Benjamin Robert Haydon

26 January 1786 - 22 June 1846

#Historical painter, born in Wimpole Street, Plymouth, was son of a printer and publisher, who came of an old Devonshire family. His mother, Sarah Cobley, was the daughter of the Rev. B. Cobley, curate of Shillingford, and afterwards rector of Dodbrooke. Both his father and grandfather were fond of painting. When six years old Benjamin was sent to the grammar school at Plymouth under Dr. Bidlake, who encouraged him to sketch from nature; and a Neapolitan named Fenzi, employed by his father as a bookbinder, excited his imagination by describing the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, and urged him to draw the figure. At an early age he showed great independence and determination of mind, combined with a desire for distinction. He gave dramatic entertainments to his schoolfellows in the drawing-room, and shut himself up in the attic to paint and lecture to himself. He was allowed to read the books in his father's shop, and showed a preference for the lives of ambitious men. His father, seeing the need for more severe discipline, sent him in 1798 to the grammar school at Plympton, where he remained under the Rev. W. Haynes till 1801. He rose to be head boy, and acquired a fair knowledge of Latin, Greek, and French. While there he indulged his love of art by copying caricatures and adorning the hall with a spirited hunting scene drawn with burnt sticks. He also taught his schoolfellows drawing, and tried his hand at etching. After six months with an accountant at Exeter, he was bound apprentice to his father, but his ambition to be a painter was not to be conquered. An attack of inflammation of the eyes, which left a permanent dimness of sight, did not discourage him, and after three years of rebellion, during which he studied anatomy from Albinus, and insulted his father's customers, he started on 13 May 1804, with 20l. in his pocket, for ‘London, Sir Joshua, drawing, dissection, and high art.’



He determined to devote himself to study for two years before he began to paint. He took lodgings at 3 Broad Street, Carnaby Market, and next day visited the exhibition of the Royal Academy at Somerset House. Satisfied that he need fear no rival in historical painting, he straightway bought some plaster casts, and began drawing from the round. He did not deliver his cards of introduction, but remained for several months before he knew any one in London except Prince Hoare, who introduced him to Fuseli and Northcote. From these as well as from Opie and Smirke he sought advice, but he determined to do without a master, and went on attending the Academy schools and Charles Bell's lectures on anatomy, working sometimes twelve or fourteen hours a day till more than the two years were over. He attained a certain predominance among the students of the Academy, and made friends with Wilkie and Jackson.

On 1 Oct. 1806 he began his first picture, ‘Joseph and Mary resting on the Road to Egypt.’ This was one of the least ambitious in a list of thirty-eight subjects which he had drawn up before or very shortly after he came to London. He chose a canvas six feet by four, and finished the picture in six months. During its progress Sir George and Lady Beaumont called upon him, and he was introduced to Lord Mulgrave, who gave him a commission for a picture of ‘Dentatus.’ The ‘Joseph and Mary’ was hung on the line at the Academy, and bought by Thomas Hope of Deepdene for a hundred guineas. Success also attended him at Plymouth, where he went to see his father, who was ill, and to paint portraits, for practice as a preparation for ‘Dentatus,’ at fifteen guineas apiece. Before he returned to town his mother died. He found it difficult to realise his heroic ideal of ‘Dentatus’ until Wilkie took him to see the Elgin marbles, then recently arrived at Lord Elgin's house in Park Lane. There seems to be no doubt that he was the first to see their extraordinary merit, and on returning home he ‘dashed out the abominable mass’ of his ‘Dentatus,’ and ‘breathed as if relieved from a nuisance.’ He obtained permission to draw from the marbles, and for three months worked at them ten, fourteen, and sometimes fifteen hours at a time. ‘Dentatus’ was painted in and out many times before it was completed in March 1809. During its progress his painting-room was crowded with admirers, among whom was Charles (afterwards Sir Charles) Eastlake [q. v.], his first pupil, and he was introduced by Lord Mulgrave into the most distinguished society, where he was flattered and hailed as the reviver of art.

The picture was hung in the octagon room at the Academy, an act which was regarded by Haydon as an insult. Lord Mulgrave, to console him, sent him a cheque for fifty or sixty guineas, in addition to its price of one hundred, but his fair-weather friends deserted his painting-room, and though he tried to divert his mind from his disappointment by vigorous reading, his health gave way, and he went home for five weeks. Wilkie went with him, and they paid a visit to Sir George Beaumont at Coleorton, where Sir George gave him a commission for a picture of ‘Macbeth.’

