Published Jan 2010
Benjamin Robert Haydon’s first attempt at suicide ended when the low calibre bullet fired from his pistol fractured his skull but failed to penetrate his brain. His second attempt also failed: a deep slash across his throat left a large pool of blood at the entrance to his studio, but he was still able to reach his easel on the opposite side of the room. Only his third attempt, another cut to the throat which sprayed blood across his unfinished canvas, was successful. He died face-down before the bespattered Alfred and the First British Jury, his final bid ‘to improve the taste of the English people’ through the High Art of historical painting. Such intensity, struggle and near-comic inability to succeed encapsulate Haydon’s career. Thirty years before his death his huge, iconic paintings had made him the toast of early 19th-century London, drawing paying crowds to the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly for months and leading to nationwide tours. However, his attempt to repeat such success three months before his death was to destroy him: barely a soul turned up, leaving the desperate painter alone, humiliated, and facing financial ruin. In A Genius for Failure Paul O’Keeffe makes clear that the real tragedy of Haydon lay in the extent to which his failures were unwittingly engineered by his own actions – his refusal to resort to the painting of fashionable portraits, for example, and his self-destructively acrimonious relationship with the RA. The company he kept – Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington, among many others – and the momentous events he lived through – The Battle of Waterloo, the Coronation of George IV, and the passing of the first Parliamentary Reform Bill – make A Genius for Failure not only the definitive biography of this fascinating and tragic painter, but a stirring portrayal of an age.