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_For these sketches of minor celebrities of the nineteenth century,
it has been my aim to choose subjects whose experiences seem to
illustrate the life - more especially the literary and artistic
life - of the first half of the century; and who of late years, at any
rate, have not been overwhelmed by the attentions of the minor
biographer. Having some faith in the theory that the verdict of
foreigners is equivalent to that of contemporary posterity, I have
included two aliens in the group. A visitor to our shores, whether he
be a German princeling like Pückler-Muskau, or a gilded democrat like
N. P. Willis, may be expected to observe and comment upon many traits
of national life and manners that would escape the notice of a native

Whereas certain readers of a former volume - 'Little Memoirs of the
Eighteenth Century' - seem to have been distressed by the fact that the
majority of the characters died in the nineteenth century, it is
perhaps meet that I should apologise for the chronology of this
present volume, in which all the heroes and heroines, save one, were
born in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. But I would
venture to submit that a man is not, necessarily, the child of the
century in which he is born, or of that in which he dies; rather is he
the child of the century which sees the finest flower of his


















If it be true that the most important ingredient in the composition of
the self-biographer is a spirit of childlike vanity, with a blend of
unconscious egoism, few men have ever been better equipped than Haydon
for the production of a successful autobiography. In naïve simplicity
of temperament he has only been surpassed by Pepys, in fulness
of self-revelation by Rousseau, and his _Memoirs_ are not
unworthy of a place in the same category as the _Diary_ and the
_Confessions_. From the larger public, the work has hardly
attracted the attention it deserves; it is too long, too minute, too
heavily weighted with technical details and statements of financial
embarrassments, to be widely or permanently popular. But as a human
document, and as the portrait of a temperament, its value can hardly
be overestimated; while as a tragedy it is none the less tragic
because it contains elements of the grotesque. Haydon set out with the
laudable intention of writing the exact truth about himself and his
career, holding that every man who has suffered for a principle, and
who has been unjustly persecuted and oppressed, should write his own
history, and set his own case before his countrymen. It is a fortunate
accident for his readers that he should have been gifted with the
faculty of picturesque expression and an exceptionally keen power of
observation. If not a scholar, he was a man of wide reading, of deep
though desultory thinking, and a good critic where the work of others
was concerned. He seems to have desired to conceal nothing, nor to set
down aught in malice; if he fell into mistakes and misrepresentations,
these were the result of unconscious prejudice, and the exaggerative
tendency of a brain that, if not actually warped, trembled on the
border-line of sanity. He hoped that his mistakes would be a warning
to others, his successes a stimulus, and that the faithful record of
his struggles and aspirations would clear his memory from the
aspersions that his enemies had cast upon it.

Haydon was born at Plymouth on January 26, 1786. He was the lineal
descendant of an ancient Devonshire family, the Haydons of Cadbay, who
had been ruined by a Chancery suit a couple of generations earlier,
and had consequently taken a step downwards in the social scale. His
grandfather, who married Mary Baskerville, a descendant of the famous
printer, set up as a bookseller in Plymouth, and, dying in 1773,
bequeathed his business to his son Benjamin, the father of our hero.
This Benjamin, who married the daughter of a Devonshire clergyman
named Cobley, was a man of the old-fashioned, John Bull type, who
loved his Church and king, believed that England was the only great
country in the world, swore that Napoleon won all his battles by
bribery, and would have knocked down any man who dared to disagree
with him. The childhood of the future historical painter was a
picturesque and stirring period, filled with the echoes of revolution
and the rumours of wars. The Sound was crowded with fighting ships
preparing for sea, or returning battered and blackened, with wounded
soldiers on board and captured vessels in tow. Plymouth itself was
full of French prisoners, who made little models of guillotines out of
their meat-bones, and sold them to the children for the then
fashionable amusement of 'cutting off Louis XVI.'s head.'

