Benjamin Robert Haydon Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Benjamin Robert Haydon 1786-1846

English autobiographer, essayist, critic, and diarist.

Aspiring to achieve greatness as a historical painter, Haydon never attained the success he envisioned. Instead, the tumultuous figure is remembered more for his autobiographical writings, which reveal his flair for romanticized and exalted language; his tremendous ambition and pride; his disputes—both public and private—with his many “adversaries,” including London's Royal Academy; and his never-ending anxiety over his professional failures and financial troubles. Not considered a major writer during his lifetime, Haydon attracted attention as a literary figure after his death with the publication of the three-volume Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Historical Painter, from His Autobiography and Journals (1853), which was printed at the request of his wife. A highly abridged version of his personal writings, the Life exhibited such literary merit that it has been reissued in modified forms several times since its original publication.

Biographical Information

Haydon was born in Plymouth in January of 1786 to Benjamin Robert Haydon, a bookseller and printer, and Sarah Cobley Haydon. At age six he began drawing, and by age eighteen, certain of his love for art, he left his father's business and enrolled at the Royal Academy. Though beset in childhood with an eye disease that permanently damaged his vision, Haydon was driven by an intense determination to succeed. He found inspiration in famed English portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses on Art (1769-91) and hoped to paint in the mode of the great Renaissance painters Raphael and Michelangelo. Devoted to what he referred to as the masters's “high art,” he wished to replicate their reverence for religion, their precision of form, their sense of patriotism, and their emotional expressiveness—qualities he vehemently set in contrast to the work of the “carrot painters,” those artists whose still lifes, portraits, and small-scale landscapes were so loved by the uninformed public. Arriving at the Royal Academy in 1804, Haydon achieved success with his first commissioned work, The Assassination of Dentatus (1808), which in 1810 won a premium for historical painting from the British Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts. This also marked the beginning of a lifelong conflict with the Royal Academy, triggered by a dispute over the display of the painting in the Academy. Some of Haydon's other early works—The Judgment of Solomon (1814) and Christ's Entry into Jerusalem (1820)—garnered high prices, and for a short time he was even called by some critics England's finest historical painter. Haydon quickly accumulated massive amounts of debt, however, as he spared no expense with materials and models while spending enormous amounts of time on the massive works. He temporarily maintained solvency only through the generosity of friends and by borrowing money. These continued financial difficulties would contribute significantly to his downfall.

During this same time the Elgin marbles, a collection of ancient Greek sculptures and inscriptions, was brought to England from Athens by Lord Elgin, who hoped that they would be purchased by the English government. Haydon, who had first seen the marbles in 1808, quickly became a proponent of the purchase and became embroiled in an intense public dispute with connoisseur Richard Payne Knight, director of the British Gallery, who claimed the marbles were inauthentic and inartistic. Haydon attacked the detractors in his first publication, The Judgment of Connoisseurs upon Works of Art Compared with That of Professional Men (1816), which brought about widespread notoriety for the author. Haydon became further incensed at the fact that, even though his name had been submitted as a “friendly witness,” he was never called by Parliament to testify as to the artistic value of the marbles. Haydon's public status reached its height when he was awarded an honorary membership in the Russian Imperial Academy. Around this time Haydon's friends included the Hunt brothers (John, Leigh, and Robert), Charles Lamb, John Keats, and William Wordsworth, the latter two sharing Haydon's ambitious artistic goals. Keats and Wordsworth, in fact, both wrote sonnets to their friend.

Haydon's quarrel with the Royal Academy extended to the areas of art instruction for the public and governmental funding for artists, causes that he returned to repeatedly over the course of his life. He claimed that the Royal Academy had “subtly and insidiously abandoned its most sacred obligation, that of providing sufficient art instruction for the people.” Thus, he established a private school of his own, which operated from 1815-23, and opened the doors to artisans, mechanics, and traditional artists. Haydon's mantra was that design was crucial to any aesthetic undertaking, and his school focused heavily in this area. “My object,” he stated, “was to make design as cheap as ABC, that the merest door-painter might paint the human figure.”

A year after his success with Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, Haydon married the widow Mary Cawrse Hyman. She already had two children, and four more were born in subsequent years. Mounting debts only increased, and a series of imprisonments resulted for Haydon, who could no longer escape the money lenders and creditors. By 1824 Haydon was forced by his legal adviser to submit to a new methodology: the artist had to start painting portraits and could not work on the massive canvasses he had previously desired. In effect, Haydon became one of the detested “carrot painters.” For the next several years he painted portraits, including an 1842 portrait of Wordsworth and Mock Election, completed during one of his many stays in debtor's prison. He busied himself with trying to convince the government to subsidize historical painters and also began a career as a public lecturer, speaking in London, Edinburgh, and the northern cities, particularly Liverpool. Though popular and enjoyable as a lecturer, Haydon was never able to break from poverty. In early 1846, he arranged another exhibition of his works, featuring two final paintings entitled The Banishment of Aristides and The Burning of Rome by Nero. The showing was a complete failure. Impoverished and despondent, Haydon attempted to set his affairs in order. Overwhelmed, he shot and stabbed himself in the throat. The medical examiner listed “insanity” as the cause of death.

Major Works

Haydon began writing his autobiography in 1841, writing for two years and stopping his chronicle at 1820. His journals fill in the years both before and after that period. Totaling twenty-six folio volumes, his highly dramatic journal entries begin in 1808 and are filled with letters and documents, sketches, gossip about contemporaries, literary criticism, talk of English politics, his views on debtors' laws, newspaper cuttings, his anguish over his constant financial woes, and descriptions of his paintings. Writings in both his autobiography and journal reflect his grandiose ideas about his own artistic talent and his aspirations to elevate the artistic preferences of the general marketplace and his almost desperate desire to see his own country achieve the same respect in painting as it had in poetry. Reflecting, too, his emotional intensity, his writings continually emphasize the “ceaseless oppositions” that he felt characterized his entire life, highlighted by his feeling that the London art establishment never accorded him the honor and respect he deserved and the subsequent resentment and bitterness he fostered throughout his career. Conversely, his jottings also exhibit his knack for simplicity and humor, evidenced in particular in the anecdotes of his friendships with Wordsworth and Keats, the former whom he admired for his skill at using the written word to convey emotions, and the latter for whom he felt a devoted kinship. Both of these writers, in Haydon's estimation, would forego life if their lofty artistic goals were not reached. In addition, the journals reveal Haydon's great admiration for Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, and Homer, and allusions to these literary giants fill his writings. Religion is also a major component of the works; at one point, Haydon, an orthodox Christian, claimed that, except for religion, “I should have gone mad.”

Critical Reception

From the start, Haydon was criticized for his lack of judgment where his own artwork was concerned; in fact, Haydon was criticized for extolling his own artwork in such publications as Annals of the Fine Arts and The Examiner (these pieces were often published anonymously). As early as 1926, English novelist and critic Aldous Huxley claimed that Haydon “had absolutely no artistic talent” and that he had missed his true calling as a romantic novelist, citing his keen powers of observation, his comic style, his strength in storytelling, and his verbal dexterity. Biographer Eric George, too, declared that “Haydon chose to be a painter, but it is through the pen and not the brush that he is most likely to be remembered.” Critics have stressed that Haydon's writings contain characteristics of the Romantic writers and that he possessed an extraordinary gift for drama. One of the areas of interest to scholars is the fact that even though Haydon professed that he was bound to tell the truth, almost all his writings are colored by his distorted and grandiose view of himself and of his work. Haydon's endless self-analysis and indulgence in obsessive melancholy, both evident in his writings, have also inspired critics to speculate on his motives for penning his life story.