The Immortal Dinner, by Penelope Hughes-Hallett

Review published on June 19, 2012. Reviewed by Julian Philpot

To quote that famous opening line from The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” If you needed confirmation, this book has it in spades.

Two years after the Battle of Waterloo, the peace dividend is a mixed blessing. Napoleon is no longer a threat, and London is in the middle of a frenzied building boom. But the end of the war has also brought unemployment – worsened by increasing industrialization and rapid population growth. It is a time of change, a time of great projects and high ambitions. Politics is beset by conflict between the established order and the radical and reform factions; within two years the Peterloo massacre in Manchester will divide the nation still further. British art and literature is on a roll. Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Constable, Turner, Haydon… Haydon? Only those well acquainted with the world of art are likely to recognize that name. Yet Benjamin Haydon had no doubt as to his genius and his calling – to paint the greatest pictures ever seen, and to restore “High Art” to its rightful pre-eminence. It is hard to imagine the same confidence or, indeed, vanity in Bacon, Freud or Hockney.

Be that as it may, Haydon moved in exalted circles. His dinner guests on 28th December 1817 included Keats and Wordsworth (Haydon intended to use the event to introduce the young Keats to the grand old man of English letters), Charles Lamb (a writer some note at the time, and a friend of Coleridge), an explorer, a civil servant, and assorted others. Undoubtedly the conversation would have flowed easily and ranged wide, inspired by the ever-changing state of the nation and lubricated by Haydon’s “excellent port”. As was his habit, the host wrote up his recollections immediately the guests had left – dinner being a late afternoon meal rather than the evening meal of today. Displaying supreme self-assurance, or maybe presumption, Haydon described the occasion as “the Immortal Dinner”. This is the focus of Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s book of the same name.

An account of the dinner itself would not take long – there is precious little detail available – but Hughes-Hallett keeps us occupied for 300 or so pages with descriptions of the main attendees, the progress of works in London, the Elgin Marbles, Africa and the slave trade, and much else linked more or less tenuously with Haydon and his guests. There’s a lot of general interest here: the habits of life 200 years ago, many of which appear strange to 21st century eyes; the affairs of the Royal Academy and the recently established Royal Institution; even Haydon’s visit to Paris. Haydon initially received an allowance from his father, a man of some means, but when this ended he had to rely on patronage and prospective sales. Imprisoned for debt more than once, Haydon never quite “made it” in the world of art – possibly justifying Charles Dickens’ assertion that Haydon was just not a good painter. His attitude towards patrons and peers was far from helpful, and he eventually saw himself as a martyr.

Eventually, overcome by care and insurmountable debts, Haydon took his own life at the age of 60. With supreme irony, he could not even succeed in this at the first attempt. His legacy in terms of artworks is not great, but as a colourful character and a mild English eccentric, his story is worth reading. The Immortal Dinner puts Haydon into the context of his times, and we should not judge him by today’s standards.

This is not a book to be read from start to finish in one sitting – there is too much to take in. Dip into it now and then, follow up the comprehensive references, and get a new insight into another country – our own.

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