The Immortal Dinner, Part 1

by Colin Silver.
As Christmas 1817 approached, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon decided to throw a dinner party at his London lodgings. He had recently moved from some rooms in Great Marlborough Street to a new and spacious suite of rooms in Lisson Grove, in a house which still stands. He was relatively (and uncharacteristically) prosperous having borrowed hundreds of pounds from the banker Thomas Coutts, and hundreds more from the merchant, Jeremiah Harman. After paying his rent to his new landlord (the sculptor Felix Rossi), Haydon went shopping for furnishings and crockery. The next day he wrote in his diary that he had breakfasted for the first time in his life ‘on my own tea cup and saucers. I took up my own knife. I sat on my own chair. It was a new sensation!’ He was 31 years old.

Haydon loved dinner parties; he loved the pomp and ceremony of them. Although there is an element of truth in the portrayal of Haydon as a social nuisance in Mike Leigh’s latest film, Mr Turner – he is depicted as always begging loans from his friends and demanding that his colleagues at the Royal Academy acknowledge his genius – it is far from a complete picture. Haydon was in fact one of the most erudite and interesting men of his generation, a man with a wide circle of admirers who was invited to dine at the tables of some of the most famous and well connected men of the age. He could talk enthusiastically and with expertise on almost any subject: Art, poetry, history, religion, military matters (especially naval – he had been born and raised in Plymouth) and politics were all within his compass. He had the habit of quoting Shakespeare at every opportunity and a tendency to refer to the Christian God, in whom he believed with devotion, as ‘the Great Spirit’. He could converse in French or Italian and read from any book in Latin or Greek.

William Hazlitt, the author of such books as The Spirit of the Age and The Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, was an acute observer of men and their manners. He once wrote of Haydon:

I find him…well read up in the literature of the day, and never at a loss for subjects of conversation, whether of books, politics, men or other things. He talks well, too, on most subjects that interest one; indeed better than any painter I ever met… Haydon is more a scholar, and has a wider range and versatility of information. One enjoys his hearty, joyous laugh; it sets one upon one’s legs as it were better than a glass of champagne…

Haydon’s first experience of a society dinner party had occurred back in 1807, when he and his friend David Wilkie were struggling students at the Royal Academy and had been invited to dine at 29 Grosvenor Square, the home of Sir George Beaumont, a fabulously wealthy patron of the arts. Haydon admitted that before that day he had never dined at a higher table than a country parson’s, so Wilkie called to find Haydon:

…shaving until my chin was half skinned – washing until I was quite in a heat – and dressing and redressing until my back ached – brushing my hair – looking behind me in the glass – putting the glass on the floor and then opening the door – bowing and talking to myself…

Among the guests when Haydon made his debut were Humphry (later Sir Humphry) Davy, the brilliant chemist and professor at the Royal Institution, and George Dance, the architect and portrait painter. With the effortless grace and panache for which the Beaumonts were renowned, Haydon was made to feel completely at home in a world that was, in fact, entirely new to him. When he found himself the centre of attention he rose to the occasion, being ‘quite entertaining’ as he talked about his plans for his next painting.

When it came to giving dinner parties, William Hazlitt himself was not quite so accommodating. In April, 1813, he invited Haydon to a Christening dinner to celebrate the naming of his son, William Hazlitt junior. The family lived at 19 York Street, Westminster, in John Milton’s former home (the site is now in Petty France), and Haydon was requested to arrive punctually at four. When he arrived Hazlitt was out and ‘all was wearing the appearance of neglect and indifference’:

At last home (Hazlitt) came, the cloth began to cover the table, and then followed a plate with a dozen large, waxen, cold, clayy, slaty potatoes. Down they were set, and down we sat also: a young mathematician, who whenever he spoke, jerked up one side of his mouth, and closed an eye as if seized with a paralytic affection… an old Lady of Genius with torn ruffles; his wife in an influenza, thin, pale & spitty; and his chubby child, squalling, obstinate and half-cleaned. After waiting a little, all looking forlornly at the potatoes for fear they might be the chief dish, in issued a bit of overdone beef, burnt, toppling about on seven or eight corners, with a great bone sticking out of it like a battering ram.

In January, 1817, Haydon was invited to a very different dinner party along with the famous newspaper editor Leigh Hunt, Hunt’s wife and sister-in-law, and also John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats and Shelley had just been brought to the public’s attention as representing a new generation of poets in Hunt’s newspaper, The Examiner and everybody around the table would have been aware of this. The venue was the house of Horace Smith, one of Hunt’s wealthier friends. Smith was a stockbroker and a successful writer (he and his brother James had penned the popular Rejected Addresses) and he lived in a spacious terraced house at Mayor’s Row on the Kensington Road near Hyde Park Corner. The house looked onto a busy thoroughfare along which Smith would drive his carriage the two miles or so to his office in Throgmorton Street, a short walk from the noisy and colourful spectacle of the Stock Exchange.

