This portrait was painted around 1820. It shows Plymouth-born Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), a historical painter, teacher and writer who had a stormy life and career.
The intensely ambitious Haydon 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 went on to produce 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 however and he suffered a series of bankruptcies and imprisonments.
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.
Saddest of all was the fact that he was actually a very talented writer. He produced a number of diaries, pamphlets, journals and an autobiography. One critic has commented:
‘His great monument…..is the massive collection of…..writings he left behind…..which give fascinating insights into the contemporary artistic scene and paint a vividly detailed picture of his disturbed mind and tragicomical life.’
Throughout his career he also had many disagreements with his peers and patrons.
Haydon would have been in his mid-30s when this portrait by Scottish artist William Nicholson RSA (1781-1844) was painted.
Overcome by his debts and disappointments he committed suicide on 22 June 1846 by shooting himself and then cutting his throat when the bullet failed.
His love for his art was both a passion and a principle but he was as much the victim of his own ambitions as of the changing tastes of the time.