Commenced in 1809, ‘Macbeth’ was not finished till 1 Jan. 1812, and during a great part of this time Haydon lived entirely upon credit, his father's supplies having failed altogether before the end of 1810. He had scarcely begun the picture before he had a dispute with Sir George about the size. Sir George agreed to take the picture if he liked it when it was finished, and if not, to give him a commission for a smaller one. Sir George did not like it when it was finished, and Haydon refused the smaller commission, and also the cheque for a hundred guineas which he was offered as compensation. Sir George, whose kindness and patience in the matter were extraordinary, ultimately bought the picture for two hundred guineas. During these years Haydon's name was up for election at the Royal Academy, but he did not receive a vote, and even C. R. Leslie [q. v.], who generally takes the part of the Academy against Haydon, allows that the election of George Dawe [q. v.] in 1809, in preference to the painter of ‘Dentatus’ was disgraceful. In 1810 this ‘Dentatus’ gained the premium of a hundred guineas offered by the directors of the British Gallery for the best historical picture, although the prize was competed for by Howard the academician, but this triumph brought Haydon little pecuniary relief, and embittered his relations with the Academy. He sent a picture of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to the Academy this year, but withdrew it on hearing it was to be hung in the octagon room. Altogether the years devoted to painting ‘Macbeth’ were almost devoid of encouragement, but Haydon's strength of will never allowed him to swerve from his purpose. ‘Nothing,’ he writes, ‘could exceed my enthusiasm, my devotion, my fury of work—solitary, high-minded, trusting in God, glorying in my country's honour.’

All his life Haydon kept a journal, evidently intended to be published, or at least to form the basis of an autobiography which he commenced, but did not live to complete. In it he entered every event of importance, chronicling day by day his thoughts and feelings, and the progress of his pictures, illustrated by vigorous sketches. It is contained in twenty-six volumes, ‘bulky, parchment-bound, ledger-like folios,’ and is one of the most tragical records extant. Heavily in debt, having quarrelled with the Academy and alienated his most powerful friends, Haydon ill-advisedly published three letters in the ‘Examiner’ (26 Jan. and 2 and 9 Feb. 1812), on the eve of the appearance of his ‘Macbeth.’ In them he ridiculed Payne Knight for his opinions upon Barry and high art, and attacked the Academy with much violence. The letters, written with great vigour, contained too much truth to pass without a storm; they increased the animosity of the Academy, and alienated the directors of the British Gallery, of whom Payne Knight was one of the most influential. ‘Macbeth’ was sent to the Gallery to compete for the prize of three hundred guineas. The directors would not give it to Haydon, and there was none else who deserved it if he did not. They determined not to give any prizes, but with the money purchased a picture by Henry J. Richter of ‘Christ Healing the Blind.’ Haydon returned indignantly 30l. sent by the directors to pay for his frame, which had cost 60l. He was probably right in regarding the action of the directors as a breach of faith.