At that time Haydon, Hunt and Keats were close friends, but Haydon only knew Shelley by reputation (despite Hunt’s enthusiasm, Shelley had actually published very little at this juncture; a few pamphlets, some poems and one small book, all at his own expense). Smith himself once wrote of Shelley:

Manifest as it was that [Shelley’s] pre-occupied mind had no thought to spare for the modish adjustment of his fashionably-made clothes, it was impossible to doubt, even for a moment, that you were gazing upon a gentleman.

A printer, Charles Richards, has also left us his impression of Shelley at this time, after Shelley had visited Richards’ printing shop:

He was gaunt, and had peculiar starts and gestures, and a way of fixing his eyes and his whole attitude for a good while, like the abstracted apathy of a musing madman.

Haydon was late and was shown to the seat opposite Shelley, but didn’t know who he was, except that he was a ‘weakly yet intellectual-looking creature… carving a bit of broccoli or cabbage on his plate, as if it were the substantial wing of a chicken’. After the introductions and the small talk, Shelley opened the conversation ‘in the most feminine and gentle voice’, with, ‘As to that detestable religion, the Christian…’. Haydon was astounded but as he looked around the table and saw Hunt smiling and the women ‘simpering’, he realised he was being baited.

At this time, in London’s literary and artistic circles, Haydon was far more famous than Shelley, indeed he was very much a public figure. Despite this, he may have felt intimidated because he knew by reputation that Shelley’s intellect was among the sharpest and most acute of all the members of the Hunt circle, perhaps even more brilliant than Hazlitt’s. It would have been extremely bad-mannered to start a heated discussion over dinner while the servants were coming and going and the wine was being poured, so for the time being Haydon kept his peace. During the rest of the main course the conversation was about painting and poetry, which Keats, in particular, would have appreciated, but it was over dessert, when the servants had retired, that Shelley resumed the conversation about God.

Shelley pronounced that Shakespeare could not have been a Christian because of a particular dialogue in Cymbeline (the ‘blindness’ dialogue between Posthumous and the first gaoler in Act V, Scene IV). Haydon worshipped Shakespeare almost as much as he worshipped God, or Raphael, or the Elgin Marbles, so he replied with the familiar argument that you might as well say that Shakespeare ‘was in favour of murder’ because some of his characters are murderers. Haydon then quoted from Shakespeare himself, Act I, Scene I of Hamlet where Marcellus says, ‘Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated’.

As the situation deteriorated, Hunt appeared to be enjoying himself. Haydon was a regular visitor to Hunt’s soirees at his cottage in Hampstead and often, said Haydon, ‘…when all discussion had ceased, and the wine had gone freely round – when long talk of poetry and painting had, as it were, opened our hearts – [Hunt] would suddenly (touching my arm with the most friendly pressure) show me a passage in the Bible and Testament, and say…, “Haydon, do you believe this?”’ On this occasion, however, the discussion became personal when Haydon and Shelley said ‘unpleasant things’ to each other. The embarrassment in the room must have been excruciating and Haydon decided to ‘gradually withdraw myself from the whole party’. Keats, it seems, kept his own counsel as the argument unfolded (he ‘never said a word…’).

Now, almost exactly one year later, on December 28th 1817, it was time for Haydon to throw his own dinner party. He had by now fallen out with Leigh Hunt (who lived just down the road in Lisson Grove), so Hunt wasn’t invited. Neither, of course, was Shelley. Another close friend, John Hamilton Reynolds, had been invited but had not responded, so was out of favour. The men that did arrive and take off their coats and hats on that cold December afternoon included two of Haydon’s closest friends – John Keats and William Wordsworth – along with Wordsworth’s very close friend, Charles Lamb. Such was the success (and subsequent fame) of the occasion that Haydon dubbed it ‘The Immortal Dinner’….

To be continued….

Colin Silver lived for many years near the Lake District. He developed a deep interest in the life and work of the great 19th century art critic John Ruskin whose house overlooked Coniston Water. Following Ruskin, Colin developed a love of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Romantics, particularly Keats and Shelley.

When he moved to Oxfordshire, Colin continued his studies and began writing articles on a freelance basis for the Oxford Times’ Limited Eition magazine. His subjects included Keats, Shelley, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, Shakespeare and the celebrated 19th century physician Henry Acland. His first book, John Keats and Benjamin Robert Haydon: The Pursuit of Beauty of Truth is now available from Amazon.