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.

The accumulation of minute particulars adds to the realism of Alethea Hayter’s account, and to its truthfulness. The fact that Jane Carlyle’s savaging of Sordello was the culmination of a dislike of Browning that began when he ruined her new carpet by putting a hot kettle down on it has perhaps no more than anecdotal value, but to know that Haydon’s short sight and his relatively cramped studio meant that he could never stand far enough back from his work to get a correct sense of proportion not only adds to an understanding of the pictures’ failings, it becomes emblematic of his life and character. A Sultry Month was first published in 1965, since when it has been followed by other essays in group biography, most notably Linda Kelly’s, which have made this a kind of sub-genre.

One of the things Benjamin Haydon was too close to his work to see was that the theory of history painting as High Art which would somehow naturally triumph in a republic of taste had ceased even to be a critical piety. Elizabeth Barrett admired Haydon’s devotion to his calling but that implied, for her generation, a different relationship to society. Haydon did not expect to be misunderstood or to stand apart. He expected to be successful. Public failure meant artistic failure and when finally confronted by it he found another variation on the heroic theme, the artist as ‘solitary and glorious’. He leapt like Marcus Curtius into the gulf, taking with him, according to John Barrell, the whole moribund tradition of High Art. Haydon’s status as one of the few literal martyrs to critical theory makes him an appropriate, if somewhat ominous subject for Painting and the Politics of Culture.

Here the questions raised implicitly in A Sultry Month – how can art be understood in context? What, if anything, can or should we consider beyond the work itself? – form the central issue in a collection of essays by academics in various fields, including English literature, history and geography, as well as art history. The result is an odd, uneven and sometimes exasperating book, which nevertheless has many good things in it. Nine essays, mostly dealing with single pictures or small related groups, necessarily offer a patchy view of the period from 1700 to 1850. The unity of the book depends on the coherence or otherwise of its critical position. This John Barrell describes in his Foreword as a new approach, developed over the past ten or fifteen years – ‘what has come to be called the politics of culture’. This, he explains, means studying painting in the social and philosophical context in which it was seen by the society that produced it, in terms of the roles, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that it may have played, of the conflicts implicit in individual works and of what they did and did not portray. The history of art cannot be the history of art alone.

Well, no, but it is difficult to see here, or in the essays themselves, anything essential to this critical method that will be startling to someone used to – say – Marxist criticism, or to the work of art historians like Michael Baxandall and Frances Yates. The emphases and conclusions differ – as they do between the essayists here – but the principle of balancing evidence intrinsic to the painting against material that lies outside the frame to make a critical account is the same. It is the process which Panofsky compared to Leonardo’s image of the two half-arches which can only stand together. Each critic must make the case for their own selection of external material and keep the arch well enough balanced to take the weight of their conclusions – whether sociological, biographical or psychoanalytical. Even for the antiquarian art historian, whose interest stops with the physical description of the work and the establishing of its authorship and provenance, the process, though more narrowly circumscribed, is essentially similar. Such ‘conventional’ work indeed often provides an essential basis for the wider excursions in these essays. Only the pure aestheticists, those who believe that the whole meaning of a work of art is to be found in, or somehow ‘through’ the artefact itself, will be fundamentally at odds with such an approach.

Marcia Pointon is good on the portraits of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish dress. Hers was an experience oddly complementary to Haydon’s: but what she found was salvation rather than martyrdom through self-mythologising in art. She was a woman for whom some form of public representation was inescapable and her disfigurement by smallpox – a great blow, thought contemporaries, to her husband’s career – made her painted image particularly difficult and painful for her. That she used exotic costume not merely as a flattering distraction from her ruined face but as a positive way of re-inventing herself, of re-assuming control of her public self and establishing an iconography that would acquire its own momentum, is suggested by Marcia Pointon’s analysis of contemporary pictures, Mary Wortley Montagu’s own writing and Lacan’s theory of the nature of identity.