He had already begun a fresh picture, ‘The Judgment of Solomon,’ on a canvas 12 feet 10 inches by 10 feet 10 inches, which was not finished till 1814, by which time he was 1,100l. in debt. He got credit from his tradespeople, and borrowed from his friends Wilkie, Hilton, the Hunts (Leigh and John), Benjamin West, and others. But nothing damped his ardour, which he describes as ‘enthusiasm stimulated by despair almost to delirium.’ Once he 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 painting. His health broke down just as he completed the picture, which was sent to the exhibition of the Water-colour Society in Spring Gardens, and created a sensation. The directors of the British Gallery wanted to buy it, but it was already sold to Sir William Elford and Mr. Tingecombe, bankers of Plymouth, for six hundred guineas. Lord Mulgrave and Sir George Beaumont were warm in congratulations. Academicians praised it, and again his table was covered with cards of the nobility and distinguished persons. The money did not pay half his debts, but it restored his credit, and having ordered another enormous canvas, he rubbed in his ‘Christ's Entry into Jerusalem,’ and went over with Wilkie to Paris, then in the occupation of the allied armies. Haydon enjoyed and studied the masterpieces collected in the Louvre, and the soldiers of all nations crowding the streets. In his absence the British Institution had voted him a hundred guineas for his ‘Solomon,’ and the freedom of Plymouth was conferred upon him. Yet the triumph of ‘Solomon’ brought him no commissions, and the exhibition of it in Plymouth, Liverpool, and Birmingham was a failure. He now set to work with renewed energy on his ‘Christ's Entry into Jerusalem,’ which took him six years to complete. He writes on 29 April 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 the progress of his picture was much interrupted from weakness of his eyes and a controversy about the Elgin marbles. Canova arrived in England in 1815, and confirmed Haydon's views as to their supreme merit. A committee of the House of Commons was appointed to consider the question of purchase for the nation. Out of consideration to Payne Knight, Haydon's evidence was not called for, but he wrote an article ‘On the Judgment of Connoisseurs being preferred to that of Professional Men,’ which mercilessly exposed the ignorance of Payne Knight, and demonstrated with great vigour and knowledge the merits of the marbles. It appeared in both the Examiner and the Champion, and, as Sir Thomas Lawrence said, saved the marbles. Lawrence added that it would ruin Haydon, but Haydon was well on the road to ruin already. He was penniless, but would not paint marketable pictures. Sir George Beaumont gave him a commission, but he did not execute it; Mr. (afterwards Sir) George Phillips gave him another for a picture of ‘Christ's Agony in the Garden,’ but he spent an advance of 200l., and was in no hurry to finish the picture. It is now at the South Kensington Museum. With reckless extravagance he had casts taken of the Elgin marbles, and made presents of them to Canova and others. He took pupils for nothing, and set up a school to rival the Academy. He got into the hands of the money-lenders. He spent much time in writing essays on art and attacks on the Academy for Elmes's Annals of Art, and if it had not been for the generous assistance of friends and patrons he would probably have never finished his ‘Christ's Entry into Jerusalem.’ When it was finished at last, Haydon, without a penny in his pocket, engaged the great room at the Egyptian Hall for a year at 300l., and opened the exhibition on 27 March 1820. Its success was great; the net profits of the exhibition in London amounted to nearly 1,300l., and it was afterwards exhibited successfully at Edinburgh and Glasgow, but he was still deeply in debt when in December he commenced his ‘Lazarus’ (now in the National Gallery) on a canvas 19 feet long by 15 feet high. It was not finished till December 1822.

In October 1821 Haydon married Mary Hymans, a beautiful widow, with whom he had been in love for some years, and about this time his creditors began to take active steps against him. A few months before and again shortly after his marriage he was arrested for debt, and in November 1822, he had an execution in the house. His eldest son, Frank, was born in December. ‘Lazarus’ was exhibited at the Egyptian Hall in the March following. The exhibition was very successful, but the picture was seized by creditors almost immediately with the rest of his property, including a new huge canvas on which he had already commenced a picture of ‘The Crucifixion.’ He was imprisoned in the King's Bench till 25 July. ‘Lazarus’ was sold to his upholsterer for 30l., and ‘The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem’ (now at Philadelphia) for 240l.

Henceforth, though full of activity in various directions, his career as a painter was maimed. Hitherto this career had been chequered, but on the whole brilliant. His aims were high, and if he formed an exaggerated notion of his own genius and the importance of his mission as an artist, he was encouraged in his delusions by some of the most cultivated and gifted men of the day. Among his admirers were Sir Walter Scott, Keats, Charles Lamb, Wordsworth, Southey, Hazlitt, Miss Foote, Miss Joanna Baillie, Miss Mitford, and Mrs. Siddons. Wordsworth addressed him the fine sonnet commencing ‘High is our calling, friend! creative art;’ Keats evidently referred to him in his sonnet beginning ‘Great Spirits now on earth are sojourning;’ Miss Mitford and Charles Lamb joined the chorus. Distinguished foreigners, like Canova and Cuvier, Horace Vernet and the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, had come to see the great picture of ‘Jerusalem’ in progress. He had an enthusiastic following of pupils, including Charles and Thomas Landseer, William Harvey, George Lance, William Bewick, and others. He firmly believed, too, that God was on his side. His journals are interwoven with prayers. 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, and what's more I believe it.’

