The Immortal Dinner, Part 2

 by Colin Silver
John Keats and William Wordsworth had been regular visitors to Haydon’s old lodgings in Great Marlborough Street. On June 13th, 1815, Wordsworth had allowed Haydon to make his life mask there, a rather gruelling and somewhat undignified process. Wordsworth ‘bore it like a philosopher’ said Haydon, and when he was relieved, he ‘came into breakfast with his usual cheerfulness, and delighted and awed us by his illustrations & bursts of inspiration’.

Compared with Wordsworth, Keats was a relative latecomer to Haydon’s circle of friends – he had first visited Haydon at Great Marlborough Street on Sunday, 3 November, 1816. Keats had been delighted to learn that Haydon was a personal friend of William Wordsworth, and that the poet had written a sonnet addressed to the painter:

To B.R. Haydon
High is our calling, Friend! – Creative Art
(Whether the instrument of words she use,
Or pencil pregnant with ethereal hues,)
Demands the service of a mind and heart,
Though sensitive, yet, in their weakest part,
Heroically fashioned–to infuse
Faith in the whispers of the lonely Muse,
While the whole world seems adverse to desert.
And, oh! when Nature sinks, as oft she may,
Through long-lived pressure of obscure distress,
Still to be strenuous for the bright reward,
And in the soul admit of no decay,
Brook no continuance of weak-mindedness –
Great is the glory, for the strife is hard!

Keats was a great admirer of Wordsworth (Keats’ first published poem appeared soon after he had read and been inspired by the Lyrical Ballads) and he had asked Haydon to show the older poet one of his own productions. Haydon agreed and Keats thanked him in a letter:

The idea of your sending [the sonnet] to Wordsworth put me out of breath – you know with what Reverence I would send my Well-wishes to him…

Haydon had lived in his Great Marlborough Street lodgings for almost 10 years, the most formative years of his life. On Saturday, 27th September, 1817, he moved to Lisson Grove and two months later he thought about his former situation:

What I suffered in those apartments! …continually sitting in the stench of paint, and after painting 8 & 10 hours, cleaning my brushes and palette till I almost fainted, with the sickly, soapy smell, and then sitting down in it to read or prepare drawings for the next day, my outer room stuffed with casts so that one could scarcely walk through them, and sleeping inside in a little paltry apartment, close to the window, so that once in the intense winter I lost my voice during the night, the frost was so severe that it chilled my very breath… Here I lived, here I painted… How often have I returned home from dinner, my room all in disorder, drawings, cloths, brushes, palettes, lying here and lying there, & my Picture across the room with a head newly and successfully painted; how often have I sat down by the chimney and losing myself in a train of speculation by the light of the fire, settled the most difficult principles of Art… and then the Servant wondering why I had not rung for candles, has come up and found me quite gone & insensible to everything, and she has roused me by ‘Lord, Mr. Haydon, you are always conjuring’.
The main room in his new lodgings was very large – 30 feet long, 20 feet wide and 15 feet high – and well lit, a perfect painting room for an artist.

When Haydon’s dinner guests began arriving in the middle of the afternoon of the 28th December, 1817, his servant, Corporal Sammons, a huge man whom Haydon used as a model, was on hand to take their hats and coats. A fire had been warming the painting room and the table had been furnished with candelabra and the fine quality silverware which Haydon considered among his more precious possessions (the latest falling out with Leigh Hunt had occurred because Hunt hadn’t returned the silverware promptly after borrowing it).

Along with Wordsworth, Keats and Charles Lamb the guests included Mary Wordsworth’s cousin, Tom Monkhouse, and one or two acquaintances of Haydon who were invited to drop by in the early evening for after dinner drinks. Among these was a man who wanted to meet Wordsworth so had more or less invited himself. He was called John Kingston, a civil servant, a comptroller of stamps and technically Wordsworth’s superior at the Stamp Office (Wordsworth at this time was the comptroller of stamps for Westmorland).

When the dinner guests entered the painting room and took in Haydon’s new surroundings, they would have been drawn to the kaleidoscopic painting of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. It was an enormous canvas of 195 square feet that was being painted in meticulous detail, and it was still only half finished. ‘The gentlemen of this country…’ Sir George Beaumont once wrote to Haydon, ‘have neither houses to receive, nor money to spare for such works as you have in contemplation.’

