William Hazlitt as painter and lecturer

by Colin Silver

The miscreant Hazlitt continues, I have heard, his abuse of… myself, in the ‘Examiner’. I hope that you do not associate with the fellow; he is not a proper person to be admitted into respectable society, being the most perverse and malevolent creature that ill-luck has ever thrown in my way.

                                     William Wordsworth to Benjamin Robert Haydon: April 7th 1817.

In 1811, the portrait painter William Hazlitt divided his time between his London lodgings and his home in the village of Winterslow near Salisbury. Hazlitt and his wife, Sarah, lived in Middleton Cottage, a typical thatched cottage built in ‘chalk cob’. In the summer, when the garden was colourful and the air was scented, the cottage would have been a pleasant retreat for a man used to the unhealthy air and bustling crowds of London. The interior was undoubtedly rustic but there was a fine collection of Claude Lorrain prints on the walls and a workroom containing ‘a bundle of manuscripts, exceedingly abstruse and unintelligible’ as Hazlitt jokingly referred to his print collection and papers.
William Hazlitt was 33 years old in that summer of 1811, a slim man with unruly black hair and dark, expressive eyes. He was not engaged in any regular employment so the opinions of his neighbours were divided: some regarded him as a gentleman (his wife’s family had property; her brother was a lawyer who had once been the admiralty advocate of Malta) but others thought him a shabby ‘low fellow’. For his part, Hazlitt attempted to ‘live to himself’, viz., not to be an object of attention or curiosity. He did not mix with the locals and he did not care what anybody thought about his ‘shabby’ appearance. He was in fact painfully shy and awkward in company – Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously described him as ‘brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange’. The villagers of Winterslow would occasionally see their ‘strange’ neighbour sauntering through the local woodlands with a hat on his head, a canvas under his arm, some brushes and paints in a bag and a piece of bread with a boiled egg or a bit of cheese in his pocket.
Hazlitt believed that the most sensible men were the painters, that the humblest painter was a true scholar and a student of human nature. The painter, he said, ‘reads men and books with an intuitive eye’. Hazlitt read books voraciously and he studied the great masters – Correggio, Leonardo, Andrea del Sarto – in loving detail. In one case, he said, ‘the colours seemed breathed on the canvas as if by magic.’ Sadly, the very high standards that he set for himself (he aspired to paint like Rembrandt and Titian) eventually overwhelmed him so that his enthusiasm waned and people began commissioning portraits from him not so much for their intrinsic value, but out of little more than friendship. He finally, reluctantly, accepted that he could not earn his living by the brush.
What the people of Winterslow could not have known, because it was evident neither from Hazlitt’s demeanour nor from his occasional exchanges with the locals, was that their seemingly otiose and misanthropic neighbour was in fact one of the most learned men in Europe. The lawyer and diarist Henry Crabb Robinson, who knew a wide range of artists and writers in both London and Germany, once wrote of Hazlitt:

His bashfulness, want of words, slovenliness of dress, &c, made him sometimes the object of ridicule… He had few friends, and was flattered by my attentions… I recollect saying to my sister-in-law,

‘Whom do you suppose to be the cleverest person I know?’

‘Capel Lofft [an English lawyer and prolific writer], perhaps?’

‘No…’ ‘I give it up.’

‘William Hazlitt.’

‘Oh, you are joking. Why, we all take him to be just the reverse.’

