It is one of fate’s curious tricks that as Benjamin Robert Haydon’s reputation as a historical painter has diminished since his lifetime, the estimation of his writings has risen correspondingly. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the years principally covered by the AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Haydon’s friends gave encouragement and much-needed financial assistance to his efforts to bring England to an appreciation of the ideals of High Art, which to Haydon meant historical painting on an epic, Raphaelesque scale. His excursions with the pen, however, were inconveniently likely to bring enmity and spite on the impetuous head of the young painter; and it was earnestly wished by his friends that he would wield the brush instead of the pen.
Now, a century after his death, Haydon’s merit as an artist is dubious. There are suggestions that he be redeemed somewhat from the obscurity and neglect he has fallen into, but these are by no means strong enough for him to be considered a central figure in the history of painting. But his intimacy with prominent social and literary figures of the English Romantic period, his spirited style of writing, and his faithful recording of his activities, thoughts, and impressions of people, make his autobiography and journals a rich source of information for anyone interested in the background of English life in the early nineteenth century.
The AUTOBIOGRAPHY covers the period from his birth in 1786 to 1820. Haydon began writing it, working from recollection and from the journals he kept throughout his life, in 1842. His suicide at the age of sixty cut short the writing, but the rest of his life can be traced in the twenty-six bulky volumes of his journals. Had we only the AUTOBIOGRAPHY, however, we would still obtain an accurate portrait of the man. Even in his youth the impassioned qualities of his character glow through the pages: pride, hotheadedness, tenacity to a principle, incompetence in his financial affairs, stanch patriotism, devotion to the ideals of art, and indomitable optimism.
Haydon’s early determination to devote himself to art met with equally early and long-continued opposition from his family. His parents expected him to take over their prosperous bookseller’s shop in Plymouth, but by the age of sixteen the boy hated everything connected with the business and was already set upon becoming a great painter. He relates in his memoirs the family crises that occurred as a result. At last his ambitions were taken seriously, however, and his father, sending him off to London to study art, agreed to support him as long as possible.
The enthusiasm in Haydon’s account of his early adventures, even in a retrospect of almost forty years, attests to the nearly frenzied energy with which at the time he plunged into his new career. Chronically poor eyesight could not deter him, and even recurring periods of near-blindness only increased his industry when the danger to his eyes had passed. He studied anatomy; he became acquainted with the prominent painters of London (whose contradictory counsels confirmed him in his own ideas about art). With one of his fellow-students, David Wilkie, Haydon began in 1805 a friendship that influenced both men as mature artists.
The narrative of the AUTOBIOGRAPHY fairly bristles with enthusiasm as Haydon describes his early struggles for recognition and commissions. Excerpts from his journals are often introduced to trace the progress of a painting. Comments frequently appear wishing that he could do without sleep or food to finish the work more efficiently. His ambitions for greatness seem always to have been at fever-heat, and when his friends predicted that his second major painting, “The Assassination of Dentatus,” would change England’s entire conception of art, Haydon was filled with hope that it should be so.
Consequently, the cold reception of his painting by the Royal Academy seemed cruel and incomprehensible to him. The painters who formed the...
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