his exclusion was due to his eccentric behaviour with his bedclothes. Dinner had been served on the first day of his visit, but no Haydon appeared. Presently he was discovered in his room, his evening coat folded neatly over a chair, his greatcoat buttoned up to his chin, busily engaged in hanging his sheets and blankets on chairs around the room, the window flung wide and a huge fire alight in the grate, as he indulged his mania for fresh air and his suspicions of the possible dampness of strange bedlinen.
For much of his life Haydon was tormented by the fickle behaviour of those of `rank, fashion and beauty' who crowded his studio on his regular weekly open day and often at other times as well to chatter and exclaim, only to desert him at the first hint of a setback. Charles Lamb left him a note describing an encounter with one such pair:
Dear Raffaele Haydon, Did the maid tell you I came to see your picture, not on Sunday but the day before? I think the face and bearing of the Bucephalus tamer very noble, his flesh too effeminate or painty. The skin of the female's back kneeling is much more carnous. I had small time to pick out praise or blame, for two lord-like Bucks came in, upon whose strictures my presence seemed to impose restraint. I plebeian'd off therefore. Yours in haste (salt fish waiting) C. Lamb.
In keeping with the scale of his other attributes, Haydon's capacity for suffering was immense, and he was bewildered and hurt by the disloyal behaviour of his society acquaintances; but discouragement alternated with moods of elation. `I have been,' he wrote during a period of success, `like a man with air balloons under his armpits and ether in his soul. While I was painting, walking or thinking, beaming flashes of energy followed and impressed me.' Once, after contemplating a Raphael cartoon for three hours at a stretch, he felt as if a spirit had dipped him in `racy nectar'; and sometimes his sensations of epiphany lifted him into a mystic dimension when he experienced Blakeian visions of angels and archangels, `with their terrific hands', floating in the clouds. His ebullience was infectious: William Hazlitt said that `he set one upon one's legs better than a glass of champagne'. His laughter was famous. Leigh Hunt, poet, essayist and radical editor, serving a two-year sentence for libelling the Prince Regent, to whom he referred in words to the effect that he was a fat Adonis of fifty, remembered of one of Haydon's visits to him in prison that he called before he was up, demanded breakfast, and made the place echo with his laughter that sounded like the trumpets of Jericho.
When the fat Adonis came to be crowned in the summer of 1821, Haydon's loyalty to the Hunts did not extend to refusing a ticket for the occasion. The event, which finally took place at the end of July, had been planned down to the last detail by the Prince Regent himself, and postponed for fear of disruption from his wife, as determined to be crowned queen as he was to prevent it. Caroline appeared at the Abbey magnificently dressed for the occasion and attended by her ladies, only to be barred from each entrance and finally having the great door of Westminster Hall slammed in her face. More than 900 invitations had been sent out, and Haydon was delighted to have a seat in Westminster Hall. Pageantry on such a scale was ambrosia to his soul, and in line with the scale of his own pictures, and, besides, he had a great sense of the mystique of the monarchy. He was not to be disappointed. The first priority was to get all the necessary adjuncts to his costume: `I only got my ticket on Wednesday at two, and dearest Mary and I drove about to get all I wanted. Sir George Beaumont lent me ruffles and frill, another a blue velvet coat, a third a sword; I bought buckles, and the rest I had, and we returned to dinner exhausted.'
Haydon went to bed at ten o'clock in the evening, got up again at midnight, not having slept a wink, and by half past one in the morning he was at Westminster Hall, and other than three ladies he was the first to arrive. When the doors were finally opened at four o'clock he seized an eminently desirable front place in the Chamberlain's box, between the door and the throne. Many of the doorkeepers, he noticed, were tipsy, and quarrels broke out:
The sun began to light up the old gothic windows, the peers to stroll in, and the company to crowd in, of all descriptions; elegant young men tripping along in silken grace with elegant girls trembling in feathers and diamonds, old peers and old peeresses, some in one dress and some in another, many with swords, whose awkwardness in managing them showed how unused their sides had been to the graceful encumbrance, and many with coats, velvet and satin, of all ages, all courts, and all times ... all happy, eager, smiling, and anticipating. Some took seats they had not any right to occupy, and were obliged to leave them after sturdy disputes. Others lost their tickets. The Hall occasionally echoed with the hollow roar of voices at the great door, till at last the galleries were filled.
Haydon was entranced by all he saw, until at last the time came for the entry of the king:
The appearance of a Monarch has something of the air of a rising sun; there are indications which announce his approach, a streak of light, the tipping of a cloud, the singing of a lark, the brilliance of the sky, till the edges get brighter and brighter, and he rises majestically into the heavens. So was the King's advance. A whisper of mystery turns all eyes to the throne! Suddenly two or three run; others fall back; some talk, direct, hurry, stand still, or disappear. Then three or four of high rank appear from behind the Throne; an interval is left; the crowds scarce breathe! Something rustles, and a being buried in satin, feathers and diamonds rolls gracefully into his seat. The room rises with a sort of feathered, silken thunder! Plumes wave, eyes sparkle, glasses are out, mouths smile, and one man becomes the prime object of attraction to thousands! The way in which the King bowed was really monarchic! As he looked towards the peeresses and foreign ambassadors, he looked like some gorgeous bird of the east.
The king then proceeded to his crowning and there was a wait of several hours, during which his unfortunate and discarded wife made her vain attempt to gain entry. Young girls strewed flowers on the ground over which the new monarch would walk. And after the banquet was over came what Haydon felt was the finest sight of the day, when the great doors of the Hall were opened for the ritual entry of the King's Champion in full armour, escorted by Wellington and Howard, all three on horseback. A herald read the challenge to any enemy of the new king, the Champion's glove was thrown down, and the hieratic figures moved forward to the throne:
My imagination got so intoxicated that I came out with a great contempt for the plebs, and as I walked by with my sword, I said to myself `odi profanum etc'. I got home quite well, and thought sacred subjects insipid things. How soon I should be ruined in luxurious society!
Excerpted from The Immortal Dinner by PENELOPE HUGHES-HALLETT. Copyright © 2000 by Penelope Hughes-Hallett. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|List of Illustrations|
|3||The Guests Assemble||72|
|4||Christ's Entry into Jerusalem||94|
|5||The Mystery of the Rainbow||138|
|6||Medicine and Poets||177|
|7||Tragedy in Africa||217|
|8||Patrons and a Comptroller of Stamps||252|
Posted January 8, 2001
This was an incredible book. Having read a lot about the poet John Keats(who was a guest) , this biography of one dinner party enlightened me about this poet than any biography of the poet has ever done.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.