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1827 The Loser

The tales these Chronicles tell are often about winners: about artists whose careers were successfully launched, transformed, or confirmed at the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibitions. The story of the Summer Exhibition, however, is also one of losers: of countless men and women who, pinning their hopes on being recognised and appreciated through the means of this central showcase of contemporary British art, have found their works being savagely dismissed, damned with faint praise, utterly ignored, or simply rejected. One such loser—in 1827, at least—was Benjamin Robert Haydon.

Haydon, as his published diaries make abundantly clear, was an extraordinary figure.1 A one-time student of Henry Fuseli and an old friend of David Wilkie, he sought to become the greatest history painter of his age. However, though Haydon was widely respected for his wide learning and artistic ambition, he was continually brought low by his complex personal flaws and by his many technical weaknesses as a painter. For these same reasons, he was also someone who enjoyed a highly troubled relationship with the Academy and its Summer Exhibitions.

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This relationship had been soured from the start by the ignominious treatment that—to Haydon’s eyes, at least—had been meted out to his first submission to the Annual Exhibition, in 1809. In that year, his large-scale history painting Dentatus had been moved by the Hanging Committee from its original, prominent position in the Great Room to a far less advantageous and seemingly rather shadowed location in the Ante-Room—a move that the artist saw as having had a disastrous impact on his and his work’s reputation. Seventeen years later, in 1826, and after years of fluctuating fortunes (which included a spell of confinement in a debtor’s prison and long periods of estrangement from the Academy), he was still bitterly recalling the incident in the pages of his diary: “This single act only of hanging that Picture in the dark changed the whole current of my life for a Time! So great is the power of men who arrange the exhibition.”2 Even as he wrote this note, however, Haydon was once again preparing a major historical work for submission to the Academy’s Annual Exhibition: Alexander the Great taming Bucephalus, which he worked upon for almost a year, and which was hung in the Great Room at the 1827 Exhibition (Fig. 1).

In this instance, Haydon benefitted from the patronage and charity of the third Earl of Egremont, who, learning that the artist and his family were destitute, and seeing the painting taking shape in the artist’s studio, had agreed to pay the enormous sum of 500 guineas for the work. As was often the case, Haydon, buoyed by this sudden upturn in his fortune, dreamt that this new picture would not only be his best, but would, at last, persuade his contemporaries to take him seriously as the great saviour of British history painting; someone, indeed, who—as he wrote on the day he received the commission from Egremont—had helped produce “a complete Revolution in British art”.3 The painting that he trusted would raise him to this exalted position in the art world depicted what Haydon described “the finest subject on earth”: the classical episode, described in Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great, when the youthful Alexander, responding to a challenge from Philip, King of Macedon, tames the fierce and hitherto ungovernable stallion Bucephalus, and rides his newly obedient steed into the royal court.4

As he worked on his picture in the months leading up to the 1827 display, and as his initial burst of self-confidence began turning into an understandable anxiety about how his painting would be received at Somerset House, Haydon subjected his canvas to an obsessive and increasingly counter-productive process of revision. As the following extracts from his diaries reveal, he continually returned to the painting after having declared it complete, repainting large parts of the canvas:

November 30, 1826: My Alexander is in fact concluded this day; December 1: Hard at work and improved vastly Alexander’s Head; February 9, 1827: I fear I must take out & repaint the whole of Alexander; February 18: Hard at work. Harassed, & worked by snatches at Alexander’s head; February 21: Succeeded (I flatter myself) with the head of Alexander; March 10: Finished Alexander this day. I thank God with all my soul!; March 11: Still hovering about Alexander; April 3: While Alexander remains I shall never cease doing; April 9: Sent Alexander to the Exhibition.5

