Bigger Peaches

Rosemary Hill

  • The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817 by Penelope Hughes-Hallett
    Viking, 336 pp, £15.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 670 87999 1

In May 1804, at the age of 18, Benjamin Robert Haydon left his home in Plymouth and set off for London to become a great artist. His mother was distraught, his father furious, but there was no doubt in Haydon’s mind either of his vocation or of his genius. He could have worked in his father’s bookshop and inherited a secure, independent income but he didn’t want to. So he was rude to the customers and finally, when one of them asked for a reduction on a Latin dictionary, he stormed out. Such was always to be Haydon’s way. So began ‘that species of misery’, the ‘ceaseless opposition’ of temperament that was to dog and finally to destroy him. Tactlessness is scarcely a tragic flaw: Haydon was obsessed with the heroic in art, yet in life he was often closer to the comic, his flair for insulting the wrong person at the wrong moment costing him chance after chance, losing him friends, recognition and patronage. His career, which ended in suicide, was less a tragedy than a parable, a moral tale of what he himself described as ‘the agony of ungratified ambition’.

Yet a man capable of such insight could never be merely ridiculous. Haydon had talent as an artist and arguably more as a writer; he taught himself German and Italian. He was ebullient, humorous and – when he chose to be – perceptive about others: in many ways a lovable man. By 1817 he had established himself both as a painter and as a figure in the intellectual life of Regency London. It was a world where high thinking went with ramshackle living. Haydon’s friends, Charles and Mary Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt and the young Keats were all, like him, mostly self-educated and chronically short of money.

Haydon had also come to know Wordsworth, who was in London in December 1817. On the 28th Haydon invited him to dinner to meet Keats. Charles Lamb was there. Hazlitt, who had attacked Wordsworth in print, was not invited. Nor were the Leigh Hunts, for Haydon had rashly lent Mrs Hunt his silver spoons and forks for a recent party of her own. The considerable difficulty he had in getting them back had led to a froideur.

The party, in Haydon’s painting room at his lodgings in Lisson Grove, was a success. Wordsworth was not too much on his dignity, Lamb was not too drunk. The talk was of Milton and Shakespeare, Voltaire and Newton. Lamb and Keats agreed that Newton had ‘destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow’ and the company drank a famous toast: ‘Newton’s health and confusion to mathematics.’ Above them towered Haydon’s huge unfinished canvas Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, dramatically lit from time to time by the firelight. His Jerusalem was the epitome of the heroic ‘High Art’ Haydon hoped, and expected, to revive in England and it seemed to him that his picture was the crowning glory of ‘a night worthy of the Elizabethan age’, his great ‘immortal dinner’.

Of course nobody praised the party more loudly or referred to it more often afterwards than Haydon himself, but this was one boast that was justified. The evening, recorded in a brief but vivid account set down the same night in his journal, would have been remarkable had it done no more than bring together the two generations of Romantic poetry. It did more than that, though: it caught a moment in English social and intellectual life, an engaging as well as a brilliant moment, and one that was about to pass. Distinctions that would soon harden into opposition, between art and science, art and commerce, professionals and amateurs, were still unclear, up for discussion and much discussed in Haydon’s circle. It was in the negotiable territory between them that careers like theirs could flourish.

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