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- Little Memoirs of the Nineteenth Century - 1/51 -





_For these sketches of minor celebrities of the nineteenth century, it has been my aim to choose subjects whose experiences seem to illustrate the life--more especially the literary and artistic life--of the first half of the century; and who of late years, at any rate, have not been overwhelmed by the attentions of the minor biographer. Having some faith in the theory that the verdict of foreigners is equivalent to that of contemporary posterity, I have included two aliens in the group. A visitor to our shores, whether he be a German princeling like PŘckler-Muskau, or a gilded democrat like N. P. Willis, may be expected to observe and comment upon many traits of national life and manners that would escape the notice of a native chronicler.

Whereas certain readers of a former volume--'Little Memoirs of the Eighteenth Century'--seem to have been distressed by the fact that the majority of the characters died in the nineteenth century, it is perhaps meet that I should apologise for the chronology of this present volume, in which all the heroes and heroines, save one, were born in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. But I would venture to submit that a man is not, necessarily, the child of the century in which he is born, or of that in which he dies; rather is he the child of the century which sees the finest flower of his achievement._


















If it be true that the most important ingredient in the composition of the self-biographer is a spirit of childlike vanity, with a blend of unconscious egoism, few men have ever been better equipped than Haydon for the production of a successful autobiography. In na´ve simplicity of temperament he has only been surpassed by Pepys, in fulness of self-revelation by Rousseau, and his _Memoirs_ are not unworthy of a place in the same category as the _Diary_ and the _Confessions_. From the larger public, the work has hardly attracted the attention it deserves; it is too long, too minute, too heavily weighted with technical details and statements of financial embarrassments, to be widely or permanently popular. But as a human document, and as the portrait of a temperament, its value can hardly be overestimated; while as a tragedy it is none the less tragic because it contains elements of the grotesque. Haydon set out with the laudable intention of writing the exact truth about himself and his career, holding that every man who has suffered for a principle, and who has been unjustly persecuted and oppressed, should write his own history, and set his own case before his countrymen. It is a fortunate accident for his readers that he should have been gifted with the faculty of picturesque expression and an exceptionally keen power of observation. If not a scholar, he was a man of wide reading, of deep though desultory thinking, and a good critic where the work of others was concerned. He seems to have desired to conceal nothing, nor to set down aught in malice; if he fell into mistakes and misrepresentations, these were the result of unconscious prejudice, and the exaggerative tendency of a brain that, if not actually warped, trembled on the border-line of sanity. He hoped that his mistakes would be a warning to others, his successes a stimulus, and that the faithful record of his struggles and aspirations would clear his memory from the aspersions that his enemies had cast upon it.

Haydon was born at Plymouth on January 26, 1786. He was the lineal descendant of an ancient Devonshire family, the Haydons of Cadbay, who had been ruined by a Chancery suit a couple of generations earlier, and had consequently taken a step downwards in the social scale. His grandfather, who married Mary Baskerville, a descendant of the famous printer, set up as a bookseller in Plymouth, and, dying in 1773, bequeathed his business to his son Benjamin, the father of our hero. This Benjamin, who married the daughter of a Devonshire clergyman named Cobley, was a man of the old-fashioned, John Bull type, who loved his Church and king, believed that England was the only great country in the world, swore that Napoleon won all his battles by bribery, and would have knocked down any man who dared to disagree with him. The childhood of the future historical painter was a picturesque and stirring period, filled with the echoes of revolution and the rumours of wars. The Sound was crowded with fighting ships preparing for sea, or returning battered and blackened, with wounded soldiers on board and captured vessels in tow. Plymouth itself was full of French prisoners, who made little models of guillotines out of their meat-bones, and sold them to the children for the then fashionable amusement of 'cutting off Louis XVI.'s head.'

Benjamin was sent to the local grammar-school, whose headmaster, Dr. Bidlake, was a man of some culture, though not a deep classic. He wrote poetry, encouraged his pupils to draw, and took them for country excursions, with a view to fostering their love of nature. Mr. Haydon, though he was proud of Benjamin's early attempts at drawing, had no desire that he should be turned into an artist, and becoming alarmed at Dr. Bidlake's dilettante methods, he transferred his son to the Plympton Grammar-school, where Sir Joshua Reynolds had been educated, with strict injunctions to the headmaster that the boy was on no account to have drawing-lessons. On leaving school at sixteen, Benjamin, after, a few months with a firm of accountants at Exeter, was bound apprentice to his father for seven years, and it was then that his troubles began.

'I hated day-books, ledgers, bill-books, and cashbooks,' he tells us. 'I hated standing behind the counter, and insulted the customers; I hated the town and all the people in it.' At last, after a quarrel with a customer who tried to drive a bargain, this proud spirit refused to enter the shop again. In vain his father pointed out to him the folly of letting a good business go to ruin, of refusing a comfortable independence--all argument was vain. An illness, which resulted in inflammation of the eyes, put a stop to the controversy for the time being; but on recovery, with his sight permanently injured, the boy still refused to work out his articles, but wandered about the town in search of casts and books on art. He bought a fine copy of Albinus at his father's expense, and in a fortnight, with his sister to aid, learnt all the muscles of the body, their rise and insertion, by heart. He stumbled accidentally on Reynold's _Discourses_, and the first that he read placed so much reliance on honest industry, and expressed so strong a conviction that all men are equal in talent, and that application makes all the difference, that the would-be artist, who hitherto had been held back by some distrust of his natural powers, felt that at last his destiny was irrevocably fixed. He announced his intention of adopting an art-career with a determination that demolished all argument, and, in spite of remonstrances, reproaches, tears, and scoldings, he wrung from his father permission to go to London, and the promise of support for the next two years.

On May 14, 1804, at the age of eighteen, young Haydon took his place in the mail, and made his first flight into the world. Arriving at the lodgings that had been taken for him in the Strand in the early morning, he had no sooner breakfasted than he set off for Somerset House, to see the Royal Academy Exhibition. Looking round for historical pictures, he discovered that Opie's 'Gil Bias' was the centre of attraction in one room, and Westall's 'Shipwrecked Boy' in another.

'I don't fear you,' he said to himself as he strode away. His next step was to inquire for a plaster-shop, where he bought the Laoco÷n and other casts, and then, having unpacked his Albinus, he was hard at work before nine next morning drawing from the round, and breathing aspirations for High Art, and defiance to all opposition. 'For three months,' he tells us, 'I saw nothing but my books, my casts, and my drawings. My enthusiasm was immense, my devotion for study that of a martyr. I rose when I woke, at three or four, drew at anatomy till eight, in chalks from casts from nine till one, and from half-past two till five--then walked, dined, and to anatomy again from seven till ten or eleven. I was resolute to be a great painter, to honour my country, and to rescue the Art from that stigma of incapacity that was impressed upon it.

After some months of solitary study, Haydon bethought him of a letter

Little Memoirs of the Nineteenth Century - 1/51

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