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We retired to my rooms and drank tea, talking away on art, starting principles, arguing long and fiercely, and at midnight separating, to rest, rise, and work again until the hour of dinner brought us once more together, again to draw, argue or laugh…
Two weeks ago, before the plague landed in my house, I introduced the early 19th century artist Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846), who had painted and written about a ‘mock election’ in the debtors’ prison where he was temporarily an inmate. Haydon is an interesting character.
The judgement of history seems to be that Haydon was more of a talented writer than the artist he aspired to be, although he can hardly be said to be well known for either today – a few of his works adorn the walls of large country houses (and ‘The Mock Election’, bought by George IV, now hangs in a back room of Buckingham Palace), but his life story tells of his struggle to break into the art establishment. He preferred painting grand historical and religious scenes, which were not particularly in favour; and he disdained the portrait work which sometimes he had to turn to to earn a crust.
He was born in Plymouth, Devon, to a printer/publisher and a vicar’s daughter, went to grammar school, and quickly fell in love with art. Early success with work at the Royal Academy was eclipsed by a long-running spat with the institution, and he often fell out with people and institutions, which did him no service. However, he also became close to many leading figures of his day, notably the poets Keats, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as Sir Walter Scott and the Scottish painter David Wilkie.
I’ll finish his own story another time soon, but this week let’s look at one of his enthusiasms, a work of art which is as controversial today as it was when Haydon and Lord Byron took different viewpoints 200 years ago: the work known as the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles. This collection of sculptures is attributed to the Greek sculptor Phidias, who had one of the Seven Wonders of the World in his resumé; he was active in the mid-fifth century BC. The marbles were originally in the Parthenon in Athens but over more than a decade at the very start of the 19th century around half of them were removed by Scottish soldier and diplomat Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin; his initial scheme appeared to have been simply to copy the artworks, but he then claimed an Ottoman Empire decree gave him the right to actually remove them; he sold them to the British government in 1816 and they have been in the British Museum for most of the time since. Greece and the UK remain in dispute over the marbles, which many people say should return to their homeland.
As I mentioned, this is not a new debate. Lord Byron (who we have met before in the political sphere) thundered against the removal of the marbles from their Romantic, ruined setting in multiple poems. As early as 1809 his ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ referred to Elgin by name and the “mutilated blocks of art”; his anti-Scottish ‘The Curse of Minerva’ (1811) focuses on the marbles in particular; and in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage he alludes to Elgin as a “plunderer” and “violator”.
Benjamin Haydon, however, was a fan of the marbles being in Britain, if only to be able to enjoy them from an artistic and anatomical perspective, and supported the plan for the nation to acquire them. But whatever we might think of the ethics of ancient treasures across the world being moved to museums, his description of encountering them in 1808 at Elgin’s home in Park Lane is full of such passion and enthusiasm – as well as nostalgia for youth – that it’s worth a read.1
Wilkie proposed that we should go and see the Elgin Marbles as he had an order. I agreed, dressed, and away we went to Park Lane. I had no more notion of what I was to see than of anything I had never heard of, and walked in with the utmost nonchalance.
This period of our lives was one of great happiness. Painting all day; then dining at the Old Slaughter Chop House; then going to the Academy until eight to fill up the evening; then going home to tea – that blessing of a studious man – talking over our respective exploits, what he had been doing, and what I had done, and then, frequently, to relieve our minds fatigued by their eight and twelve hours’ work, giving vent to the most extraordinary absurdities. Often have we made rhymes on odd names, and shouted with laughter at each new line that was added. Sometimes, lazily inclined after a good dinner, we have lounged about near Drury Lane or Covent Garden, hesitating whether to go in, and often have I (knowing first that there was nothing I wished to see) assumed a virtue I did not possess, and pretending moral superiority, preached to Wilkie on the weakness of not resisting such temptations for the sake of our art and our duty, and marched him off to his studies when he was longing to see Mother Goose.
One night when I was dying to go in, he dragged me away to the Academy and insisted on my working, to which I agreed on the promise of a stroll afterwards. As soon as we had finished, out we went, and in passing a penny show in the piazza, we fired up and determined to go in. We entered and slunk away in a corner; while waiting for the commencement of the show, in came all our student friends, one after the other. We shouted out at each one as he arrived, and then popped our heads down in our corner again, much to the indignation of the chimney-sweeps and vegetable boys who composed the audience, but at last we were discovered, and then we all joined in applauding the entertainment of Pull Devil, Pull Baker, and at the end raised such a storm of applause, clapping our hands, stamping our feet, and shouting with all the power of a dozen pair of lungs, that to save our heads from the fury of the sweeps we had to run downstairs as if the devil indeed was trying to catch us. After this boisterous amusement, we retired to my rooms and drank tea, talking away on art, starting principles, arguing long and fiercely, and at midnight separating, to rest, rise, and work again until the hour of dinner brought us once more together, again to draw, argue or laugh.
