Haydon was born in Plymouth, and from an early age he proved himself an eager student. He received most of his education at the Plympton Grammar School, which was also attended by Sir Joshua Reynolds. He had a love for anatomy and an early aspiration to become a painter – perhaps inspired by his father, who was also a painter, as well as stationer and publisher.
In 1804 he entered the Royal Academy Schools in London and exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy at the age of 21. The piece in question was The Repose in Egypt, bought by Thomas Hope. Soon he had commissions and was introduced to relevant characters who would be of great help to his career and personal life – his financial struggles would last until his dying day. He parted from the Academy in bad terms and had his allowance cut. Although his works were valued by many, Haydon was in constant debt.
Described as an intelligent man with great knowledge of all arts, Haydon found friends in David Wilkie, William Hazlitt, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb among others. On the height of his career, he painted many of his friends and even used some of them in pieces such as Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. This particular painting was to be considered his masterpiece; such work was put into it that the model who provided the body for Jesus Christ had a whole cast made out of his body, almost dying in the process as the drying plaster pressed his lungs.
Social gatherings were also greatly appreciated by Benjamin Haydon. In 1817 he finally saw himself with enough money to buy his own china, cutlery, and built a home. The excitement of being able to host an organised dinner party resulted on what became known as the Immortal Dinner. The account of such memorable night can be found in one of Haydon’s journal entries. Among his guests were William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb. In the morning of the event, a man told Haydon that he was acquainted with some of his friends and would like to be introduced to Wordsworth, which resulted in an invitation to the party. He became a laughing matter when Wordsworth claimed to have no recollection of their supposed exchange of letters, and the man proceeded to make embarrassing statements. Lamb, who was drunk, stood up laughing, singing, and requesting to measure the unknown guest’s head. He had to be taken away by Keats and Haydon, who locked Lamb in the painting room while he still sang in mockery to the misery of the poor man. (find more about the Immortal Dinner and Haydon’s account here)
Soon the painter was again in debt, and after finding financial support he unwillingly returned to his portrait painting, as these proved to be the most successful. The critics weren’t in his favour, and although his work Mock Election, inspired by the King’s Bench Prison in 1827, was bought by King George IV, he obtained no further success and was left disappointed.
His career met many ups and downs; his pieces were either grand or of no relevance, which not only caused his financial instability but also great discouragement. He then became a lecturer on painting, travelling around Britain on tours. He fought for the importance of government patronage of art, but had little involvement in matters that proved his cause relevant.
The decline of his career and lack of funds to cover his debts and provide to his family became unbearable, and in 1846 Haydon left a widow and three children when he finished the work of a failed bullet by cutting his throat, taking his own life.