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The Caroline Skeel Archives Reading Room

Scan of a handwritten letter, dated 1829,  with the sketch of a left hand clasped into a fist

Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846), left Devon in 1804 and a possible career as an accountant, to pursue his dream to become an artist. In London, he learnt his craft and specialised in historical painting. Notable paintings included The Judgment of Solomon 1812-1814, and Christs’ Entry into Jerusalem 1814-1820. Friends with famous writers and poets including, Charles Lamb (1775-1834), Leigh Hunt (1784–1859), John Keats (1795-1821), and William Wordsworth (1770-1850), he also published articles and pamphlets, gave lectures on art, and kept a diary which revealed his conceit, outrageous opinions and volatile nature.  He maintained a life-long feud with the Royal Academy, but succeeded in influencing Whig politicians to set up art education schools.

Haydon, though certainly a genius, has been called a genius for failure. He was obsessed with painting vast historical paintings, obstinately believing he would be remembered as fondly as the heroes he depicted, but rarely fulfilling his delusions. He refused to paint portraits to sustain his lifestyle, fell into financial ruin, and was imprisoned for debt on 3 occasions. When Haydon lost favour with the art and political world, he had a breakdown and committed suicide.  He is most remembered for his extraordinary life.

See more examples from his collection in the Madness, Poverty and Genius Gallery.

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