Great works: Punch or May Day (1830) By Benjamin Robert Haydon

Tate Britain, London

The story is one of tragedy. Or perhaps tragi-comedy. The 19th-century Devonian painter Benjamin Robert Haydon wanted above all things to be remembered for his huge canvases of great and enduring historical, religious or mythological significance. He also wanted to be known as the founder and chief protagonist of a new national school of history painting in order, as he put it, so ringingly, "to raise old England's head to honour and glory, and greatness in art". It did not happen. His life was a catastrophe, which ended in a farcical, near-botched suicide.

In fact, what we can see here today in the freshly re-hung Wolfson Room at Tate Britain is the kind of painting that he truly deserves to be known for but never wished to be. In fact, he would probably have wept to see it here in the midst of this great national collection, displayed so prominently. He would have told us that it was mere burlesque, nothing more than a tawdry potboiler of a piece of work, too big for its physical size, little but a protracted experiment in whimsy, a colourfully confected daub of a thing...

Much too self-flagellatory, Mr Haydon. In fact, this is a marvellously zestful London street-scene, pullulating with stock characters, and all in thrall to the Punch and Judy man at a little past noon (we can read the exact time on the clock of Marylebone church) on May Day. This is painting of the moment and in the moment, hectic-seeming in its execution, a sheer, no-holds-barred romp in oils, wholly other than the canvases over which he laboured, night and day, by the poorest of poor lights, in his London studio. Where are The Death of Eucles, The Judgement of Solomon or Christ's Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem (whose frame alone weighed 600lb) now, those giant conceptions featuring heroic subjects? They are certainly not displayed amongst our national glories. Nor do they deserve to be. But this one does, and it now hangs centre-wall, dwarfing its nearest neighbours, in its slightly over-the-top gilded frame, the upper edge of which somewhat resembles the proscenium arch of a West End theatre.

That is exactly as it should be. This painting is all about theatricality, and it is also entirely appropriate that, directly to its right, there should hang a little-seen, circular portrait of an African-American actor who once played Othello.

This is a tale of chance encounter, seemingly unpremeditated – which was, in fact, not quite the case. Haydon staged this scene with some care. For all that, the message is clear: this is a scene which will not endure. The sheer allure of Mr Punch beating hell out of his missus has dragged all this crowd together, blocking the public highway to such an extent that the marriage coach seems to be in near collision with the horse-drawn hearse, which appears to be veering away from us. Everyone is gawping: the farmer, who is having his pocket picked so deftly by a small hand; the chimney sweep, who is posing like a tragic child actor as his broomstick lolls across his left shoulder.

There are so many faces to attend to here – I can count 24 of them; and such a variety of hats too, from the military to the civil. The sky too appears to be boiling unserenely, displaying a surge of apocalyptic clouds almost worthy of John Martin. There are varieties of walking too, which include the lighter-than-air, prancing strut of the red-bootee-d character in gorgeous blackface who turns his face towards us, at bottom right, for a bit of acknowledgement of his sheer visual extraordinariness. What a cornucopia we have here! And all, alas, gone in a moment. Not so.

About the artist: Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846)

The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon was a friend to great poets who failed to achieve greatness himself. His greatest single work was his Autobiography (published posthumously in 1853), in which he recalled, in vivid and arresting detail, his friendships and conversations with Leigh Hunt, Wordsworth, Lamb, Keats and others. Having lived a hand-to-mouth existence for years, his end was terrible. He shot himself and, failing to die, he had to slit his throat twice to achieve his end.

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss