In May 1804, at the age of 18, Benjamin Robert Haydon left his home in Plymouth and set off for London to become a great artist. His mother was distraught, his father furious, but there was no doubt in Haydon’s mind either of his vocation or of his genius. He could have worked in his father’s bookshop and inherited a secure, independent income but he didn’t want to. So he was rude to the customers and finally, when one of them asked for a reduction on a Latin dictionary, he stormed out. Such was always to be Haydon’s way. So began ‘that species of misery’, the ‘ceaseless opposition’ of temperament that was to dog and finally to destroy him. Tactlessness is scarcely a tragic flaw: Haydon was obsessed with the heroic in art, yet in life he was often closer to the comic, his flair for insulting the wrong person at the wrong moment costing him chance after chance, losing him friends, recognition and patronage. His career, which ended in suicide, was less a tragedy than a parable, a moral tale of what he himself described as ‘the agony of ungratified ambition’.
Yet a man capable of such insight could never be merely ridiculous. Haydon had talent as an artist and arguably more as a writer; he taught himself German and Italian. He was ebullient, humorous and – when he chose to be – perceptive about others: in many ways a lovable man. By 1817 he had established himself both as a painter and as a figure in the intellectual life of Regency London. It was a world where high thinking went with ramshackle living. Haydon’s friends, Charles and Mary Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt and the young Keats were all, like him, mostly self-educated and chronically short of money.
Haydon had also come to know Wordsworth, who was in London in December 1817. On the 28th Haydon invited him to dinner to meet Keats. Charles Lamb was there. Hazlitt, who had attacked Wordsworth in print, was not invited. Nor were the Leigh Hunts, for Haydon had rashly lent Mrs Hunt his silver spoons and forks for a recent party of her own. The considerable difficulty he had in getting them back had led to a froideur.
The party, in Haydon’s painting room at his lodgings in Lisson Grove, was a success. Wordsworth was not too much on his dignity, Lamb was not too drunk. The talk was of Milton and Shakespeare, Voltaire and Newton. Lamb and Keats agreed that Newton had ‘destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow’ and the company drank a famous toast: ‘Newton’s health and confusion to mathematics.’ Above them towered Haydon’s huge unfinished canvas Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, dramatically lit from time to time by the firelight. His Jerusalem was the epitome of the heroic ‘High Art’ Haydon hoped, and expected, to revive in England and it seemed to him that his picture was the crowning glory of ‘a night worthy of the Elizabethan age’, his great ‘immortal dinner’.
Of course nobody praised the party more loudly or referred to it more often afterwards than Haydon himself, but this was one boast that was justified. The evening, recorded in a brief but vivid account set down the same night in his journal, would have been remarkable had it done no more than bring together the two generations of Romantic poetry. It did more than that, though: it caught a moment in English social and intellectual life, an engaging as well as a brilliant moment, and one that was about to pass. Distinctions that would soon harden into opposition, between art and science, art and commerce, professionals and amateurs, were still unclear, up for discussion and much discussed in Haydon’s circle. It was in the negotiable territory between them that careers like theirs could flourish.
Penelope Hughes-Hallett is not much concerned to offer new information about the evening or the protagonists, though she has some about Joseph Ritchie, a young explorer, who was there too. Rather she pursues, with warmth and energy, the various currents of ideas that ran through the evening’s conversation. The narrative proceeds like good table talk. It digresses, moves between large subjects and domestic details, from the French Revolution to the food and the weather, ranging over past and future. Sometimes the story crosses back over itself but is none the worse for that.
London itself is one great theme. Two years after Waterloo it was the biggest city anybody had ever seen. ‘Barbarian and infernal’ it seemed to Wordsworth, bursting with life and interest for Keats, Haydon and Lamb, who throve on ‘the crowds … the print shops, the old book-stalls … the motley Strand’. Wordsworth found himself consoled by the sight of St Paul’s under snow, and in one of the passages from his journals that make us wish he had written more and painted less, Haydon describes standing high up on Hampstead Heath on the day of Princess Charlotte’s funeral. Below him through the sunny autumn mist he heard the church bells ring then all at once subside – ‘a distant sinking like aeolian harps and I immediately imagined the people all in at prayer’.
The Regency city was a tolerant, prosperous place. It was rich and stable while the Continent suffered in the aftermath of war. Visitors, émigrés, and the spoils of battle flooded into the capital. The Elgin Marbles, which had arrived in 1803, were only the most famous pieces of loot on the art market. The English were internationally notorious for their ‘salvaging’ activities and the brokers’ shops in Wardour Street were full of Flemish choirstalls, French stained glass and Old Master paintings of dubious provenance. Interest in art among the middle classes was flourishing as it had not done since the days of Charles I.
