Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817

Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817

by Penelope Hughes-Hallett

View All Available Formats & Editions

On December 28, 1817, the eccentric painter B. R. Haydon gave a famous dinner party in his painting room in London. He invited, among others, three of the greatest literary lights of the age: the poets John Keats and William Wordsworth and the essayist and wit Charles Lamb. Over the course of a long winter evening of delights, the guests recited poetry,

…  See more details below


On December 28, 1817, the eccentric painter B. R. Haydon gave a famous dinner party in his painting room in London. He invited, among others, three of the greatest literary lights of the age: the poets John Keats and William Wordsworth and the essayist and wit Charles Lamb. Over the course of a long winter evening of delights, the guests recited poetry, indulged in high-minded conversation, and took part in ridiculous antics, with such displays of brilliance and wit that the party came to be known as the Immortal Dinner. Penelope Hughes-Hallett celebrates this unique gathering by vividly bringing to life these illustrious diners against a backdrop of social change. Literary London society was at its extraordinarily gifted best just two years after Waterloo: the Elgin Marbles controversy still raged; Mrs. Siddons performed Lady Macbeth in her drawing room to a distinguished audience; Joseph Ritchie, a young physician and would-be poet, prepared to explore the River Niger with a copy of Keats in his pocket. The Immortal Dinner offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives and thoughts of this literary elite at a turning point in English society. It recaptures these rare spirits, using a great many of their own words from letters and diaries. With 75 black-and-white illustrations and 2 maps.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Sunday Telegraph - Charles Osborne
Sheer delight.
Jonathan Bate
Wonderfully evocative...splendidly readable.
Independent - Mark Bostridge
A book of great charm....Hughes-Hallett allows us to savor all the ingredients of a very special event.
The New York Times - Evelyn Toynton
Fascinating...has many pleasures to offer.... Terrifically rich.
Remarkably accomplished...delicious.
Sunday Telegraph
Sheer delight.
— Charles Osborne
A book of great charm....Hughes-Hallett allows us to savor all the ingredients of a very special event.
— Mark Bostridge
San Francisco Chronicle
Remarkable.... Hughes-Hallett transcends the gimmick and enters the realm of the profound.
Atlantic Monthly
Illuminates an entire world...discursive and lively.
The Wall Street Journal
Interesting...many excellent illustrations.
The New York Times
Fascinating...has many pleasures to offer.... Terrifically rich.
— Evelyn Toynton
The Historian
This book is an enjoyable read and is certain to make readers with to know more about the many topics discussed.
Charles Osborne
Sheer delight.
Sunday Telegraph
Mark Bostridge
A book of great charm.... .... Hughes-Hallett allows us to savor all the ingredients of a very special event.
Wall Street Journal
Interesting...many excellent illustrations.
Publishers Weekly
A single dinner, attended 185 years ago by such literary luminaries as William Wordsworth, John Keats and Charles Lamb, no matter how brilliant the conversation, may not seem a sufficient subject for a book of 300 pages but it is in Hughes-Hallett's hands. The host to the evening, painter B.R. Haydon, had an agenda in putting together the dinner: he wanted to show off his progress on the monumental painting Christ's Entry into Jerusalem. Hughes-Hallet's (Home at Grasmere: The Wordsworths and the Lakes) main source for what transpired is Haydon's diary, which put a grandiose, self-congratulatory spin on the evening. The author takes Haydon's hyperbolic lead, portraying the dinner as a pivotal cultural event of the early 19th century. Far more interesting than the dinner itself, though, is Hughes-Hallett's vivid narrative of life in literary London in 1817. Combining exhaustive research and bold extrapolation, the author frequently digresses on the customs and culture of the day, material that ultimately supplies the meat of this account. Each member of the dinner party is honored with a biography, some of which is emotionally engaging (the tragic history of the Keats family's delicate health) and some not (the gratuitous sortie into how medical schools procured cadavers). Conveyed in a style both erudite and playful, Hughes-Hallett's account is noteworthy for the delicious inside peek it gives readers into the lives of these 19th-century celebrities. Using the dinner as a touchstone, Hughes-Hallett ultimately does convey to the reader the immortal qualities of those present in London on that late December evening in 1817. 75 b&w illus., 2 maps. (Sept. 6) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Early in December 1817, the avant-garde painter Benjamin Robert Haydon moved into new lodgings in London that included a luxurious new painting studio. To celebrate the splendor of his new surroundings and to show off his glorious new painting, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, Haydon invited London's reigning literary and scientific lights to dinner and tea. Thus, on December 28, 1817, Haydon held what he referred to in his journals as his "immortal dinner," where Wordsworth, Keats, Charles Lamb, surgeon Joseph Ritchie, engraver John Landseer, and Mary Wordsworth's cousin Tom Monkhouse recited poetry and ranged over topics from Shakespeare to science. In exhaustive detail, Hughes-Hallett (Home at Grasmere: The Wordsworths and the Lakes) chronicles the conversations and personalities of this delightful evening. She traces the routes each person would have walked to the party and moves beyond the actual event to sketch the later lives of the guests. Hughes-Hallett's loving portrait of this small dinner party is a microcosm of the larger political, economic, and social context of the early 19th century in which Romantic views of art and the artist were evolving. Yet because her cultural study involves a small circle of friends engaging in an isolated, albeit interesting, incident, the book is recommended primarily for large public libraries.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Read More

Product Details

Dee, Ivan R. Publisher
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.92(w) x 8.68(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Immortal Dinner

A Famous Evening of Genius & Laughter in Literary London, 1817



Copyright © 2000 Penelope Hughes-Hallett.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-56131-071-9

The Host

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.

Read More

What People are saying about this

The Historian
...This book is an enjoyable read and is certain to make readers want to know more about the many topics discussed.
Sheer delight.
A book of great charm....Hughes-Hallett allows us to savor all the ingredients of a very special event.
Interesting...many excellent illustrations.
...Hughes-Hallett gives us a complex and fascinating portrait of a specific party and, at the same time, of a culture and an age.
Wonderfully evocative...splendidly readable.
Jonathan Bate
Wonderfully evocative...splendidly readable.

Meet the Author

Penelope Hughes-Hallett has also written My Dear Cassandra and Home at Grasmere, and has edited Childhood: A Collins Anthology. She lives in Warwickshire, England.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >