Benjamin Robert Haydon

Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 5, 370–373.

Possessing undeniable talent as an artist and writer, but characterized by EBB’s biographer Gardner B. Taplin as “vain, self-assertive, impetuous, quarrelsome, touchy, and embittered,” this EBB correspondent might well have become the subject for a tragedy by one of the Brownings. However, they made no such use of his real and imagined woes. Haydon was born in Plymouth on 26 January 1786, the only son of a prosperous and respected bookseller. He was encouraged by his parents in artistic and literary pursuits, and in 1804 went to London to study art at the Royal Academy. His first exhibit of a painting there (“The Road to Egypt”) was in 1807, when he was only 21 years old. A lifelong quarrel with the Academy began in 1809 over the placing of another of his pictures, “Dentatus.” More difficulty came in the following year, with the stoppage of an annual £200 allowance from his father. In 1814 Haydon travelled to France, where he studied briefly at the Louvre. He became interested in the famous pieces of Greek sculpture known as the Elgin Marbles and was instrumental in persuading the British government to purchase them in 1816. In 1821 Haydon married a beautiful young widow, Mary Hyman. The marriage proved to be a reasonably happy one—despite Haydon’s various difficulties, his frequent attention to other women, and the deaths of several children in infancy. Haydon’s pictures were well received by critics and by viewers in general, but they did not provide enough income to cover his extravagances, and he was four times imprisoned for debt—first in 1823. During one period of incarceration he produced a picture entitled “The Mock Election,” which was purchased for £525 by King George IV. Starting in the mid-1830’s, Haydon built a substantial reputation as a speaker on fine arts, travelling widely and eventually publishing two volumes of his lectures. Also he wrote a lengthy entry on “Painting” for the seventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. As a painter of their portraits Haydon became acquainted with a number of contemporary national leaders such as Lord Grey, Lord Melbourne, and the Duke of Wellington. In 1843 there was a competition in which artists were to offer designs, or “cartoons,” for frescoes in the new Houses of Parliament. Haydon laboured hard over some entries and became deeply resentful when they were not selected. According to RB-EBB (p. 810), he then “set out to ‘educate’ the British public and his presumption and uncritical self-esteem became a regular butt of laughter in Punch and elsewhere.” A great humiliation came in the spring of 1846, when Haydon mounted an exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London. Unfortunately for him, the American midget Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, was appearing at the same time in a nearby chamber of the Hall under the sponsorship of showman P.T. Barnum. Tom Thumb attracted great crowds, while Haydon’s exhibition was a failure. That was the last straw: the distressed and despondent Haydon committed suicide on 22 June 1846. A group of friends, including Thomas Noon Talfourd and Sir Robert Peel, came to the financial rescue of Mrs. Haydon and her daughter, Mary.

