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Art. III.—Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Historical Painter. Edited and compiled by Tom Taylor, Esq. London: Longman & Co. 1853.
The majority of our readers have perhaps no very distinct idea of the artistic reputation of the subject of the work before us. They have heard of Haydon as the painter of some large historical pictures which they have never seen, and which they have probably never heard mentioned with respect. His name, when it has occurred in conversation or written critiques, has been passed over with a few summary, and perhaps, contemptuous comments. Whatever ideas they have concerning him are dimly connected with failure; with things attempted but not achieved. But even this amount of fame some will think an exaggeration. Haydon's name has perhaps fallen with as little impression on their ears as his great picture on the eyes of the thousands who ascend the stairs of the Pantheon, without bestowing on his master-piece one conscious glance. The one definite idea men have of him is not associated with his art, but with the dreadful act by which his exasperated spirit broke away from a world which would not recognise his claims.
It is after considering this general apathy and indifference that the present very remarkable work strikes us most forcibly, and furnishes its most pathetic lesson. Its very length and minuteness of detail come upon us with surprise, that there should be so much to tell of a man's struggles with a world for whom that world cared so little; and yet we are assured that these three closely printed volumes bear a small proportion to the materials from which they are abridged, which we can very well believe in realizing the wonderful fact, that Haydon left twenty-seven folio volumes of journal behind him.
There is no more expressive trait of character than journalkeeping. Many men begin to write journals with detail enough, till time or patience fails them, or more likely than either, disgust of the subject steps in and puts a stop to the work. What an image then is raised of energy, perseverance, and gigantic self-love, in the thought of a man recording his opinions, doings, trials, sufferings, large successes, trivial triumphs, overwhelming mortifications, petty disappointments, every event, small and great, that happens to himself and to others in their relation to himself, day by day, with unabated interest and unwearying particularity for more than forty years. We need not inquire whether permission was formally given for the publication of these records, though this is not wanting. Twentysix volumes were never written for the writer's own benefit alone: nothing short of a world of readers could offer stimulus enough for such prolonged exertion. They are poor Haydon's appeal to posterity; self-esteem elevated to the dignity of a passion, asserts itself in them, and like all true passion, leaves a deep impression. Nothing more curious, more melancholy, more pitiable can be conceived than this picture of a mind for ever regarding itself from a false position; nothing by contrast illustrates more forcibly the peace and blessedness of the apostolic rule—' not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.'
It is not as a painter, but as a man, that the present work engages our curiosity and our interest (such as it is) for Haydon: though an insane desire for fame led him willingly to sacrifice every consideration of personal dignity for eminence in his chosen art, and it is solely as the great painter of the age that he claims the attention and sympathy of his readers. As a painter he failed: the purpose of his life came to nought.
We are sometimes inclined to wonder why this should be, for there are evidences of remarkable ability, great energy and perseverance, an extraordinary sensitiveness to impressions, an organization which we are accustomed to associate with genius, all stimulating an iron will, which we might expect to overcome every impediment It has been common to extol the will into a power independent of natural propensity, and to assert that a man can be anything he chooses to be; Haydon is an illustration (at least for all practical purposes) to the contrary of this proposition. It is very clear that his young fixed determination was far in advance of his powers. 'We hear little of any early sense of beauty or correctness of eye; but we do hear of his obstinate resolution to paint, or rather, to be a great painter, for the thought of self, always in him, goes before love of his art. He is proud of this obstinacy, and records it as a fine trait and full of promise, that when for some weeks blind, and while serious fears were entertained of permanent dimness of sight, this circumstance never for a moment weakened his intention.
'I recovered my sight, but never perfectly, had another attack, slowly recovered from that, but found that my natural sight was gone, and this too, with my earnest and deep passion for art. "What folly! How can you think of being a painter? Why, you can't see," was said. "I can see enough," was my reply; "and, see or not see, a painter I'll be, and if 1 am a great one without seeing, I shall be the first." Upon the whole, my family was not displeased that I could only see sufficiently for business. I could still keep accounts, and post the cash books. It would have been quite natural for an ordinary mind to think blindness a sufficient obstacle to the practice of an art, the essence of which seems to consist in perfect sight, but " when the divinity doth stir within us," the most ordinary mind is ordinary no longer.
'It is curious to me now, forty years after, to reflect that my dim sight never occurred to me as an obstacle: not a bit of it; I found that I could not shoot as I used to do, but it never struck me that I should not be able to paint.'—Vol. i. pp. 13,14.
Haydon's will was wilfulness, and this story is only a type of his defiant attitude of mind throughout his life. The will should aim at controlling self. He had quite another idea of its purpose, and expected to overcome fate and impossibilities. He trusted and revered every impulse, and disdained all advice, all teaching—even Nature herself he approached with an imperious air, betraying, we think, from first to last, a want of comprehension of her deeper beauty, and those more exquisite graces which must be watched and waited for. He worshipped that art, which, as it were, forced the secret of action from her, but the higher divinity of repose seemed to possess no hold over his soul. Michael Angelo and the Elgin Marbles delighted him, as exhibiting anatomical excellence and power; but the hidden retiring beauties of expression, all that needed patience, humility, and a reverential aspect of mind, he could neither understand nor estimate. Thus, while he adored the antique, the human face, as nature shows it to us, in its every day aspect, was no interesting subject to him. In his pride against painting portraits, as below the dignity of high art, he betrayed a dulness of perception which we cannot but think proves his incapacity for its more elevated branches; while it seems a just consequence of the arrogance which led a youth of one or twoand-twenty to talk of' taking liberties with nature, and bending her to his purposes,' (a boast which his maturer age admires and approves,) that nature should for ever withhold from him the skill to pursue her more secret workings, or to detect the beauty that lies in many rude physiognomies, which her dutiful disciples can delineate in spite of homely features and time's rough usage, and take pleasure in delineating, to whatever heights of fame their genius and imagination may have raised them. But a record of Haydon's life is after all the best comment upon his views, mistakes, and failure in art. It is impossible not to believe in the fairness of the world's judgment of works to ourselves little known, when we pursue the course of pride and presumption of their author, and are made witnesses of the passions, agitations, and vicissitudes with which his whole course was embroiled, through their disturbing influence.