Young, strong, and enthusiastic, with no sickness, no debilities, full of hope, believing all the world as honorable as ourselves, wishing harm to no one, and incredulous of any wishing harm to us, we streamed on in a perpetual round of innocent enjoyment, and I look back on these hours as the most uninterrupted by envy, the least harassed by anxiety, and the fullest of unalloyed pleasure, of all that have crossed the path of my life.
Such being the condition of our minds, no opportunity for improvement was ever granted to the one which he did not directly share with the other; and naturally when Wilkie got this order for the marbles his first thought was that I would like to go.
To Park Lane then we went, and after passing through the hall and thence into an open yard, entered a damp, dirty pent-house where lay the marbles ranged within sight and reach. The first thing I fixed my eyes on was the wrist of a figure in one of the female groups, in which were visible, though in a feminine form, the radius and ulna. I was astonished, for I had never seen them hinted at in any female wrist in the antique. I darted my eye to the elbow, and saw the outer condyle [the rounded prominence at the end of a bone] visibly affecting the shape as in nature. I saw that the arm was in repose and the soft parts in relaxation. That combination of nature and idea which I had felt was so much wanting for high art was here displayed to mid-day conviction. My heart beat! If I had seen nothing else I had beheld sufficient to keep me to nature for the rest of my life. But when I turned to the Theseus and saw that every form was altered by action or repose, – when I saw that the two sides of his back varied, one side stretched from the shoulder-blade being pulled forward, and the other side compressed from the shoulder-blade being pushed close to the spine as he rested on his elbow, with the belly flat because the bowels fell into the pelvis as he sat… when I saw, in fact, the most heroic style of art combined with all the essential detail of actual life, the thing was done at once and for ever. ... I felt the future, I foretold that they would prove themselves the finest things on earth, that they would overturn the false beau-ideal, where nature was nothing, and would establish the true beau-ideal, of which nature alone is the basis… I felt as if a divine truth had blazed inwardly upon my mind and I knew that they would at last rouse the art of Europe from its slumber in the darkness.
I do not say this now, when all the world acknowledges it, but I said it then, when no one would believe me. I went home in perfect excitement, Wilkie trying to moderate my enthusiasm with his national caution…
I passed the evening in a mixture of torture and hope; all night I dozed and dreamed of the marbles. I rose at five in a fever of excitement, tried to sketch the Theseus from memory, did so, and saw that I comprehended it. I worked that day and another and another, fearing that I was deluded. At last I got an order for myself; I rushed away to Park Lane; the impression was more vivid than before. I drove off to Fuseli, and fired him to such a degree that he ran upstairs, put on his coat and away we sallied. I remember that first a coal-cart with eight horses stopped us as it struggled up one of the lanes of the Strand; then a flock of sheep blocked us up; Fuseli, in a fury of haste and rage, burst into the middle of them, and they got between his little legs and jostled him so much that I screamed with laughter in spite of my excitement. He swore all along the Strand like a little fury. At last we came to Park Lane…
I expressed myself warmly to Lord Mulgrave and asked him if he thought he could get me leave to draw from the marbles. He spoke to Lord Elgin, and on the condition that my drawings were not to be engraved permission was granted to me. Conscious I had the power, like a puppy I did not go for some days, and when I went was told that Lord Elgin had changed his mind. The pain I felt at the loss of such an opportunity taught me a lesson for life; for never again did I lose one moment in seeking the attainment of an object when an opportunity offered. However, I applied again to Lord Mulgrave and he in time induced Lord Elgin to admit me. For three months I drew until I had mastered the forms of these divine works and brought my hand and mind into subjection…
I drew at the marbles ten, fourteen, and fifteen hours at a time; staying often till twelve at night, holding a candle and my board in one hand and drawing with the other; and so I should have stayed till morning had not the sleepy porter come yawning in to tell me it was twelve o’clock, and then often have I gone home, cold, benumbed and damp, my clothes steaming up as I dried them; and so, spreading my drawings on the floor and putting a candle on the ground, I have drank my tea at one in the morning with ecstasy as its warmth trickled through my frame, and looked at my picture and dwelt on my drawings, and pondered on the change of empires and thought that I had been contemplating what Socrates looked at and Plato saw…
Oh, those were days of luxury and rapture and uncontaminated purity of mind! No sickness, no debility, no fatal, fatal weakness of sight. I arose with the sun and opened my eyes to its light only to be conscious of my high pursuit; I sprang from my bed, dressed as if possessed, and passed the day, the noon, and the night in the same dream of abstracted enthusiasm; secluded from the world, regardless of its feelings, unimpregnable to disease, insensible to contempt, a being of elevated passions…
The text that follows is from the Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, published in 1853 seven years after Haydon’s death by Tom Taylor. Haydon had written his own life account up to 1820 between 1839 and his death – so the wistful memories of youth he evokes in the passage excerpted are those of a man now in his 50s; the rest of the work was compiled by Taylor from Haydon’s extensive journals.