- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

By Penelope Hughes-Hallett
Ivan R. Dee, $27.50, 336 pages. Illus.

Benjamin Robert Haydon is a name familiar mostly to art historians, specialists in the early-19th century, and perhaps a few grad students desperate for a thesis topic. In the early decades of that century, just before and after Waterloo, Haydon was a moderate-sized frog in the prominent but fairly small literary and artistic pond of London. His notable friends and acquaintances were many among them William Wordsworth, John Keats and Charles Lamb
These three were guests on Dec. 28, 1817, at what Haydon, in his usual grandiosity, called in his diary "the Immortal Dinner." Penelope Hughes-Hallett takes his description as the title of a book so charming that readers with even vague interests in the principals, the time and the place will have a hard time putting it aside to do the chores.
"Benjamin Robert Haydon, history painter and host of the Immortal Dinner, was in no doubt as to his status: genius," Mrs. Hughes-Hallett begins. "In close partnership with the Almighty, whom he cajoled and pleaded with on page after page of the twenty-six volumes of his diaries, he would, he knew, succeed in his aims. These were clear-cut and precise: to restore the noble and sublime form of history painting or High Art, as he preferred to call it to its standing in the golden days of Raphael; to refine the public's taste in the visual arts; and to incite the government to play its part in this moral and elevated purpose by commissioning works of art preferably his to decorate public buildings; and lastly, that he himself, Benjamin Robert Haydon, should paint the greatest pictures ever seen on the very grandest scale …"
He was ambitious, energetic and talented. He also "loved a lord," which is to say he was a "terrific snob," not necessarily a disadvantage in a period when patronage was vital for an artist. But Haydon was fiercely contrarian as well, an implacable foe of the art establishment. This meant the august Royal Academy, which emphasized portraiture as the ruling artistic convention; Haydon favored the "great fresco cycles" of the Renaissance as the pinnacle of artistic achievement and the representation of historical events which were his specialty. And Haydon had a sharp pen to make his opposition sting.
Add to his tumultuous character that he was feckless with money, borrowing "copiously, relentlessly and ruthlessly," and was imprisoned for debt three times.
In 1817, however, his exuberance was in full bloom and the future looked promising. The dinner late that year was primarily to introduce young John Keats, barely 22 years old, to William Wordsworth, then 47 and at the height of his reputation; the companionable Charles Lamb was present to contribute the leavening of his wit. Among guests invited for conversation after dinner, was Joseph Ritchie, like Keats educated in medicine but abandoning it for a literary life and who would be dead two years later in Africa while leading an ill-fated government expedition to discover the source of the Niger.
The party met in Haydon's studio where above the mantle was his half-finished "Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem," a 13- by 15-foot canvas on which he would spend six years. When finished, the painting would provide the devout Anglican artist with one of his few, and momentary, triumphs. In the crowd surrounding Christ, Haydon painted the faces of many of his friends, among them Wordsworth, Keats, and essayist William Hazlitt; Newton was prominently pictured, to Haydon "the greatest human mind that ever touched our sphere"; Voltaire was portrayed as a "diabolic" face sneering at Christianity.
It was an evening, Haydon recorded, at which the talk intellectually ranged across the artistic and literary landscape, the recent advances in science and the technological innovations that were launching Britain's Industrial Revolution and changing the world they knew for ever.
The "Immortal Dinner," is the pivot around which Mrs. Hughes-Hallett vivaciously sketches the social landscape. Despite the dramatic victory at Waterloo and Napoleon's final defeat, there was in England fear of civil revolt. Poverty, spreading unemployment and general discontent after more than a decade of war, exacerbated by a population explosion, had led in 1817 to a second suspension of habeas corpus.
Sir Isaac Newton was one of the evening's topics, signifying the vexing topic of science versus religion, as well as "the threat posed" by increasing scientific knowledge to the status of the poetic imagination, Mrs. Hughes-Hallett writes. Keats would later in "Lamia" mourn that Newton's work on optics had resulted in loss of "all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism."The rationalism of Newton, of course, is contrasted by the mysticism as well of Newton's intense experiments in alchemy, not known in 1817, as he sought a unifying principle to the mysteries of existence.
In "The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817," the author presents vivacious profiles of leading figures and trends of the time. For instance, the presence that evening of Keats and Joseph Ritchie, with their educations in medicine, led the guests to graphic talk of surgical techniques in pre-anesthesia days, on which Mrs. Hughes-Hallett elaborates in harrowing detail that should make the modern reader inexpressibly grateful for today's sawbones.
That subject segued to the problem then of securing corpses to teach anatomy: Acquiring bodies was illegal with the sole exception of those of executed criminals. This generated the grisly trade of "resurrection men," body snatchers and grave robbers in collusion with doctors. Before the legal proscription was relaxed, a few public spirited individuals would will their bodies to medical science, such as philosopher Jeremy Bentham "over whose corpse the surgeon gave a grateful oration before making the first incision," records Mrs. Hughes-Hallett.
One of Haydon's conspicuous public brawls, which, the author notes, earned him fame or, in this context, notoriety involved the Elgin Marbles, which he considered "the absolute epitome of beauty." The British government dithered for years over the purchase of the classical fragments from the Parthenon from the financially hard-pressed Lord Thomas Elgin. Haydon wrote and emoted that the preservation of this magnificent artistic achievement was imperative (the Turks occupying Athens smoothed the marble heads of the irreplaceable statues and used them for cannon balls).
The matter was publicly flammable. Lord Byron violently attacked Lord Elgin, for example, as a "despoiler and plunderer." When the government finally purchased the antiquities, Haydon was convinced that the purchase was entirely due to his fractious involvement.
But eventually worn out, dispirited and in more desperate financial shape than usual, Haydon in the summer of 1846 shot himself in the head and, that wound not being fatal, crawled to his bureau and with his razor slit his throat.
"Immortal Dinner" is an elegant treasury, a coherent portrait of the times, personalities and vibrant questions of those vivid years.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.