John Barrell’s contribution ‘The Curtius of the Khyber Pass’ makes many of the same points as Alethea Hayter’s less theoretical account, building a case for Haydon’s Marcus Curtius Leaping into the Gulph as not only a literal self-portrait but also his ‘crucifixion’, an allegory of his martyrdom to the cause of High Art. This is uphill work, for no one can pretend that the picture is either good or superficially interesting. Haydon/Curtius stares out of it with what should be heroic resignation but seems more like abstraction, as if he is thinking of something different, lunch perhaps, and simply hasn’t noticed the gulf. It is hard to look at Haydon’s work now without laughing: indeed, as John Barrell discovered, it is difficult to look at it at all. The Royal Albert Museum in Exeter, daunted by the task of moving so large a picture, has simply built a false wall in front of it to hang other paintings on.

Barrell makes heroic efforts of his own to uncover the painting’s significance and is as subtle as Alethea Hayter in his handling of his easily-bruised subject, partly because he needs to establish Haydon as a less eccentric figure than he might now seem in order to support the broader conclusion that Marcus Curtius symbolised the end not only of Haydon’s career, but of painting in ‘the tradition of Joshua Reynolds, James Barry and Benjamin West’. How convincing this argument is depends on how we view that ‘tradition’. Of the three artists only West, who found a royal patron with the necessary deep pockets and high ceilings, made a career as a history painter. Reynolds was chiefly a portraitist and Barry had died forty years before Haydon, similarly embittered and neglected, the only artist ever to be expelled from the Academy. The emphasis on High Art in theoretical writing was part of the rhetorical campaign to establish painting as a liberal art. In practice, most painters, and most patrons, preferred landscape, watercolour and portraits. Similarly, from the letters and memoirs of that majority of artists who operated outside the Academy and its theoretical confines, it is hard to be sure how much their exclusion mattered to them or limited their activities.

To settle such a point finally is impossible because it depends on intangibles, on the relationship between what people said and what they did, between experience and expression. That there can never be an absolute answer to these questions, though they are addressed by all critical accounts that venture beyond the artefacts, in no way removes the need to attempt to do the best we can with them, and when it is done with balance and integrity, as it is by John Barrell, Marcia Pointon or Stephen Daniels, writing on Coalbrookdale by Night, then the reader, whether they agree or not, gains by the reading.

The history of art cannot be the history of art alone, but it must take the art into account. If the argument wanders too far from the picture then Panofsky’s arch will overbalance and the critic with it. To suggest, as David Solkin does in his conclusion, that Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on the Bird in the Air Pump can ‘offer us a timely word of warning, before we join the chorus of acclamation for those market forces we see marching in apparent triumph across the world today’ is to take a Haydonesque leap into bathos. Solkin’s is not the only essay in which the argument is occasionally drowned out by the loud grinding of axes. Sometimes the academics seem as dogmatic and exclusive as the Academicians and as inconsistent in their relation of theory to practice. Before, for instance, referring to the ‘token women’ in Wright’s painting Solkin might have checked the ratio of men to women among his fellow contributors.

Too absolute a commitment to theoretical context sometimes leaves the painting and its documentation, like leftover pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to be rammed in at the last minute. Anne Bermingham, in ‘Wright of Derby’s Corinthian Maid’, has to saw some worryingly large bits off the evidence. Josiah Wedgwood, for example, who commissioned the painting, asked Wright to alter it after some of his women friends had complained. Judy Egerton, who has elsewhere been chucked under the chin for her ‘useful if unadventurous’ catalogue on Wright, quotes, in her plodding way, the whole of Wedgwood’s letter. So committed, however, is Anne Bermingham to demonstrating the ‘gendered nature of artistic discourse’ that she adventurously extracts a single phrase to imply that the women’s objection to the visible ‘division in the posteriors’ was on the grounds of propriety. In fact, their main complaint was that Wright had given the maid too big a bottom with ‘a hanging-like (if I may use a new term) appearance as if it wanted a little shove up’. By adding to the drapery Wright disguised the drooping outline in the most technically obvious way. (There are several points in Painting and the Politics of Culture where a similar editorial process, in the form of a little shove up the posterior, might have helped. In particular, it might have curbed the use of academic jargon – of ‘valorise’, ‘deproblematise’ and, for heaven’s sake, ‘disambiguate’.)