Benjamin was sent to the local grammar-school, whose headmaster, Dr.
Bidlake, was a man of some culture, though not a deep classic. He
wrote poetry, encouraged his pupils to draw, and took them for country
excursions, with a view to fostering their love of nature. Mr. Haydon,
though he was proud of Benjamin's early attempts at drawing, had no
desire that he should be turned into an artist, and becoming alarmed
at Dr. Bidlake's dilettante methods, he transferred his son to the
Plympton Grammar-school, where Sir Joshua Reynolds had been educated,
with strict injunctions to the headmaster that the boy was on no
account to have drawing-lessons. On leaving school at sixteen,
Benjamin, after, a few months with a firm of accountants at Exeter,
was bound apprentice to his father for seven years, and it was then
that his troubles began.

'I hated day-books, ledgers, bill-books, and cashbooks,' he tells us.
'I hated standing behind the counter, and insulted the customers; I
hated the town and all the people in it.' At last, after a quarrel
with a customer who tried to drive a bargain, this proud spirit
refused to enter the shop again. In vain his father pointed out to him
the folly of letting a good business go to ruin, of refusing a
comfortable independence - all argument was vain. An illness, which
resulted in inflammation of the eyes, put a stop to the controversy
for the time being; but on recovery, with his sight permanently
injured, the boy still refused to work out his articles, but wandered
about the town in search of casts and books on art. He bought a fine
copy of Albinus at his father's expense, and in a fortnight, with his
sister to aid, learnt all the muscles of the body, their rise and
insertion, by heart. He stumbled accidentally on Reynold's
_Discourses_, and the first that he read placed so much reliance
on honest industry, and expressed so strong a conviction that all men
are equal in talent, and that application makes all the difference,
that the would-be artist, who hitherto had been held back by some
distrust of his natural powers, felt that at last his destiny was
irrevocably fixed. He announced his intention of adopting an
art-career with a determination that demolished all argument, and, in
spite of remonstrances, reproaches, tears, and scoldings, he wrung
from his father permission to go to London, and the promise of support
for the next two years.

On May 14, 1804, at the age of eighteen, young Haydon took his place
in the mail, and made his first flight into the world. Arriving at the
lodgings that had been taken for him in the Strand in the early
morning, he had no sooner breakfasted than he set off for Somerset
House, to see the Royal Academy Exhibition. Looking round for
historical pictures, he discovered that Opie's 'Gil Bias' was the
centre of attraction in one room, and Westall's 'Shipwrecked Boy' in

'I don't fear you,' he said to himself as he strode away. His next
step was to inquire for a plaster-shop, where he bought the Laocoön
and other casts, and then, having unpacked his Albinus, he was hard at
work before nine next morning drawing from the round, and breathing
aspirations for High Art, and defiance to all opposition. 'For three
months,' he tells us, 'I saw nothing but my books, my casts, and my
drawings. My enthusiasm was immense, my devotion for study that of a
martyr. I rose when I woke, at three or four, drew at anatomy till
eight, in chalks from casts from nine till one, and from half-past two
till five - then walked, dined, and to anatomy again from seven till
ten or eleven. I was resolute to be a great painter, to honour my
country, and to rescue the Art from that stigma of incapacity that was
impressed upon it.

After some months of solitary study, Haydon bethought him of a letter
of introduction that had been given him to Prince Hoare, who was
something of a critic, having himself failed as an artist. Hoare
good-naturedly encouraged the youth in his ambitions, and gave him
introductions to Northcote, Opie, and Fuseli.

To Northcote, who was a Plymouth man, Haydon went first, and he gives
a curious account of his interview with his distinguished
fellow-countryman, who also had once cherished aspirations after high
art. Northcote, a little wizened old man, with a broad Devonshire
accent, exclaimed on hearing that his young visitor intended to be a
historical painter: 'Heestorical painter! why, ye'll starve with a
bundle of straw under yeer head.' As for anatomy, he declared that it
was no use. 'Sir Joshua didn't know it; why should you want to know
what he didn't? Michael Angelo! What's he to do here? You must paint
portraits here.' 'I won't,' said young Haydon, clenching his teeth,
and he marched off to Opie. He found a coarse-looking, intellectual
man who, after reading the introductory letter, said quietly, 'You are
studying anatomy - master it - were I your age, I would do the same.'
The last visit was to Fuseli, who had a great reputation for the
terrible, both as artist and as man. The gallery into which the
visitor was ushered was so full of devils, witches, ghosts, blood and
thunder, that it was a palpable relief when nothing more alarming
appeared than a little old and lion-faced man, attired in a flannel
dressing-gown, with the bottom of Mrs. Fuseli's work-basket on his
head! Fuseli, who had just been appointed Keeper of Academy, received
the young man kindly, praised his drawings, and expressed a hope that
he would see him at the Academy School.