From prison Haydon petitioned parliament to grant money for the decoration of churches and other public buildings with paintings, and on his release his first intention was to return to his stripped home and paint his ‘Crucifixion.’ But to this his wife objected, and they took lodgings for a while at Paddington Green, afterwards removing to Lisson Grove. He now began to paint portraits and small pictures for a livelihood, but his small pictures, partly on account of his eyesight perhaps, were never successful, and portrait-painting was not his vocation. He could catch a strong likeness, and when he had a fine subject like Wordsworth he became interested in his work, but he generally looked upon portrait-painting as ‘a maudlin substitute for a poetic life.’ Until 1837 he struggled on pitiably; he was thrice imprisoned, his wife lost her little fortune, and five of his children died. His pictures of the period include ‘Pharaoh dismissing Moses,’ ‘Venus and Anchises’ (for Sir John Leycester), ‘Alexander and Bucephalus’ (bought by Lord Egremont), ‘Napoleon’ (for Sir Robert Peel), ‘The Reform Banquet’ (for Earl Grey), ‘Cassandra’ (for the Duke of Sutherland), ‘Xenophon’ (raffled for, now in the Russell Institution), ‘The Death of Eueles’ (raffled for), a humorous picture, and ‘Punch’ (now in the National Gallery). Two others were suggested by his experience during his second imprisonment, when he witnessed the burlesque election of two members for the King's Bench. ‘The Mock Election,’ the first of these, was admired by Wilkie, and purchased by George IV for five hundred guineas, and for ‘Chairing the Member’ he obtained half that price. In 1826, he sought reconciliation with the academicians, but though they received his overtures in a friendly way, they would not vote for him either in 1826 or 1827. In these years and in 1828 he exhibited at the Royal Academy, but not again till 1842. Even his commissions were a source of trouble. That for ‘Alexander and Bucephalus’ was withdrawn, but Lord Egremont came to his rescue and purchased it. The ‘Reform Banquet’ (well known from its engraving) was exhibited at a heavy loss, and the corporation of London withdrew their commission for a copy of it. The price of ‘Napoleon’ was the subject of a misunderstanding with Sir Robert Peel, which bitterly incensed Haydon.

Haydon's courage and energy never failed, 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. He petitioned parliament, wrote letters to ministers, and used the opportunity of the sittings given him for the reform picture to press his projects on Lord Grey, Lord Althorp, and other powerful men. In 1834, his petition for spaces to be left for pictures on the walls of the new houses of parliament was approved, and his scheme for schools of design was accepted by Ewart's committee in 1835. He had also the satisfaction of seeing the privileges of his old enemy the Royal Academy invaded by this committee. He meddled also in politics, and was for a while energetic on the subject of reform. He wrote three letters to the ‘Times,’ and was invited by the Birmingham radicals to come out as a political speaker. They also commissioned him to paint a picture of the New Hall Hill meeting, but this they withdrew. It was also during this period that he commenced his career as a lecturer. On 8 Sept. 1835, he delivered the first of a successful series of lectures at the London Mechanics' Institution on painting and design. His wife's companionship and his perfect physical health helped to sustain his energy during these years (1823–37).

There followed a season of comparative rest and freedom from pecuniary embarrassments and domestic calamities. Discontented with the government school of design at Somerset House, where drawing from the figure was not taught, he assisted Ewart, Wyse, and others in establishing an opposition school (with a model) at Savile House, which was dropped in 1839, after it had forced the Somerset House school to introduce drawing from the living figure. His lectures now became an important source of income. They were delivered in Liverpool, Manchester, and in the chief manufacturing towns of the north, and led to many commissions for pictures, including ‘Christ Blessing Little Children,’ for the church of the Blind Asylum at Liverpool, and the well-known picture of the Duke of Wellington musing on the field of Waterloo, a commission from a committee of Liverpool gentlemen. In 1840 he commenced the picture of a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society at Freemasons' Hall, with Clarkson speaking, now in the National Portrait Gallery. In the same year he lectured at Oxford, and was proud of his reception by the university.

He afterwards painted the ‘Maid of Saragossa,’ ‘Mettus Curtius,’ ‘Uriel and Satan,’ and ‘Edward the Black Prince,’ some of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy (1842–5), but the principal interest of these later years was the decoration of the houses of parliament. The scheme had been broached by him in 1812, and had since been pressed by him on parliament and the government in season and out of season, but when the scheme was carried out he was overlooked. Before the fine arts committee of 1841, he was not even examined; and when Prince Albert's fine art commission was appointed, with Haydon's old pupil Eastlake as secretary, his suggestions and offers of assistance met with a cold reception. He ruined his chances of favour in high quarters by an intemperate letter to the ‘Times’ against what he called ‘the German nuisance,’ after the visit of the German artist Cornelius to this country had roused a suspicion that German artists were to be employed. He competed without success at the cartoon exhibition in 1843; and in 1845, with the courage of despair, he determined to paint and exhibit to the public his projected series of six pictures to ‘illustrate the best government to regulate without cramping the liberties of mankind.’ Of these he finished two only, the ‘Banishment of Aristides’ and ‘Nero playing the lyre during the burning of Rome,’ which were exhibited at the Egyptian Hall in 1846. To his intense irritation, Tom Thumb, the celebrated dwarf, was drawing crowds to another room of the same building at the same time. He closed his exhibition with a loss of 111l. 8s. 10d., and bravely set to work at the third of the series, ‘King Alfred,’ but the strain was too great. He committed suicide on 22 June 1846.

