20 Dec, 2009

The man who would be Raphael

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Andrew Motion on a painter obsessed with the bigger picture

Benjamin Robert Haydon dreamed of becoming the British Raphael and has ended up a footnote. He crossed paths and swords with Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, and a host of early 19th-century painters and politicians. He was a friend of Wordsworth, and painted him, in what has become one of the classic images of the poet. He knew Keats, too, and left some vivid glimpses of him in his enormous journal. But his main ambition – to establish a pre-eminent school of British historical painting, and to be its chief exponent and ornament – came to nothing. By the time Haydon killed himself in 1846 he had been in prison four times for debt, was out of favour with commercial marketeers and public commissioners, and had almost none of his works on show in galleries.

Paul O’Keeffe’s achievement in tracking this descent into the abyss is considerable. The book has all the thoroughness of his previous lives of Wyndham Lewis and Gaudier-Brzeska, and all their willingness to unpick knots of difficulty. It is calm, capacious and very sympathetic to its subject. The problem with the book is a part of these strengths. Encouraged by the richness of the journal, O’Keeffe takes us into virtually every nook and cranny of Haydon’s life. The result is simply a much longer investigation than we are persuaded the subject deserves.

Yet at the same time some parts of the book need bolstering – especially those that might help us understand why Haydon espoused this particular tradition of painting. What was the national or his own psychological need? The questions become all the more urgent when we look at the kind of talents Haydon had at his disposal. Although some of his contemporaries took him at his own estimation (he believed that at least three of his canvases showed “indisputable evidences of Genius”), the reality was that his sense of structure was faulty, his figure-painting stiff, his ideas about grouping clotted, his emotional range constricted and his colouring unremarkable. His career was an accident waiting to happen.

Haydon’s misplaced ambitions were settled at an early age. The son of a Plymouth bookseller and historian, he showed some aptitude for drawing as a child, was resisted by his parents (who anticipated a life of struggle), overcame their objections, and moved to London, where he knocked on the doors of the great and good and laid siege to the Royal Academy. As he immersed himself in anatomical drawing, he also sought to establish himself as the champion of the historical school.

In both respects, he showed phenomenal energy and concentration. He spurned the chance to make money by painting portraits. He hurled himself into the creation of large canvases which told historical and biblical narratives. He argued bravely about the merits of the recently arrived Elgin Marbles, urging the government to buy them. He berated academicians about the way his works were hung.

One of the best things Haydon ever painted was a small portrait of Keats among the crowd of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, which was completed in the early 1820s. In profile, mouth open and showing its over-bite, looking passionately heated, intense and defiant, this is the real Keats – a far cry from later Victorian images of the sickly invalid. But Haydon wasn’t much interested in things on this scale. Size mattered to him almost as much as content, and this led to problems on every front. With a wife and rapidly growing family to support, he had committed himself to a way of working which meant long periods with no income, then anxious show-times when he hoped to gather fees from the crowds he expected to flock to see his work, as well as money from the sale of the picture itself.

Things almost never worked out as he expected. He was first arrested for debt in 1821, and for the remaining 25 years of his life lived close to bankruptcy. Astonishingly – one might say foolishly – he kept his momentum, slowly churning out vast, dull pictures and lobbying senior politicians (including several prime ministers). His religious faith was evidently a help to him (he was in the habit of praying in front of his canvases before beginning work), but in most respects his self-belief seems increasingly manic. Hazlitt put the matter with an unusual politeness: “Mr Haydon has strength: we would wish him to add to it refinement.”

In the last phase of his career Haydon regained some momentum by agreeing to paint two colossal public works – The Reform Banquet, which shows people who had worked to extend the franchise, and The Anti-Slavery Society Convention. Each of these pictures includes more than 100 portraits: an impressive achievement in its way, but one so overshadowed by structural tedium (tiers of pink faces receding into the distance) as to seem almost pointless in art. Most contemporary reviewers thought so, too. Even more crushing were Haydon’s failures to win the opportunity to build the memorial to Nelson in Trafalgar Square or to work on the new parliament building when it was rebuilt after the devastating fire of 1834. The rejections were not surprising. The inscription he suggested for his Nelson temple read: “A Little Body with a Mighty Heart”.

The last few years of Haydon’s life make for unhappy reading, but O’Keeffe deals with them well by combining sympathy with clear judgment. Several of his children died. Debt collectors kept up a more or less constant barrage. Every new friend he gained (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for instance) was outnumbered by a host of detractors. Eventually the weight of disappointments became too much and he committed suicide. But even this he bungled, failing to kill himself with a pistol shot to the head, and only succeeding in cutting his throat at the second attempt.

Misapplied energy, lack of self-knowledge and vaingloriousness had first sapped then corrupted the near- heroic energy and devotion to high ideals that he had shown in his early days. They also distracted attention from the things he really did do well, even if he didn’t value them much: writing a great journal, painting a few good portraits, and giving, as he said (in an epitaph he wrote for himself 20 years before he died), “indisputable evidence . . . that no affliction is considered an adequate punishment for having told Truth to Power”.

Andrew Motion’s The Cinder Path is published by Faber.

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