It was once said of this painting that that every nostril and every fingernail was ‘a complete study’. It depicts a crowd of worshippers greeting Christ as he rides into Jerusalem on an ass – Wordsworth and Keats were among the models that Haydon used for the faces. Now sitting on its easel next to the dining table, it was ‘occasionally brightened by the gleams of flame that sparkled from the fire’.

Keats was very familiar with the painting but was more interested in Haydon’s library. Just a few years after he moved to Lisson Grove, Haydon recorded that he owned single volumes for which he had paid £20. To set this in context, he states elsewhere that a porter at the Royal Academy supported his family on a wage of £50 a year. It was common at this time to buy books unbound in quires, and then have them expensively bound by a specialist bookbinder. No doubt much of the expense of Haydon’s collection was due to the fact that he would have his books bound in the finest materials – the best quality leather with gilt stampings. He would then stamp his own imprint on the title page: ‘B.R. Haydon’, with the year of purchase. ‘I do not feel at home in my painting room without my books,’ wrote Haydon:

I used to look up and see the books, and imagine (as each name came on my sight) I saw the author: Dante, Petrarch, Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser and Tasso… and my brain teemed with associations of their sublimity and charm.

We do not know what Haydon served for dinner that day, though it would certainly have been intended to impress and would have included some traditional Christmas fayre. Of course, it was not the surroundings or the silverware that made this particular dinner party so special. It was the conversation between the friends.

Many years later, Haydon wrote up his journal entry of the occasion into a fuller account for his autobiography. He dubbed it The Immortal Dinner and it has become justly famous for its depiction of the ‘ordinary’ conversation among men of such talent and genius as Wordsworth, Keats, Charles Lamb and, of course, Haydon himself. One of the finest passages describes Wordsworth and Lamb’s reaction when the comptroller, John Kingston, arrived. It is fitting to hand the narrative over to Haydon himself:

When we retired to tea we found the comptroller. In introducing him to Wordsworth I forgot to say who he was. After a little time the comptroller looked down, looked up, and said to Wordsworth: ‘Don’t you think, sir, Milton was a great genius?’ Keats looked at me, Wordsworth looked at the comptroller. Lamb, who was dozing by the fire turned round and said: ‘Pray, sir, did you say Milton was a great genius?’ ‘No, sir; I asked Mr Wordsworth if he were not.’ ‘Oh,’ said Lamb, ‘then you are a silly fellow.’ ‘Charles! My dear Charles!’ said Wordsworth… After an awful pause, the comptroller said: ‘Don’t you think Newton a great genius?’ I could not stand it any longer. Keats put his head into my books… Wordsworth seemed asking himself: ‘Who is this?’ Lamb got up, and taking a candle, said: ‘Sir, will you allow me to look at your phrenological development?’…

The [comptroller], finding Wordsworth did not know who he was, said in a spasmodic and half-chuckling anticipation of assured victory: ‘I have had the honour of some correspondence with you, Mr Wordsworth.’ ‘With me, sir?’ said Wordsworth, ‘not that I remember.’ ‘Don’t you, sir? I am a comptroller of stamps.’ There was a dead silence, the comptroller evidently thinking that was enough. While we were waiting for Wordsworth’s reply, Lamb sung out:‘Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.’
‘My dear Charles!’ said Wordsworth.
‘Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John,’
chaunted Lamb, and then rising, exclaimed: ‘Do let me have another look at that gentleman’s organs.’… Keats and I hurried Lamb into the painting-room, shut the door, and gave way to inextinguishable laughter. Monkhouse followed and tried to get Lamb away. We went back, but the comptroller was irreconcilable. We soothed and smiled, and asked him to supper. He stayed, though his dignity was sorely affected… All the while… we could hear Lamb struggling in the painting-room and calling at intervals: ‘Who is that fellow? Allow me to see his organs once more.
‘It was indeed an immortal evening,’ wrote Haydon. ‘Wordsworth’s fine intonation as he quoted Milton and Virgil, Keats’ eager, inspired look, Lamb’s faint sparkle of lambent humour, so speeded the stream of conversation, that in my life I never passed a more delightful time.’

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 Edition 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.