It's my party and I'll exhibit if I want to

Monday Book: <i>The Immortal Dinner: a famous evening of genius &amp; laughter in literary London, 1817</i> by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (Viking, &pound;15.99)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The dinner in question was given in 1817 by the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, partly to show off his vast, half-finished painting Christ's Entry into Jerusalem and partly to bring together John Keats, then aged 23, and William Wordsworth, who was 25 years older and at the height of his fame. But according to Haydon's diary, rightly one of the main sources for this book, Wordsworth, though sometimes formidable, "was in good humour, giving in to all our frolics without affectation and laughing as heartily as the best of us". Later, he would end a letter to Haydon "with great respect and true affection", which - considering the temperamental gulf between them - was quite a tribute.

The dinner in question was given in 1817 by the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, partly to show off his vast, half-finished painting Christ's Entry into Jerusalem and partly to bring together John Keats, then aged 23, and William Wordsworth, who was 25 years older and at the height of his fame. But according to Haydon's diary, rightly one of the main sources for this book, Wordsworth, though sometimes formidable, "was in good humour, giving in to all our frolics without affectation and laughing as heartily as the best of us". Later, he would end a letter to Haydon "with great respect and true affection", which - considering the temperamental gulf between them - was quite a tribute.

The other guests included the remarkable Joseph Ritchie, also in his twenties, who was about to set off on a Colonial Office mission to North Africa, where he was an early enemy of the slave trade but, sadly, died two years later. Also present were the devoted brother and sister Charles and Mary Lamb. Charles was notoriously greedy, and not only for roast pork, and Keats adored claret. Plainly, a good time was had by all.

After the dinner, Penelope Hughes-Hallett goes on to sketch in, with great skill, the backgrounds of these illustrious figures. Haydon's tragic failure lay first in his insistence on painting huge religious and historical scenes, for which there was almost no demand. A more ingenious artist might somehow have created one, but not Haydon. His furious contempt for the Royal Academy and all its works (especially portraits) was the main obstacle that he created, though he also had an unfortunate habit of biting the hand that fed him.

He may have been, as the author says, a terrific snob but, to be fair, he had to seek work where he thought he could find it. At the time, that was among the aristocracy, which included men of taste, keen to commission new works and not just to compete in collecting the old masters. But even when they did commission Haydon, it was usually only once.

The Prince Regent bought his Mock Election, which still hangs, though not prominently, in Buckingham Palace. The hugely generous Lord Egremont had Haydon to stay at Petworth, and Haydon's wonderful description of his visit in his journal is quoted here. But unlike Turner, who would stay there for weeks on end, Haydon was not asked a second time.

Many people, including Hazlitt and Mary Russell Mitford, found his company enchanting, and there is evidence for that in the exuberant fun that bubbles out of the journals, in the intervals between their author's perpetual persecution by his creditors. But his complaints about the lack of demand for his work, often expressed with blustering rhetoric, were to antagonise those who could have saved him from his eventual, horribly bungled suicide.

As well as charting Haydon's self-inflicted troubles, and the high-flown thoughts of the poets and artists who were his friends, the author provides many details of contemporary London. Flask Walk, in Hampstead, was so called from the flasks that were available to hold the exceptionally pure water from the local springs. Hyde Park was as sandy as the Sahara, with not a blade of grass to be seen. And when the leading agitator Leigh Hunt was imprisoned for libel, it was not in a dismal cell but in two rooms where he could have his family with him, and which he decorated with a piano, pictures, bookcases and busts.

The many unfamiliar and well-reproduced illustrations bring the tableau still further to life. My favourite is a haymaking scene at the entrance to Portland Place, near what is now the site of the BBC.

Penelope Hughes-Hallett has found exactly the right peg on which to hang her excellent account of literary and artistic London in the ferment inspired by the French Revolution, and the consequent determination to resist its aims. Her research is wide and deep, and her style is delightful. The book is warmly recommended.

The reviewer edited the journals of Benjamin Robert Haydon

Comments