The editor explains in a terse preface what his task has been; not to give his own view of Haydon's character, but to place it before the reader as he has himself drawn it—a task of no small difficulty, we can well believe, and very successfully performed; for though we could often have wished the book shorter, the very tediousness and irksome repetition of painful details could not have been further abridged without weakening the impression that the work leaves upon us, and which it is its proper office to excite.
The first volume consists of an autobiography written expressly for publication, carried down to the author's thirty-fifth year." The second and third are condensed by the editor, from, the voluminous journal to which we have referred. The tone of editor and autobiographer towards the subject of the memoir, stands in amusing contrast in the two prefaces which follow close upon one another:—
* Haydon is presented,' says Mr. Taylor, 'to the readers of these volumes, —I will not say " in his habit as he lived "—but as he thought, or, at any rate, wished the world to believe, he lived. Whether the portrait be a true likeness, it is for those who knew him to say. On this point there will probably be as many opinions as critics. At any rate, it is better than any other man can draw. The vainest human being knows himself better than the most clear-sighted observer knows him, and his own description of himself will always be the best we can obtain (if he have the needful power and habit of record), for even his mis-statements, exaggerations, and perversions are characteristic, and like no other man's.
'No man, who has left an autobiography, has ever succeeded in making himself out a hero in the world's opinion, however strenuously he may have been bent on so doing. It is apparent throughout the twenty-seven folios, from which these volumes have been compressed, that Haydon believed himself a hero, and thought the world would believe it when these records of him came to light.'—Editor's Preface, pp. v. vi.
The next is Haydon's self-introduction, characteristic, as is every page he writes; with its turgid allusions to enemies, and oppressions, and its confidence in the world's enduring sympathy with his cause:—
'Every man who has suffered for a principle, and would lose his life for its success,—who in his early days has been oppressed without ever giving the slightest grounds for oppression, and persecuted to ruin because his oppression was unmerited,—who has incurred the hatred of his enemies exactly in proportion as they became convinced they were wrong,—every man who, like me, has eaten the bitter crust of poverty, and endured the penalties of vice and wickedness where he merited the rewards of virtue and industry,—should write his own life.
'If the oppressed and the oppressor died together, both (if remembered at all) might be left to the impartiality of future investigation; but when the oppressed is sure to die, and the oppressor, being a body, is sure to survive, I cannot be blamed for wishing to put my countrymen in possession of my own case, when they will most undoubtedly at all times be able to ascertain the case of my enemies. I have known and associated with many remarkable men. My life has been connected with my glorious country's art. The people and nobility of England, the grandest people and nobility of the world, have ever sympathised with my fate, and often deferred my ruin.'—Pp. 1, 2.
Haydon was born at Plymouth, 1786. His parentage, on both sides, was respectable, and he traces it to family misfortunes and lawsuits, that his grandfather and father were in trade as booksellers there. He records that he was an excessively self-willed and passionate child, whose fits of fury could be best allayed by showing him 'pretty pictures.' At six he began to find out the pleasures of the pencil for himself, his favourite first subject being not unprophetic of the historical school of high art to which he devoted his life, 'Louis XVI. ■ under the Guillotine in his shirt-sleeves, taking leave of his 'people.'
There is great reason to doubt whether he had, at an early age, that amount of facility and invention great painters have commonly shown. It may seem ungenerous to infer this from the fact that he does not boast of having possessed them, but it is an inference any one familiar with his style cannot help drawing. Some inclination and facility he certainly had, enough to deter' mine his ambition by what means he must be a great man, if great he was to be; but his first aspiration seems to have been after greatness, not after art. His natural bias was encouraged at his first school by his master,—who was more an artist than a classic, and who used to take Haydon with him on his sketching expeditions,—and at home by his father's work people:—
'My father was much plagued with apprentices, who thought they were geniuses because they were idle. One, I remember, did nothing but draw and paint. He was the first I ever saw paint in oil. The head man in the binding-office was a Neapolitan called Fenzi, a fine muscular lazzaroni-like fellow. Fenzi used to talk to me of the wonders of Italy, and bare his fine muscular arm, and say, "Don't draw de landscape; draw de fcegoore, master Benjamin." He first told me of Raphael and the Vatican.
'I used to run up to Fenzi, and ask him hundreds of questions, and spent most of my half-holidays in his office.
'I now tried to draw "de feegoore" began to read anatomical books by the advice of Northcote's brother (a townsman), to fancy myself a genius and a historical painter, to talk to'myself in the fields, to look into the glass, and conclude I had an intellectual head; and then I forgot all about it, and went and played cricket, never touched a brush for months, rode a black pony about the neighbourhood, pinned ladies' gowns together on market-days, and waited to see them split; knocked at doors by night and ran away; swam and bathed, heated myself, worried my parents, and at last was laid on my back by the measles.'—Pp. 8, 9.
At thirteen he was sent to the school at Plympton, where Sir Joshua Reynolds had been educated; where he did well, and ended by being the head boy. His father, who intended him for the counting-house, would not have him learn drawing, but he copied caricatures (towards which his childhood seems to have had a leaning), and drew a hunting scene on the schoolroom walls, which his master would not allow to be effaced for some weeks.
No. i.xxxir.—N.s. z