A Genius for Failure, By Paul O'Keeffe

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The Independent Culture

The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon was an exact contemporary of Wordsworth, Keats and Lamb, and some of the most vivid recollections of their lives and their conversations are found within the pages of Haydon's Autobiography. Destiny, however, can be cruel. That Haydon should be remembered for his writings would have been an anathema to him. He regarded himself, first and foremost, as a history painter, on the grandest of grand scales, in an age when history painting was beginning to lose its importance.

He dreamt of heroic subjects, and great conceptions. It was a matter of talent and destiny. He believed that God was on his side, and would enable him to triumph. History painting meant everything to him, and he strove to succeed at it, quite obsessively, throughout his troubled life, which ended in his 61st year with a grotesque suicide.

His working methods were hopelessly self-destructive. A man of relatively poor sight, he worked ridiculously long hours in dim light; his painting room was a perpetual fug of fumes. He found the great art which never failed to inspire him quite early – the Elgin Marbles, freshly arrived from Greece, and Raphael's Cartoons, then at Hampton Court Palace. He had nothing but scorn for the idea of travelling to Italy.

Haydon, a monstrously proud Devonian (he grew up in Plymouth, amid stirring tales of naval heroics), was his own worst enemy. He picked quarrels with those who could have advanced his career. When he found a cause - or man - to tear at at, he would, like some frenzied dog. But what destroyed him were two things: a lack of talent to become what he believed it was his destiny to be, and an inability to live within his means. He suffered from tremendous delusions of grandeur. He piled up debt after debt, and spent a good part of his energies fending off those whom he owed a small fortune.

This is a good and thorough biography, but far too detailed. When we reach the point where Haydon has finished yet another enormous and unsaleable history painting, Paul O'Keeffe will describe everything we might have seen in front of it. It's all too much! And yet the book says too little about the European context of Romanticism.

The tragi-comedy which broke him had to do with his yearning to embellish the walls of the re-built House of Lords with a cycle of frescoes on historical themes. At the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, he decided to mount an exhibition of two of these six great canvases. Alas, a touring American dwarf called Tom Thumb was performing elsewhere in the building, and Haydon's spectacle drew just a trickle of visitors.

It was the final humiliation for this paranoid delusive. Never a man to do things by half, he shot himself, and then, having discovered that he was still conscious, he slit his throat, twice, first in one direction and then in the other.

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