After the close focus of A Sultry Month and Painting and the Politics of Culture, London: World City opens out like one of the panoramas that were so popular in the period it covers. Produced to accompany an exhibition in Essen, the book includes detailed catalogue entries which read well in their own right (although it is a pity that A.C. Pugin’s date of birth is wrong throughout). The first part of the book, which comprises a series of essays on subjects including painting, collecting, literature, science and economics, as they affected or reflected life in ‘the biggest city anyone had ever seen’, casts light from different angles on many of the same issues and individuals. Haydon is there, at the Coronation of George IV, a figure in the crowd, describing the ‘silken roar’ as it rose. The Carlyles trail glumly through the chapter on building, hunting for a suitable house. With the exception of a disappointing essay on the theatre the accounts interconnect and cross-refer without repetition to make the cumulative effect highly rewarding. The book is marred only by the crippling and inexplicable absence of an index which makes it useless as a work of reference.

There is no overt theoretical line, and although Andrew Wilton returns fire from his footnotes on behalf of the ‘conventional’ art historians against the Barrellists, the book is in fact another, more coherent demonstration of the history of art as the history of more than art alone. Wilton’s essay on painting, taken with Peter Funnell’s on the London art world, Clive Wainwright’s on patronage and the applied arts and Simon Jervis’s on Rudolph Ackermann, build between them a picture of a period in which the whole idea of culture was being formed. The word itself was first used in its present meaning in 1805, ‘scientist’ was coined in 1833 and, equally important in its way, ‘Elizabethan’ in 1817. The period which began, as Celina Fox says in her introduction, with King and mistresses ended with Queen and family. Moral, social and artistic distinctions hardened, but at the turn of the century the divisions between fine and applied art, art and science, and science, magic and religion were drawn less clearly or at different points.

Stephen Daniels in Painting and the Politics of Culture makes this point in his essay on Coalbrookdale by Night and he could have made more use of what he calls ‘Pyne’s Microcosm’ – which the authors of London: World City have used most profitably – to demonstrate that before there was ‘culture’ there was spectacle. The Microcosm of London, of which Pyne wrote part, was dominated by the illustrations of A.C. Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson. In so far as it has an authorial voice it is that of the publisher Rudolph Ackermann among whose many inventions The Microcosm could also be counted as the first coffee-table book, published from 1808 to 1810 for a polite but not exclusively aristocratic audience. Included in the sequence of spectacles no modern readership would expect in a single work are The Royal Cockpit, mad women in St Luke’s, members of the House of Commons, the Royal Academy exhibition and a fire at Blackfriars. From all these things the readers could expect some sort of interest. Science was entertaining and still a feminine subject. Of the Royal Institution William Combe writes in The Microcosm: ‘Humphry Davey Esq FRS is professor of chemistry and delivers a course on that science to crowded audiences. His manner is very attractive, and his delivery graceful.’ London: World City sets Academic insistence on High Art in the context of this public who would just as soon see a good fire or a dwarf. Stressful self-improvement and suffering for art (anyone else’s art at least) lay ahead, on the other side of ‘culture’ – and even then, most might still prefer the dwarf.

By 1846 the world of The Microcosm had all but vanished. There had been one last spectacle in 1835 when the Houses of Parliament burned down, watched by everyone and painted by Turner. In 1836 A.C. Pugin’s son A.W.N. Pugin, set designer, notably for Scott’s Kenilworth, published Contrasts, a call for a new order of Gothic architecture true to materials and to God. The Houses of Parliament were rebuilt by Barry and Pugin in the Gothic style. In the competition in 1843 for the frescos for the interior Haydon was unsuccessful. That was the year of Marcus Curtius and the year in which Punch, in response to the competition, invented yet another new category of art, coining the term ‘cartoon’ for a humorous drawing. Haydon, of course, was one of the first subjects.