Lectures on Painting and Design, 1844-1846 (2 volumes)
The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Historical Painter, from His Autobiography and Journals, 1853 (3 volumes; also known as The Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon)
Benjamin Robert Haydon, a painter of historical subjects, as a child displayed a precocious interest in art, and he was encouraged by his parents and his first teacher, all of whom were fond of painting as an avocation. Haydon determined to take up painting as a career and refused the more dependable livelihood promised by his father’s printing and publishing office. An eye inflammation had seriously impaired his vision, but it was characteristic of Haydon that this handicap merely increased his determination. He went to London in 1804, studied for two years, and then embarked upon the series of large historical canvases that made his reputation. Although these heroic paintings gained him wide recognition, they brought in very little money; moreover, the Royal Academy gave his work a cold reception, mostly because he wrote scathing articles about the academy’s tyranny over British art and taste for Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, thereby ensuring their lasting enmity. Frequently cheated in payments and commissions, often in debt and finally imprisoned for it, Haydon remained industrious, courageous, and optimistic. His family was often in want, and five of his eight children died. To support the family, he was forced to depend upon his lectures on painting; he gave free painting lessons and tried unsuccessfully to start another academy. His romantic paintings, vast in scope and grandiose in style, were known and admired throughout the world, but they did not sell. He numbered many famous writers and artists among his acquaintances, and his students included Edwin Landseer and Charles Eastlake. He waged a successful and almost single-handed campaign to persuade his government to purchase the Elgin marbles. None of his achievements, however, provided him with more than the barest of necessities. His final exhibition, which he had to finance himself, had to compete with an appearance of showman P. T. Barnum and the famous midget Tom Thumb. Haydon lost heavily, and this was more than he could bear. He committed suicide on June 22, 1846.
Haydon’s paintings gradually became relegated to obscurity, but he became posthumously known for his writings, specifically, his autobiography, which was published after his death as The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon. Haydon wrote clearly and in a strong, vigorous prose that reveals considerable natural talent. His account of his development as an artist is an energetic, accurate, and picturesque view of his times. It also forms the portrait of a singularly courageous man. A diary in twenty-six volumes, upon which the published autobiography is based, and his Lectures on Painting and Design, remain Haydon’s contribution to English literature.