3 DECEMBER 1948, Page 26

Haydon's " Sublimity "

The Life and Death of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1786-1846. By Eric George. (Oxford University Press. 215.)

THE present revival of interest in English Romantic painting is an appropriate sign of the prevalent latitudinarian conception of the limitations of fine art. Our enthronement of Samuel Palmer, our deferential view of the achievements of Martin, Fuseli; Ward, not to say of Dadd, is largely the result of a timely realisation that the legitimate beauties of "the Art," as Haydon called it, are not intrinsic, that they may be of a kind that could equally well, for example, be expressed as literature. Though Haydon main- tained a blind, if not an involuntary, allegiance to the technical and stylistic standards of the eighteenth century, his personality was gloriously and tragically Romantic and as a painter he was also an inveterate liuerateur, so that it is inevitable that we should be tempted; in the light of the pleasures we now derive from Fuseli and Martin, to examine afresh the artistic pretensions of one who saw himself as a Napoleon of the sublime and terrible in painting.

With all the goodwill, however, which Haydon's autobiography must inspire, we may doubt whether surrender to such a temptation will ever prove more than a short-lived indulgence. Mr. Eric George, in this new life of the artist, has made an honest but desperate attempt, in his chapter entitled "Haydon's Place in British Art," to demonstrate that this place is one to which ,Haydon's paint- ings may still give him some claim_ But it is not an unreasonable assumption that Mr. George refused to allow his perception of their 'merits- to inveigle him into any extended search for the whereabouts of vanished examples ; and his valiant defence of certain parts of the accessible "Raising of Lazarus" must disarm criticism with its frank though superfluous admission that there is scarcely anything to be said for the principal figure in the picture. This figtire, the figure of Christ, unhappily dominates the composition and; though sym- pathy may condone a biographer's extravagant- praise of the head of Lazarus, the preposterous insipidity of the Christ eclipses such minor excellencies as may be found* in the eircumfluent penumbra. It is sometimes asserted, by injudicious enthusiasts, that Haydon was a natural painter of genre, and that his fatal mistake was the exhaustion of an unusual talent in struggles with heroic and Biblical themes to which, it is certain, his capacities were totally unsuited. Mr. George has resisted this snare and, ,while praising " Punch " and The Mock Election," acknowledges the crudity and vulgarity which impair their force. Haydon's great fascination as a man will always encourage a charitable attitude towards his work. " Punch" is a picture of national importance ; it is bright, , vigorous and funny ; but it is inferior, in every other cpaality, to Wilkie's "Blind Man's Buff."-

In the absence of -any evidence to the contrary it must be admitted that Haydon's most important mistake was ever to have -painted at all. He had no natural aptitude for this 'node of eApression, and the competence he managed to acquire reflected, but hardly attained, the conventional standards_ of the day ; when he mused -upon death and destiny Or God and resurrection, the ensuing exaltation of his spirit might bring tears-to his eyes but it never, in any truly pictorial sense, yielded a vision. His powers, for the purposes he had in

• mind, were too narrowly those of a writer. It has been said that his gripping literary style displays the ability of an exceptional novelist ; the merit of the autobiography is unquestioned, and we are easily moved by his own ecstasies and despairs while we smile at his laboured attempts to convey the same heights and depths in the heroic or ineffable 'personages represented on his immense canvases.

There is, indeed, such a fervent breath, such a buoyant wit, such colour and chiaroscuro in his record of himself that it must remain, even in the incomplete -version in which it is generally known, the most revealing account of his extraordinary personality. It is, like the Memoires d'Outre Tombe or the Confessions, with which in other respects it would be presumptuous to compare it, a work that proclaims, with wonderful but myopic sincerity, the unconscious defects of its author. A man who could, so unwittingly and pre- cisely, divulge the deluded nature of his vanity With the assertion that visitations of the divine spirit made him feel like a person "with balloons under his armpits and ether in his soul" may be said, if he is also the writer of a copious journal, to have forestalled the taslq of a biographer.

Nevertheless, Mr. Eric George's book, which was unfortunately written without access to the manuscript of the journals; is a valuable and entertaining companion to the indispensable auto- biography. He has, as must have seemed to him both necessary and agreeable, quoted extensively from Tom Taylor's printed text ; but he has also studied his subject from a variety of sources less peculiarly prejudiced than Haydon's personal narrative ; in doing . so he has established the broad truth of that transparent self- description—a feat that could only be performed by demonstrating how delusive in fact are the painter's less convincing assertions.

Haydon's true place in the history of British painting has been shown by Mr. George, notwithstanding his cautious defence of the "Lazarus," to be that of a 'Regressive publicist. Haydon was among the first to appreciate the beauty of the Elgin marbles ; and, however vain or selfish the motives, his restless importtinings of Ministers and his triumphant lecture tours in the benighted provinces engaged the authorities to acknowledge the principle of Government patronage for art and hastened the official provision of schools of design.