After the Christmas vacation of 1805, Haydon began to attend the
Academy classes, where he struck up a close friendship with John
Jackson, afterwards a popular portrait-painter and Royal Academician,
but then a student like himself. Jackson was the son of a village
tailor in Yorkshire, and the _protége_ of Lord Mulgrave and Sir
George Beaumont. The two friends told each other their plans for the
future, drew together in the evenings, and made their first
life-studies from a friendly coalheaver whom they persuaded to sit to
them. After a few months of hard work, Haydon was summoned home to
take leave of his father, who was believed to be dying. The invalid
recovered, and then followed another period of torture for the young
student - aunts, uncles, and cousins all trying to drive the stray
sheep back into the commercial fold. Exhausted by the struggle, Haydon
at last consented to relinquish his career, and enter the business.
Great was his delight and surprise when his father refused to accept
the sacrifice - which was made in anything but a cheerful spirit - and
promised to contribute to his support until he was able to provide for

In the midst of all these domestic convulsions came a letter from
Jackson, containing the announcement that there was 'a raw, tall,
pale, queer Scotchman just come up, an odd fellow, but with something
in him. He is called Wilkie.' 'Hang the fellow!' said Haydon to
himself. 'I hope with his "something" he is not going to be a
historical painter.' On his return to town, our hero made the
acquaintance of the queer young Scotchman, and was soon admitted to
his friendship and intimacy. Wilkie's 'Village Politicians' was the
sensation of the Exhibition of 1806, and brought him two important
commissions - one from Lord Mulgrave for the 'Blind Fiddler,' and the
other from Sir George Beaumont for the 'Rent-Day.' It was now
considered that Wilkie's fortune was made, his fame secure, and if his
two chief friends - Haydon and Jackson - could not help regarding him
with some natural feelings of envy, it is evident that his early
success encouraged them, and stimulated them to increased effort.

Haydon had been learning fresh secrets in his art, partly from an
anatomical 'subject' that he had obtained from a surgeon, and partly
from his introduction, through the good offices of Jackson, to the
works of Titian at Stafford House, and in other private collections,
there being as yet no National Gallery where the student could study
the old masters at his pleasure. Haydon was now panting to begin his
first picture, his natural self-confidence having been strengthened by
a letter from Wilkie, who reported that Lord Mulgrave, with whom he
was staying, was much interested in what he had heard of Haydon's
ambitions. Lord Mulgrave had suggested a heroic subject - the Death of
Dentatus - which he would like to see painted, and he wished to know if
this commended itself to Haydon's ideas. This first commission for a
great historical picture - for so he understood the suggestion - was a
triumph for the young artist, who felt himself gloriously rewarded for
two years of labour and opposition. He had, however, already decided
on the subject of his first attempt - Joseph and Mary resting on the
road to Egypt. On October 1,1806, after setting his palette, and
taking his brush in hand, he knelt down, in accordance with his
invariable custom throughout his career, and prayed fervently that God
would bless his work, grant him energy to create a new era in art, and
rouse the people to a just estimate of the moral value of historical

Then followed a happy time. The difficulties of a first attempt were
increased by his lack of systematic training, but Haydon believed,
with Sir Joshua, that application made the artist, and he certainly
spared no pains to achieve success. He painted and repainted his heads
a dozen times, and used to mix tints on a piece of paper, and carry
them down to Stafford House once a week in order to compare them with
the colouring of the Titians. While this work was in progress, Sir
George and Lady Beaumont called to see the picture, which they
declared was very poetical, and 'quite large enough for anything' (the
canvas was six feet by four), and invited the artist to dinner. This
first dinner-party, in what he regarded as 'high life,' was an
alarming ordeal for the country youth, who made prodigious
preparations, drove to the house in a state of abject terror, and in
five minutes was sitting on an ottoman, talking to Lady Beaumont, and
more at ease than he had ever been in his life. In truth, bashfulness
was never one of Haydon's foibles.

