History Centre Heroes: Benjamin Robert Haydon

Plymouth-born Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) was an historical painter, teacher and writer who had a stormy life and career.

Intensely ambitious, he was the only son of another Benjamin Robert Haydon, a prosperous printer, stationer and publisher, and his wife Mary, the daughter of the Reverend Benjamin Cobley, rector of Dodbrooke, near Kingsbridge.

Haydon showed a love for study at an early age which was encouraged by his mother. He went to Plympton Grammar School where one of our other famous artists, Sir Joshua Reynolds had also received his education.

In May 1804 Haydon left home full of energy and hope and went to London where he studied at the Royal Academy Schools.

His ambition was to become the greatest historical painter England had ever known and he produced a series of huge canvases featuring biblical and classical subjects. Unfortunately these were out of favour with the public at the time. Haydon was unwilling to compromise his ideals and suffered a series of bankruptcies and imprisonments. Throughout his career he also had many disagreements with his peers and patrons.

The Maid of Saragossa – one of Haydon’s history paintings. Image © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage).

One of his works entitled ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’ took him six years to complete during which he refused other work and was effectively without an income. His preference for working on a vast scale was also hampered by an eye defect that apparently enabled him to see only one part of a canvas at a time.

Aside from the difficulties he had with his painting, he was actually a very talented writer who produced a number of diaries, pamphlets, journals and an autobiography.

Overcome by his debts and disappointments Haydon committed suicide on 22 June 1846, shooting himself and then cutting his throat when the bullet failed.

He would have been in his mid-30s when this portrait from our collections by Scottish artist William Nicholson RSA (1781-1844) was painted around 1820.

Portrait of Haydon by William Nicholson RSA (1781-1844), circa 1820. Image © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage).

His tragic end made him a victim of his own ambition just as much as of the changing tastes of the time.

But, his love for his art was a passion he was never afraid to hide and one critic commented that: ‘His great monument…..is the massive collection of…..writings he left behind…..which give fascinating insights into the contemporary artistic scene…..’

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