(Hello, this is Histories, a weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe to receive it in your inbox for free.)
Before me were three men marching in solemn procession, the one in the centre a tall, young, reckless, bushy-haired, light-hearted Irishman, a with a rusty cocked-hat under his arm, a bunch of flowers in his bosom, his curtain rings round his neck for a gold chain…
This week, only a shortish item for Histories but it will introduce an interesting character, who I hope to look into further over the next week or two. The character in question is the artist Benjamin Haydon (1786–1846), but let’s save his own notable life story for now and peer over his shoulder at an amusing event he depicted in both paint and words.
The event is the Mock Election of 1827, which took place at the King’s Bench, a debtors’ prison in the London borough of Southwark since at least the 14th century (it finally closed in 1880). Haydon spent two brief periods there as an inmate in 1823 and 1827.
In July of the latter, the inmates were bored and decided to hold a mock election – complete with three candidates, lively hustings for each with broadsides, speeches and election officers, and election day itself on the 16th. Even the guards joined in, until the marshal, a Mr Jones, brought things to an abrupt and rather aggressive halt. But let’s let Benjamin give his eyewitness account – here is his painting, The Mock Election, and his description of the shenanigans, which he published in 1828 to accompany the picture.1
Nothing during the last year excited more curiosity than the Mock Election, which took place in the King’s Bench Prison; as much from the circumstances attending its conclusion , as from the astonishment expressed that men, unfortunate and confined, could invent any amusement at which they had a right to be happy.
At the first thought, it certainly gave me a shock to fancy a roar of boisterous merriment, in a place where it was hardly possible to imagine any other feelings to exist than those of sorrow and anxiety; but, on a little more reflection, there was nothing very unprincipled in men, one half of whom had been the victims of villany, one quartet the victims of malignity, and, perhaps, not the whole of the remaining fourth justly imprisoned by angry creditors in hope to obtain their debts; it was not absolutely criminal to prefer forgetting their afflictions in the temporary gaiety of innocent frolic, to the dull, leaden, sottish oblivion, produced by porter and cigars.
I was sitting in my own apartment, buried in my own reflections, melancholy, but not despairing at the darkness of my own prospects, and the unprotected condition of my wife and children, when a sudden tumultuous and hearty laugh below brought me to the window. In spite of my own sorrows, I laughed out heartily myself when I saw the occasion. Before me were three men marching in solemn procession, the one in the centre a tall, young, reckless, bushy-haired, light-hearted Irishman, a with a rusty cocked-hat under his arm, a bunch of flowers in his bosom, his curtain rings round his neck for a gold chain, a mopstick for a white wand, tipped with an empty strawberry pottle, bows of ribbons on his shoulders, and a great hole in his elbow, of which he seemed perfectly unconscious; on his right was another person in burlesque solemnity, with a sash, and real white wand; two others, fantastically dressed, came immediately behind, and the whole followed by characters of all descriptions, some with flags, some with staffs, and all in perfect merriment and mock gravity, adapted to some masquerade. I asked what it meant, and was told, it was a procession of burgesses, headed by the Lord High Sheriff, and Lord Mayor, of the King’s Bench Prison, going in state to open the poll, in order to elect two members to protect their rights in the House of Commons!
I returned to my room, and laughed and wept by turns. Here were a set of creatures who must have known afflictions, who must have been in want and in sorrow, struggling (with a spiked wall before their eyes) to bury remembrance in the humour of a farce! flying from themselves and their thoughts, to smother reflection, though, in the interval between one roar of laughter and another, the busy fiend would flash upon “their inward eye,” their past follies and their present pains! Yet, what is the world but a prison of larger dimensions? We gaze after the eagle in his flight, and are bound by gravitation to the earth we tread on; we sail forth in pursuit of new worlds, and after a year or two return to the spot we started from; we weary our imaginations with hopes of something new, and find, after a long life, we can only embellish what we see; so that while our hopes are endless, and imagination unbounded, our faculties and being are limited, and whether it be six thousand feet, or six thousand miles, a limit still marks the prison!
I bore in pain that day the merriment and noise so uncongenial to an aching heart; but the next, an irresistible desire, induced me to go out, and, as I approached the unfortunate, but merry crowd, to the last day of my life shall ever remember the impression I received;—baronets and bankers; authors and merchants; painters and poets; dandies of rank in silk and velvet, and dandies of no rank in rags and tatters; idiotism and insanity; poverty and affliction, all mingled in indiscriminate merriment, with a spiked wall, twenty feet high, above their heads! I saw in an instant the capacity there existed in this scene of being made morally instructive and interesting to the public, by the help of an episode in assistance. I told Mr [Chambers], the banker, who stood by me, I would paint it, and asked him if he believed there ever were such characters, such expressions, and such heads, on human shoulders, assembled in one group before?
Day by day the subject matured in my mind, and, as soon as I was restored to my family and pursuits, I returned and sketched all the heads of the leading actors in this extraordinary scene;—began the picture directly, and have finished it in four months.
Haydon goes on to detail the characters in his painting, then reflects on his own misfortunes.2 In his conclusion he states: “Art is to me its own great reward; and I only desire that I, and I those whom I am bound to foster, may be protected from want, and daily fear, and all the miseries of debt, I while I devote myself to its cultivation.”
His pecuniary worries were temporarily alleviated, at least: his painting of the mock election was exhibited in January 1828 at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, and was bought by none other than George IV, for 500 guineas (more than £40,000 today).
The full story of the mock election itself can be found in Paul O’Keeffe’s 2011 biography of Haydon, A Genius for Failure