Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

THE ARTIST WHO DIDN'T DELIVER; Benjamin Robert Haydon Was a Self-Deluding Genius Who Even Managed to Botch His Own Suicide; A GENIUS FOR FAILURE: THE LIFE OF BENJAMIN ROBERT HAYDON

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

THE ARTIST WHO DIDN'T DELIVER; Benjamin Robert Haydon Was a Self-Deluding Genius Who Even Managed to Botch His Own Suicide; A GENIUS FOR FAILURE: THE LIFE OF BENJAMIN ROBERT HAYDON

Article excerpt

Byline: EMMA CRICHTON-MILLER

by Paul O'Keeffe (Bodley Head, [pounds sterling]25)

PAUL O'Keeffe has made a specialty of genius. Wyndham Lewis, that complicated misanthrope, he cautiously dubbed "Some Sort of Genius" in his 2000 biography, while his 2004 biography of the undeniably gifted Gaudier-Brzeska was subtitled "An Absolute Case of Genius". He has a relish for wayward brilliance and the tortuous channels that exceptional talent and self-belief carve out. Developing the theme, he has here turned to the most curious, wilful, desperate and self-deluding genius of them all, Benjamin Robert Haydon.

Haydon, born in 1786, historical painter, diarist and campaigner for the noble cause of British Taste and British Art, had so high and infectious a sense of his own divinely-supported vocation that even the cautious Wordsworth was inspired to write sonnets upon him. The son of a bookseller and printer in Plymouth, he conceived his ambition early, learning to draw from an enthusiastic headmaster and a prized book of anatomy he bid for at auction without the means to pay.

His father grudgingly cleared this first of many debts and, with more misgivings, funded his early years in London, where Haydon took classes at the Royal Academy and toiled so unceasingly at his painting that the fearsome John Henry Fuseli, then Keeper of the Schools, once asked: "Why, when de devil do you dine?" For all his gargantuan appetite for work, however, and his ecstatic communings with Raphael, Michelangelo and the newly arrived Elgin Marbles, his paintings promised far more, in scale and heroic subject matter, than they ever delivered. Early triumphs and a crush of fashionable London at his first public exhibition gave way to 30 years of passionate endeavour paid for with critical scorn, public indifference and increasing mountains of debt, occasionally dissolved by the kind offices of his many sympathisers. …

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