EBB’s friend Mary Russell Mitford knew Haydon as early as 1817, and it was through Miss Mitford that EBB herself became acquainted with the eccentric and tormented artist. Some of Haydon’s letters to Miss Mitford were sent on to EBB in 1841, who acknowledged them on 21 September (letter 853): “Mr. Haydon’s letters … interested me much.... They spring up like a fountain among the world’s conventionalities … He is said, you know, to be a vain man, & it may be true for aught the letters say.” On 6 April 1842, Haydon sent a gift directly to EBB—one of his lectures. Her first letter to him, no. 945, dated “April 1842,” was written in acknowledgement. From its context we learn that Haydon was already preparing for the 1843 Houses of Parliament competition. EBB never met Haydon, but her sisters did. When they visited him in the autumn of 1842, they saw an unfinished portrait of Wordsworth and mentioned how much EBB would enjoy viewing it. He immediately sent it to Wimpole Street for her inspection. She responded with a letter dated 17 October, and a sonnet (Reconstruction, D615–620). In the next two years there was extensive correspondence between EBB and Haydon. Most of the extant letters are from him. On 6 December 1842 EBB commented to Miss Mitford: “Mr. Haydon & I have been & are corresponding by little notes on great subjects.” On at least two subjects there was disagreement. First, concerning the leaders who had been antagonists at the Battle of Waterloo: EBB felt a degree of sympathy toward Napoleon, while Haydon was an acquaintance and admirer of the Duke of Wellington. Second, on mesmerism: EBB was intrigued—though somewhat fearful—about the practice, while Haydon was scornful. On 30 December 1842 Haydon gave EBB a 60-line fragment of John Keats’s “I Stood Tip-Toe Upon a Little Hill” in the poet’s own handwriting (Reconstruction, L127). In early January 1843 Haydon sent EBB “what no human eye but my own has seen,” the first portion of his autobiography. He called for her “opinion of it,” and asked that it be kept “sacredly confidential.” So began an episode which was later to cause EBB a great deal of trouble and worry. The main problem in 1843, however, was Haydon’s failure in the competition to design frescoes for the Houses of Parliament. In late June he reported to EBB: “My Cartoons have no reward.” Then, fearing that creditors would close in on him, he began depositing some of his private papers and other valuables with her. He complained bitterly about the results of the competition, and of being victimized by his “enemies”; but EBB on 19 July wrote: “Now try to forgive me for not being sure of the existence of this conspiracy against you.... Your late disappointment … is not worse than other men of genius have sustained, & risen higher in consequence of.” Haydon, however, did not respond to the challenge in any such positive way. Correspondence with EBB had ceased by the time of the 1846 episode when Haydon’s art exhibition failed while “Tom Thumb” attracted great crowds. Haydon’s subsequent suicide on 22 June was, of course, felt deeply by EBB. By coincidence, she had visited a private art collection and viewed one of his pictures on the very day of his death. On 23 June she wrote to RB: “I cannot help thinking—Could anyone .. could my own hand even—have averted what has happened?… for a year & a half or more perhaps, I scarcely have written or heard from him—until last week when he wrote to ask for a shelter for his boxes & pictures.” In writing to Miss Mitford on 30 June about the same situation, she said: “Once before, he had asked me to give shelter to things belonging to him, which, when the storm had blown over, he took back again. I did not suppose that, in this storm, he was to sink— poor, noble soul!–” Beyond her understandable shock and grief, EBB faced a problem of a more practical nature. On 10 July 1846 she wrote to her brother George: “It appears that poor Mr. Haydon has left a paper declaratory of his last wishes, now in the hands of Mr. Serjeant Talfourd, in which to my infinite astonishment, he makes a bequest of his memoirs & other papers to me desiring that I should edit & place them for publication in Longman’s hands.” She felt unequipped for the task, and soon was rescued by Talfourd, who advised her through RB that the materials were the property of Haydon’s creditors and that she should have nothing further to do with them. Eventually, in 1853, they were published with the title The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon under the editorship of journalist and dramatist Tom Taylor. (Taylor is linked historically with another violent death, that of Abraham Lincoln. He wrote Our American Cousin (1858), the play which President Lincoln was viewing at the time of his assassination.) EBB read the Haydon-Taylor book, and on 19 March 1854 wrote about it to Miss Mitford: “Oh—I have been reading poor Haydon’s biography– There is tragedy! The pain of it one can hardly shake off. Surely, surely, wrong was done somewhere, when the worst is admitted of Haydon. For himself, .. looking forward beyond the grave, .. I seem to understand that all things when most bitter, worked ultimate good to him—for that sublime arrogance of his would have been fatal perhaps to the moral nature, if developped further by success. But for the nation, we had our duties—& we should not suffer our teachers & originators to sink thus–” In at least two letters written by EBB in 1854 she mentioned Haydon’s surviving daughter, Mary, whose mother had recently died. To Mrs. David Ogilvy, in Scotland, EBB wrote on 28 August 1854: “Do you happen to know any lady who wants a companion & would be kind & gentle to her? Poor Haydon’s daughter writes to me in a desolate state. She has fifty six pounds a year of her own, but it is not enough to keep her in any comfort of course, & she wants protection. She wd. like to go abroad she says. Under thirty she must be: father & mother gone! Will you tell me if you hear of anything?” A little while later, on 4 September 1854, EBB wrote to Miss Mitford that Mary Haydon had enquired about coming to Florence. But, she said, “I fear to recommend her to come so far.”


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