Hazlitt was not just a painter, he was an extremely talented writer who had published several volumes including a full-length book of philosophy, The Principles of Human Action.  He found, however, after preparing and having rejected a series of essays on the English philosophers, and also a biography of Thomas Holcroft (the dramatist), that his subjects were not popular. He was always in dire financial straits.
When a son was born in late 1811, Hazlitt decided to leave Winterslow and take his family back to London, to try and find a way of earning some money. He had several friends in London – Charles Lamb and Henry Crabb Robinson among them – who would offer their support. He thought about the work he had already completed on the English philosophers and decided to give a series of public lectures about them (a brave choice for such a diffident man). After writing to the Russell Institution and asking permission to use their hall in Great Coram Street, he entered its neoclassical edifice in January 1812, mounted the podium and began to deliver the first in a series of talks on the History of English Philosophy.  Although the introductory lecture was a disaster (Hazlitt read it too quickly) his technique improved as the series progressed and by the end the lectures were well received.
Following this minor success, Hazlitt found that his friends had rallied together and managed to get him a job as a parliamentary reporter. They had worked hard on his behalf, spreading the news that he had once written a book about great parliamentary speeches, The Eloquence of the British Senate.  They also pointed out that he had a preternatural memory – he appeared to remember everything he had read and heard so could recount any debate with ease. The strategy met with success and Hazlitt was offered a job on the Morning Chronicle that came with an extremely generous salary of £220 a year. Within two years, William Hazlitt became a public figure. He became a journalist at the Examiner newspaper and the author of a popular book of essays, The Round Table, and the very successful Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays.
Hazlitt moved his family to 19 York Street, a large two storey house which 160 years earlier had been the home of one of England’s greatest poets and staunchest republicans, John Milton. Despite his rise in society, his friends admitted that he could still be difficult company. He famously fell out with William Wordsworth because Hazlitt considered Wordsworth to be a political turncoat; he often said so publicly, especially when reviewing Wordsworth’s poetry in the newspapers. But there was another side to Hazlitt’s character, an attractive one for those who appreciated his erudition. The young writer John Hamilton Reynolds, a close friend of John Keats, has left us a famous description:

On Thursday last Hazlitt was with me at home, and remained with us till 3 o’clock in the morning; full of eloquence – warm, lofty & communicative on every thing Imaginative & Intelligent… Passing from grand & comma[n]ding argument to the gaieties & graces of wit & humour, and the elegant and higher beauties of Poetry. He is indeed great company and leaves a weight on the mind which ‘it can hardly bear’. He is full of what Dr Johnson terms ‘good talk’. His countenance is also extremely fine: a sunken & melancholy face, a forehead lined with thought… an eye dashed in its light with sorrow, but kindling and living at intellectual moments, and a stream of coal black hair…

Hazlitt’s enthusiasm for the ‘higher beauties of Poetry’ was infectious. The painter William Bewick told a story of how he and Hazlitt met the dramatist Sheridan Knowles on a riverbank where Knowles had been doing a spot of fishing:

Knowles stopped to open his basket and show us the success of his sport. Hazlitt, drawing his breath, peeped timidly in, and was as nervous as if he were looking into a cradle containing dead infants. As Knowles took one of the fish in his hand, expatiating upon its merits when cooked, and on the table, etc., Hazlitt, sighing, exclaimed, ‘How silvery! What rainbow hues and tints glisten and flit across its shining surface! How beautiful! Do you remember Waller?

“Beneath a shoal of silver fishes glides,

And plays about the gilded barges sides,

The ladies, angling in the crystal lake,

Feast on the waters with the prey they take:

At once victorious with their lines and eyes,

They make the fishes and the men their prize”.’

Hazlitt continued quoting whole passages of poetry about fish, said Bewick, until Knowles, caught up in the spirit of the thing, literally burst into song.
In late 1817, Hazlitt approached a scientific and literary organization called the Surrey Institution and offered to deliver a series of eight weekly lectures on the English Poets, and his offer was warmly welcomed (Hazlitt stood to gain around 200 guineas from the admission fees and the publication of the lectures). The lecture room, a rotunda, was in the form of a Greek temple and when Hazlitt gave a talk on Shakespeare and Milton on Tuesday 27 January 1818, John Keats was in the audience (which, as the Examiner reported, ‘was crowded to the very ceiling’). Once underway, Hazlitt reiterated an idea he had explored in his early book, The Principles of Human Action and how it was related to Shakespeare’s ‘disinterestedness’:

[Shakespeare] was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men. He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become.

When Shakespeare was writing a scene, said Hazlitt:

…all the persons concerned must have been present in the poet’s imagination, as at a kind of rehearsal… The poet may be said, for the time, to identify himself with the character he wishes to represent, and to pass from one to another, like the same soul successively animating different bodies.

After thinking about Hazlitt’s ideas on disinterestedness, Keats came up with one of the most celebrated concepts in the whole of English literature – Negative Capability. It defined Keats’ philosophy of art and, along with some other of Hazlitt’s comments about Shakespeare and Milton, helped turn Keats into the poet of Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, The Eve of St Agnes and the Great Odes of 1818-1819. Among all of the writers and artists of the period, Keats was perhaps Hazlitt’s greatest admirer. ‘How is Hazlitt?’ he once wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds. ‘I know he thinks himself not estimated by ten people in the world – I wish he knew he is.’
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.