BENJAMIN HAYDON

Punch or May Day 1829 by Benjamin Robert Haydon 1786-1846

After delivering my work to Chelsea College of Art yesterday, for the Society of Designer Craftsmen’s summer exhibition Hand of the Maker, I went across the road to Tate Britain to take a quick look at the 19th century galleries. Victorian painting, with the exception of the Pre-Raphaelites, is unfashionable, but there were several serious visitors there.

I was attracted to Benjamin Haydon’s Punch or May Day (above), which is well labelled. It was a derogation from his preferred historical subjects, in which he didn’t achieve the success he thought he deserved, but to the modern eye it’s lively and interesting, and Tate point out the clever contrasts it contains, notably the hearse almost colliding with the wedding coach, the church on the horizon and the pagan May Day celebration at the bottom, and the black servant on the coach and the blacked-up sweep in the foreground.

Haydon (1786-1846) is the most famous failure in art history. His admirable confidence in his own ability was not shared by everyone. Dickens, who as an art critic could be as acerbic as Brian Sewell, said of him, “No amount of sympathy with him and sorrow for him in his manly pursuit of a wrong idea for so many years — until, by dint of his perseverance and courage it almost began to seem a right one — ought to prevent one from saying that he most unquestionably was a very bad painter, and that his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed.” He had constant money troubles, spent time in a debtor’s prison and was reduced to painting pictures of Napoleon at five guineas apiece. He was argumentative, tactless and rude to his clients. He conducted a long war against the Royal Academy, who refused his application for ARA, and is portrayed in Mike Leigh’s wonderful film Mr Turner ranting at a Royal Academy hanging. The main cause of his bitterness, unless it was something in his personality, was his failure as a history painter. He finally shot himself in the head, failed to kill himself and then cut his throat.

Haydon was a man of strong ideas, not entirely foolish. He was smitten by the Elgin Marbles and became a staunch advocate of Greek art as he conceived it and of drawing from life. He advocated public funding for art education for all classes, to be based on life drawing, which did not become standard until it was instituted at the Slade at the end of the century. He was a tireless petitioner of powerful individuals, including prime minister Melbourne, who was interested and whom he told that French superiority in manufactures derived from state support of art education. He advocated free public museums of art and public patronage for paintings in public buildings. As Stuart MacDonald says, “It would be foolish to pretend that all these means were realized because of Haydon, but they were realized, and Haydon was their chief protagonist and suffered ridicule for his opinions.”

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