Despite this anxiety-ridden form of pictorial editing, Haydon had continued to cling to the words of praise he received from visitors in the run-up to the Exhibition: thus, on 27 March, he noted that: “Lord Egremont called and thought Alexander my best picture.”6 However, things didn’t turn out well at Somerset House. Once again, the Hanging Committee seem to have given the painting a poor position on the walls: “June 1: Lord Egremont called. He seemed angry & mortified that Alexander was not in a good situation.”7 More to the point, perhaps, the painting received a bemused and sometimes vitriolic response from the critics. The New Monthly Magazine, euphemistically describing the picture as a “work of mixed character and pretensions”, implied that the figure of Alexander looked far more like a self-portrait of Haydon than of the great warrior, and that his great black stallion was depicted with a fierceness that entirely contradicted the horse’s supposed subjection.8 Though the La Belle Assemblée offered a note of encouragement, praising the “undiminished vigour of the artist’s pencil” and the “powerful conceptions of his mind”, it too ended on a deflationary and somewhat enigmatic note: “many critical objections, however, might be urged against this picture.”9 The Morning Post was far more direct in its assessment: its reviewer described the composition as “ill-grouped, ill-drawn, ill-coloured and extremely vulgar.”10

The faults picked out by this last critic, and implied by his less strident counterparts—which included clumsiness of composition, exaggeration of gesture, coarseness of handling, gaudiness of colour, and a deluded form of self-identification on Haydon’s part—would have been thrown into even sharper relief by the presence in the same exhibition of another similarly scaled history painting featuring a heroic warrior astride a great black stallion. This was Henry Peronnet Briggs’ The Challenge, which illustrated an episode from Ludovico Ariosto’s Renaissance epic Orlando Furioso, and was painted with what reviewers perceived as exemplary professionalism and technical competence (Fig. 2). This was certainly the case for the critic of The New Monthly Magazine, who systematically contrasted this picture’s qualities with precisely the kinds of failings that were regularly attributed to Haydon’s works:

the composition of this fine work is very skilful, and without any of unnecessary and offensive exaggeration which so generally besets all attempts to illustrate the higher efforts of poetry in the present day. There is no overstrained, and therefore mock-heroic dignity of deportment—no extravagant and theatrical attitudes and expressions—no violent and studied contrasts.11

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same writer goes on to make the contrast between the two artists even more directly: having written that Briggs possesses the “spirt and boldness of Haydon”, he declares that, thankfully, he has none of the latter’s “coarseness”.12

As will have become clear, Alexander the Great taming Bucephalus was hardly the great success at the Summer Exhibition for which Haydon had so fervently hoped; rather, it seems to have been regarded as something of an embarrassment. Thereafter, the picture languished at Egremont’s great house in Petworth, from which it was periodically borrowed to add ballast to a succession of one-man shows organised by the artist. As for Haydon himself? He was once again in debtor’s prison at the end of June 1827, even as his heroic mishap of a picture still hung at Somerset House. Released in the autumn, in November, he made yet another attempt to gain a foothold at the Academy, through standing for election as an Associate. He failed to gain a single vote.

  1. The best and most scholarly edition of Haydon’s diaries is Willard Bissell Pope (ed.), The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963). For a good modern biography of Haydon, see Paul O’Keefe, A Genius for Failure: The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon (London: Bodley Head, 2009); for the most interesting piece of modern scholarship on the artist, see John Barrell, “Benjamin Robert Haydon: The Curtius of the Khyber Pass”, in John Barrell (ed.), Painting and the Politics of Culture: New Essays on British Art 1700–1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 253–290.↩︎

  2. Pope, The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 122, entry for 17 July 1826.↩︎

  3. Pope, The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 99, entry for 14 May 1826.↩︎

  4. Pope, The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 99, entry for 14 May 1826.↩︎

  5. Pope, The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 30 November 1826, 173; 1 December  1826, 173; 9 February 1827, 183; 18 February 1827, 184; 21 February 1827, 184; 10 March 1827, 185; 11 March 1827, 186; 3 April 1827, 188; and 9 April 1827, 189.↩︎

  6. Pope, The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 188.↩︎

  7. Pope, The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 201.↩︎

  8. The New Monthly Magazine, 1 September 1827, 379.↩︎

  9. La Belle Assemblée 5 (1827): 279.↩︎

  10. The Morning Post, 5 May 1827, as quoted in O’Keefe, A Genius for Failure, 254.↩︎

  11. The New Monthly Magazine, 1 July 1827, 292.↩︎

  12. The New Monthly Magazine, 1 July 1827, 292.↩︎

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