Haydon was constantly complaining of the English failure to appreciate ‘abstract beauty’, by which he meant his own high style. They preferred instead the picturesque, the associative pleasures of landscape and cheap novelties like the Tassie Gems, imitation cameos made of glass, of which Keats was so fond. Haydon didn’t understand that it was this plurality of taste and a lively interest in debating questions of art that gave his work such success as it had.
The debate that followed the arrival of the Parthenon frieze lasted 12 years, during which time the marbles were shunted about before finally being bought for the nation. It centred first on the question of their merit and then, after Byron’s intervention, on Britain’s right to retain them. Haydon waded in to defend their aesthetic value against the ‘Connoisseurs’, notably the taste-maker Richard Payne Knight, who thought them not worth having. Haydon’s high-pitched polemic had the gratifying effect of attracting Goethe’s admiration and the predictable result of so antagonising the Royal Academy that they never admitted him.
Keats sat before the marbles, his famous hazel eyes glowing with emotion. With his paste gems and the souvenir bust of Shakespeare with tassels on it, which would have made Haydon wince, Keats was typical of many who came to gaze. Theirs was the first generation for whom it was possible to cultivate a taste for art without having the means to travel or access to private collections. The age of museums was dawning. The town house that had been the British Museum was about to give way to Smirke’s new building. Great collections such as Townley’s marbles were passing into public ownership. Payne Knight’s would soon follow. Sir George Beaumont, patron of Wordsworth and, until they fell out, Haydon, gave his paintings to the new National Gallery in his lifetime.
As museums grew and took over from cabinets of curiosities they brought with them the organising systems of curatorship that we still use to classify art. Scholarship and order came in, novelty and showmanship went out. Late Georgian London had the best of both worlds. Haydon could show his Jerusalem in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, itself an exercise in a fantasy style inspired by Napoleon’s campaign. The crowd who came to see it included Mrs Siddons, whose imposing, if now ageing, figure haunts The Immortal Dinner. When she said that Haydon’s rendering of the face of Christ was ‘supernatural’ this was considered a decisive vindication of the work.
Meanwhile the Print Room of the British Museum under J.T. ‘Rainy Day’ Smith was run more on the lines of a dinner party than a modern archive. Friends, including the young Welby Pugin and old Colonel Phillips, who had been round the world with Captain Cook, were welcome to keep Smith company while he dried out mouldy Rembrandts in front of the fire. Bores, among whom he numbered Haydon, were told there was no room.
In the galleries of the museum where Napoleon’s Egyptian antiquities, captured by the English, were among the objects on display, the arrangement was based closely on that of the Louvre, down to the blue of the walls. The ambivalent competitive admiration of the English for the French in general and Napoleon in particular is one strand that winds through Hughes-Hallett’s account. Haydon’s steadiest seller was his often repeated picture of Napoleon Musing at St Helena, which he could eventually knock out in two and a half hours, yet he was as delighted by the victory at Waterloo as his friends Hunt and Hazlitt were cast down.
Wordsworth was the only one of the guests old enough to have experienced the Revolution: indeed, to have witnessed it at close quarters. He felt none of Haydon’s reluctant fascination with the ‘remorseless desperado’ Napoleon. Nor had he any desire to rush to Paris as Haydon and hundreds of others did as soon as peace was established. Hughes-Hallett brings out the differences between the pre and post-Revolutionary generations, those at the table and their wider circle; the pessimistic conservatism of the elders, typified by Coleridge, jarring on their more buoyant, urgent juniors.
‘Science’ was another great and divisive topic in Haydon’s circle, but here it was Wordsworth who represented the more optimistic, progressive view and the younger generation who were troubled. At the time of the dinner, Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein: its publication would mark the moment in fiction when the myth of man-created life passed for the first time from the artist’s studio to the laboratory, never to return. ‘There is a March of Science,’ Lamb wrote, ‘but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?’
Yet Frankenstein, like Keats and Lamb’s mistrust of Newtonian science, was prophetic of a rift that was by no means self-evident in 1817. Then Humphry Davy was celebrated as a poet and the word ‘scientist’ had yet to be coined. Art and science were still as mixed as the sentiments of the toast that wished health to Newton, confusion to mathematics. Understanding colour, the play and manipulation of light, were of as much concern to Turner as to Davy, whose article on the analysis of paint ‘used by the ancients’ appeared in the same magazine as Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. The panorama, Daguerre’s diorama and the kaleidoscope were the novelties of early 19th-century London and Paris, as art and optics moved together towards the invention of photography.
Keats of course was a medical student. Joseph Ritchie, one of those invited for tea after the dinner itself, was a surgeon then preparing to make an expedition to Africa. His presence allows Hughes-Hallett an excursion into early 19th-century medicine, dissection and grave-robbing, with students of art and medicine gathered round the same stinking corpses.