The coroner's jury brought in a verdict of insanity. Haydon employed his last hours in writing a will, in which he reviewed his life, and expressed his last wishes in a manner unusually calm and clear. But he had lived for a great part of his life on the borders of suicide, if not of insanity. He started with a few ideas so firmly set that nothing would alter their direction until the inevitable catastrophe. He was pure in thought and act, generous, lofty in aim, a good husband, father, and friend. His mind was wide in its grasp and well cultivated, his judgment sound in matters unconnected with himself and his art. His life, like his art, was heroic at least in scale and intention. If his vanity and his unscrupulousness in money matters transcended all ordinary standards, so also did his energy and his power of endurance. Unfortunately his dreams for the glory of art and the glory of his country were so bound up with the glory of Haydon as to taint his whole career with egotism. As Mr. G. F. Watts, R.A., wrote, ‘his pictures are himself, and fail as he failed.’ They had the same fault of self-assertion and violence. With an occasional approach to the sublime, as in his head of Lazarus, they are seldom without some exaggeration which repels. His drawing, remarkable for its knowledge of anatomy, was without elegance and defective in proportion. His colour, rich at times, was very unequal, and seldom harmonious as a whole. Vigorous in their conception, his pictures are without refinement or pathos; they may impress, but they seldom or never please. As a lecturer and writer on art his success was more assured. In spite of their attacks on the Academy, and other outbursts of personal feeling, his writings are full of sound teaching, expressed in a clear, picturesque, and vigorous style.

Besides many ‘Descriptions’ of his pictures, copies of some of which in the British Museum have manuscript notes by the author, Haydon published (all in 8vo):

1. The Judgment of Connoisseurs upon Works of Art compared with that of Professional Men, in reference more particularly to the Elgin Marbles, London, 1816. 2. New Churches considered with respect to the opportunities they afford for the Encouragement of Painting, London, 1818.

3. Comparaison entre la tête d'un des Chevaux de Verise, qui étaient sur l'arc triomphale des Thuilleries, et qu'on dit être de Lysippe, et la Tête de Cheval d'Elgin du Parthenon, London, 1818.

4. Descriptions of Drawings from the Cartoons and Elgin Marbles by Mr. Haydon's Pupils [signed ‘B. R. H.’], London, 1819.

5. Some Enquiry into the Causes which have obstructed the Course of Historical Painting for the last seventy years in England, 1829.

6. On Academies of Art (more particularly the Royal Academy) and their pernicious effect on the Genius of Europe. Lecture xiii., London, 1839.

7. Thoughts on the relative value of Fresco and Oil Painting as applied to the Architectural Decorations of the Houses of Parliament, London, 1842.

8. Lectures on Painting and Design, 2 vols., London, 1844–6. There are some manuscript notes by Haydon in the British Museum copy of Williams's Life of Sir T. Lawrence.

Haydon's eldest son, Frank Scott Haydon, (1822–1887), was engaged in the Public Record Office, and besides Calendars of Documents included in the deputy-keeper's reports, edited the Eulogium Historiarum for the Rolls Series in 1868. He committed suicide, 29 Oct. 1887. His second son, Frederick Wordsworth Haydon, (1827–1886), was for a time in the navy, and was afterwards inspector of factories. He was dismissed from the service in 1867, when he published a letter addressed to the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, and entitled ‘Our Officials at the Home Office.’ He published his father's Correspondence and Table-Talk with a memoir in 1876. He died at Bethlehem Hospital on 12 Nov. 1886, aged 59.


[Tom Taylor's Life of Haydon; F. W. Haydon's Benjamin Robert Haydon, his Correspondence and Table Talk; Cunningham's Lives (Heaton); Masterpieces of English Art (art. on Haydon by Austin Dobson); Annals of the Fine Arts (containing many articles by Haydon, and his life down to 1819, by Elmes, the editor); Redgrave's Century of Painters.]