The Joseph and Mary took six months to paint, and was exhibited in
1807. It was considered a remarkable work for a young student, and was
bought the following year by Mr. Hope of Deepdene. During the season,
Haydon was introduced to Lord Mulgrave, and with his friends Wilkie
and Jackson frequently dined at the Admiralty, [Footnote: Lord
Mulgrave had recently been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty.]
where they met ministers, generals, great ladies and men of genius,
and rose daily in hope and promise. Haydon now began the picture of
the 'Death of Siccius Dentatus' that his patron had suggested, but he
found the difficulties so overwhelming that, by Wilkie's advice, he
decided to go down to Plymouth for a few months, and practise
portrait-painting. At fifteen guineas a head, he got plenty of
employment among his friends and relations, though he owns that his
portraits were execrable; but as soon as he had obtained some facility
in painting heads, he was anxious to return to town to finish his
large picture. Mrs. Haydon was now in declining health, and desiring
to consult a famous surgeon in London, she decided to travel thither
with her son and daughter. Unfortunately her disease, angina pectoris,
was aggravated by the agitation of the journey, and on the road, at
Salt Hill, she was seized with an attack that proved fatal. Haydon was
obliged to return to Devonshire with his sister, but as soon as the
funeral was over he set off again for town, where his prospects seemed
to justify his exchanging his garret in the Strand for a first floor
in Great Marlborough Street.

He found the practice gained in portrait-painting a substantial
advantage, but he still felt himself incapable of composing a heroic
figure for Dentatus. 'If I copied nature my work was mean,' he
complains; 'and if I left her it was mannered. How was I to build a
heroic form like life, yet above life?' He was puzzled to find, in
painting from the living model, that the markings of the skin varied
with the action of the limbs, variations that did not appear in the
few specimens of the antique that had come under his notice. Was
nature wrong, he asked himself, or the antique? During this period of
indecision and confusion came a proposal from Wilkie that they should
go together to inspect the Elgin Marbles then newly arrived in
England, and deposited at Lord Elgin's house in Park Lane. Haydon
carelessly agreed, knowing nothing of the wonders he was to see, and
the two friends proceeded to Park Lane, where they were ushered
through a yard to a dirty shed, in which lay the world-famous Marbles.

'The first thing I fixed my eyes on,' to quote Haydon's own words,
'was the wrist of a figure in one of the female groups, in which were
visible the radius and ulna. I was astonished, for I had never seen
them hinted at in any wrist in the antique. I darted my eye to the
elbow, and saw the outer condyle visibly affecting the shape, as in
nature. That combination of nature and repose which I had felt was so
much wanting for high art was here displayed to midday conviction. My
heart beat. If I had seen nothing else, I had beheld sufficient to
help me to nature for the rest of my life. But when I turned to the
Theseus, and saw that every form was altered by action or repose-when
I saw that the two sides of his back varied as he rested on his elbow;
and again, when in the figure of the fighting metope, I saw the muscle
shown under one armpit in that instantaneous action of darting out,
and left out in the other armpits; when I saw, in short, the most
heroic style of art, combined with all the essential detail of
everyday life, the thing was done at once and for ever.... Here were
the principles which the great Greeks in their finest time
established, and here was I, the most prominent historical student,
perfectly qualified to appreciate all this by my own determined mode
of study.'