Ritchie’s story is less well known than that of the rest of the circle and she follows it, with the help of some previously unpublished letters, to its poignant end. Some time after Ritchie arrived at Haydon’s lodgings, Lamb, having failed to notice who he was when he was introduced, suddenly demanded to know: ‘Which is the gentleman we are going to lose?’ So indeed it proved. Ritchie set off for Africa the next year to trace the course of the River Niger. He took a copy of Endymion and gifts for the local rulers, including some gunpowder and a kaleidoscope. To hide his Christian identity he assumed the unconvincing pseudonym ‘el Ritchie’. The reader can only watch in sad fascination as this little figure from Regency London, asthmatic and under-financed, recedes further and further into the dust and danger of Africa until it is finally overwhelmed.
All of Haydon’s guests found existence precarious in one way or another. Everybody was worried about money. Keats was dogged by fear of the tuberculosis which ran in his family. Over Lamb there hung the shadow of his sister’s periodic madness, in the first onset of which she had killed their mother. Lamb’s devotion to Mary and his acute descriptions of her in a hypomanic state, see-sawing ‘between inspiration and possession’, are contrasted with the usual fate of the mad at that time – that of Turner’s mother, for example, apparently abandoned in the unreformed Bethlehem Hospital until her death.
Callousness that shaded easily into violence was the other side of the tolerance of late Georgian London. The literary life had its own dangers. A friend of Lamb, Hazlitt and, until they quarrelled, Haydon, was the editor of the London Magazine, John Scott. Scott was challenged to a duel after publishing an attack on his Tory rival Blackwood’s and killed in the resulting shoot-out at Chalk Farm. Leigh Hunt went to prison for libel. Everybody knew someone in prison for debt. Called away from a sitting with his pupil William Bewick one day, Haydon returned saying: ‘That is the third time I have been arrested this morning.’
Wordsworth, by the time of Haydon’s party, was the most secure of the set, both in reputation and income. He had the small but regular revenue from his post – not a sinecure, Hughes-Hallett insists – as Distributor of Stamps. Yet it was Wordsworth who was the most discomforted that night, for after dinner a gentleman arrived who had called on Haydon that morning and asked if he might join the party to be introduced to the great poet. This was John Kingston, a Comptroller of Stamps, Wordsworth’s immediate superior. The Comptroller’s arrival at Lisson Grove provides a brilliant climax to the Immortal Dinner, the effect being somewhere between that of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni and the Person from Porlock. Overdressed, over-anxious to impress, Kingston succeeded only in embarrassing Wordsworth and reducing Keats and Lamb to fits of laughter. Lamb insisted that he wanted to examine the phrenological bumps of this prodigious individual who gave his considered opinion that Milton was a great poet. The embarrassment can still be felt after two hundred years.
It is partly Hughes-Hallett’s skilful assemblage of information and interpretation that brings the party so vividly to life. But the immediacy also reflects the fact that Haydon and his friends are in many ways much closer to us, and more appealing, than their Victorian successors or Bloomsbury. The improvised social and professional arrangements, the frankness with which money, illness and ideas are discussed, the modest direct-action politics of the Wordsworths, who put honey in their tea instead of sugar as a protest against slavery: such unselfconscious manners made the Georgians, even Jane Austen, seem coarse to their immediate descendants. Now they seem honest and endearing.
Haydon outlived all his guests with the exception of Wordsworth; he also outlived his historical moment, surviving into the ‘age of railways and free trade’. In the colder waters of the 1840s he found it hard to keep afloat. As institutions grew in importance, art became professionalised and artistic life respectable. His talents counted for less and his tactlessness weighed more heavily against him. In 1815 it had been merely foolhardy to insult the Academy, now such cavalier disregard was fatal.
In 1841 Robert Peel set up a Royal Commission for Fine Art, partly in response to Haydon’s long campaign for state patronage of the arts. Just when his moment should have come, when he could have expected to be made a member of the Commission, he published an attack on the English enthusiasm for what he considered decadent German art. Prince Albert was head of the Commission. Haydon was not appointed.
His designs for the decoration of the New Palace of Westminster were rejected. He exhibited them himself but such entrepreneurial spirit was now out of place: art and show business had gone their separate ways. There was no Mrs Siddons to admire the pictures: in fact, there was hardly anybody at all – the crowds had gone to see the rival attraction in the next room, Barnum’s dwarf, Tom Thumb. In the blistering summer of 1846, unable to bear his poverty and his ungratified ambition any longer, poor Haydon went to his studio and cut his throat.
The last weeks of his life were described by Alethea Hayter in A Sultry Month, which, like The Immortal Dinner, uses a single episode as the keyhole through which to survey an age. Hayter’s book is more tightly structured and covers less well-trodden ground but Hughes-Hallett shows Haydon at his best and the truth behind his boast to Wordsworth when he looked back 25 years after his party: ‘My dear old friend, you and I shall never see such days again! The peaches are not so big now as they were in our days.’