Into the Gulf

Rosemary Hill

  • A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 by Alethea Hayter
    Robin Clark, 224 pp, £6.95, June 1992, ISBN 0 86072 146 9
  • Painting and the Politics of Culture: New Essays on British Art 1700-1850 edited by John Barrell
    Oxford, 301 pp, £35.00, June 1992, ISBN 0 19 817392 X
  • London: World City 1800-1840 edited by Celina Fox
    Yale, 624 pp, £45.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 300 05284 7

No one ever failed more completely to be the hero of his own life than the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, for whom heroism was an obsession. He used his own head as a model for Christ, Solomon, Alexander and Marcus Curtius and believed that heroic history painting was the highest form of art. Today his only generally remembered work is a portrait of Wordsworth. In his lifetime Haydon was well-known and not without admirers but he was dogged increasingly by ridicule and failure. In 1846, after his designs for frescos in the Houses of Parliament had been rejected, he exhibited two of his massive historical paintings in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. The public flocked to the building, but to see the midget, General Tom Thumb, who was being shown downstairs. On the first day Haydon attracted only four visitors. ‘I would not have believed it of the English people,’ he wrote in his journal, with that absence of insight or humour that makes him such a sad, and at the same time such a tiresome figure.

That summer there was a tremendous heatwave, the ‘sultry month’ of Alethea Hayter’s title. Haydon worked with increasing desperation on his painting Alfred and the First British Jury. It was a hopeless endeavour. No one would buy it, hardly anyone would admire it: the painting would merely mark another stage in his descent into neglect and debt. On 22 June, in front of his vast unfinished canvas in the sweltering studio, he shot himself and then cut his throat. At the inquest the coroner’s summing-up dwelt chiefly on Sir Robert Peel’s generosity to the artist’s family. Haydon was not even the hero of his own death.

A Sultry Month deals with the weeks leading up to Haydon’s suicide and with its immediate aftermath, taking the story day by day and sometimes hour by hour. Not only the events but ‘every sentence of dialogue, the food, the flowers, the furniture’ are all taken from contemporary accounts. Hayter handles Haydon himself with a tact and subtlety that keeps in three dimensions a character who threatens constantly to flatten himself into a cartoon. We come to understand why Keats was fond of him and Elizabeth Barrett admired him, as well as the reasons his son despised him and his painting failed. Even so, Haydon is not the hero, or even quite the centre of the book. A Sultry Month is a demonstration of how martyrdom takes place in a corner. We see exactly who is ‘eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’; the Carlyles on their constipating diet of mutton and potatoes, Elizabeth Barrett trying to get a breath of air in Wimpole Street, Browning going home to New Cross.

Events and people are restored as nearly as possible to the relative significance they assumed at the time, and with the distorting lens of hindsight all but removed there are some startling results. Only from this particular angle, for example, could the Gräfin Hahn-Hahn rise again from the footnotes of literary history to loom as large as she did that summer in London. The aging, one-eyed author of the schlock-buster Countess Faustina had come to England, with an ugly paramour in tow, to meet her admirers. She was as insensitive as Haydon to other people’s view of her, and as unrealistic about her abilities. Though better-natured, she was much less talented – her progress a macabre counterpoint to his decline. The day before Haydon’s death she was invited to one of Samuel Rogers’s breakfasts, the Start the week of the 1840s, and did rather well. Elizabeth Barrett admired her book and Carlyle liked the author. On the morning of Haydon’s death Browning, who had been invited to meet the Gräfin so often he felt obliged to plough through Faustina, wrote to tell Elizabeth Barrett that he didn’t think much of it.

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