On returning to his painting-room, Haydon, feeling utterly disgusted
with his attempt at the heroic in the form and action of Dentatus,
obliterated what he calls 'the abominable mass,' and breathed as if
relieved of a nuisance. Through Lord Mulgrave he obtained an order to
draw from the Marbles, and devoted the next three months to mastering
their secrets, and bringing his hand and mind into subjection to the
principles that they displayed. 'I rose with the sun,' he writes, with
the glow of his first enthusiasm still upon him, 'and opened my eyes
to the light only to be conscious of my high pursuit. I sprang from my
bed, dressed like one possessed, and passed the day, noon, and the
night, in the same dream of abstracted enthusiasm; secluded from the
world, regardless of its feelings, impregnable to disease, insensible
to contempt.' He painted his heads, figures, and draperies over and
over again, feeling that to obliterate was the only way to improve.
His studio soon filled with fashionable folk, who came to see the
'extraordinary picture painted by a young man who had never had the
advantages of foreign travel.' Haydon believed, with the simplicity of
a child, in all these flattering prophecies of glory and fame, and
imagined that the Academy would welcome with open arms so promising a
student, one, moreover, who had been trained in its own school. He
redoubled his efforts, and in March 1809, 'Dentatus' was finished.

'The production of this picture,' he naively explains, 'must and will
be considered as an epoch in English art. The drawing in it was
correct and elevated, and the perfect forms and system of the antique
were carried into painting, united with the fleshy look of everyday
life. The colour, light and shadow, the composition and the telling of
the story were complete.' His contemporaries did not form quite so
flattering an estimate of the work. It was badly hung, a fate to which
many an artist of three-and-twenty has had to submit, before and
since; but Haydon writes as if no such injustice had been committed
since the world began, and was persuaded that the whole body of
Academicians was leagued in spite and jealousy against him. Lord
Mulgrave gave him sixty guineas in addition to the hundred he had
first promised, which seems a fair price for the second work of an
obscure artist, but poor Haydon fancied that his professional
prospects had suffered from the treatment of the Academy, that people
of fashion (on whose attentions he set great store) were neglecting
him, and that he was a marked man. A sea-trip to Plymouth with Wilkie
gave his thoughts a new and more healthy turn. Together, the friends
visited Sir Joshua's birthplace, and roamed over the moors and combes
of Devonshire. Before returning to town, they spent a delightful
fortnight with Sir George Beaumont at Coleorton, where, says Haydon,
'we dined with the Claude and Rembrandt before us, and breakfasted
with the Rubens landscape, and did nothing, morning, noon, and night,
but think of painting, talk of painting, and wake to paint again.'

During this visit, Sir George gave Haydon a commission for a picture
on a subject from _Macbeth_. After it was begun, he objected to
the size, but our artist, who, throughout his life, detested painting
cabinet pictures, refused to attempt anything on a smaller scale. He
persuaded Sir George to withhold his decision until the picture was
finished, and promised that if he still objected to the size, he would
paint him another on any scale he pleased. While engaged on 'Macbeth,'
he competed with 'Dentatus' for a hundred guinea prize offered by the
Directors of the British Gallery for the best historical picture.
'Dentatus' won the prize, but this piece of good fortune was
counterbalanced by a letter from Mr. Haydon, senior, containing the
announcement that he could no longer afford to maintain his son. This
was a heavy blow, but after turning over pros and cons in his own
mind, Haydon came to the conclusion that since he had won the hundred
guinea prize, he had a good chance of winning a three hundred guinea
prize, which the Directors now offered, with his 'Macbeth,' and
consequently that he had no occasion to dread starvation. 'Thus
reasoning,' he says, 'I borrowed, and praying God to bless my
emotions, went on more vigorously than ever. _And here began debt
and obligation, out of which I have never been, and shall never be,
extricated, as long as I live.'_

This prophecy proved only too true. But Haydon, though he afterwards
bitterly regretted his folly in exchanging independence for debt, and
his pride in refusing to paint pot-boilers in the intervals of his
great works, firmly believed that he, with his high aims and fervent
desire to serve the cause of art, was justified in continuing his
ambitious course, and depending for maintenance on the contributions
of his friends. Nothing could exceed the approbation of his own
conduct, or shake his faith in his own powers. 'I was a virtuous and
diligent youth,' he assures us; 'I never touched wine, dined at
reasonable chop-houses, lived principally in my study, and cleaned my

Online LibraryGeorge PastonLittle Memoirs of the Nineteenth Century → online text (page 1 of 26)