A Sultry Month by Alethea Hayter

August 12, 2019 at 7:48 pm (Anglophilia, Art, London, Poetry)

  One of my favorite books from the past few years is a nonfiction work entitled: A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846.

To begin with, Alethea Hayter’s powers of description are  formidable. They are shown in full spate in this passage, in which she brings the Duke of Wellington’s annual Waterloo Banquet to vivid life:

The low sunset light of that fiercely hot day came in through the six westward-facing windows of the Waterloo Gallery, competing with the light of the serried candles in the candelabra of the huge silver-gilt Portuguese Service, crowded with dancing nymphs, allegorical  figures of the Continents, camels, horses, scorpions, which stretched the whole length of the table. The colors were all fierce and bright–scarlet uniforms, shining white tablecloth, harsh yellow damask on the walls staring out between the crowded frames of the pictures captured in Joseph Bonaparte’s carriage at the Battle of Vittoria.

There was gold and sheen everywhere–gilding on the doors and ceiling, shutters lines with looking-glass, epaulettes, decanters, medals, picture frames, chandeliers, everything glared and glittered….

A Sultry Month has a wonderful cast of characters: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, poets who against all odds made their love triumphant; John Keats, whose brief stay on Earth left us with much memorable verse; the Carlyles, Jane and Thomas, William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb – the list goes on. But perhaps the most memorable among them is a painter of whom I had not previously heard. His name is Benjamin Robert Haydon.

There is a genre of painting  called history painting. The term refers not only to depictions of historical events but also to scenes from mythology and religion.  The works were usually large, colorful, and action-packed. The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1635-1640) by Peter Paul Rubens is a good example:

By the nineteenth century, this type of subject matter was increasingly deemed outmoded, especially in England, where it had never really taken hold to begin with. But Benjamin Robert Haydon believed passionately in its relevance and its rightness. He worked steadily and, some would say, stubbornly to embody the best aspects of history painting in his own art.

In 1817, Haydon gave a dinner party which, over the years has achieved a unique sort of fame. In attendance at this gathering were all of the luminaries mentioned above: Keats, Wordsworth, the Lambs brother and sister, the Carlyles, and others. Haydon had two purposes in presenting this entertainment. He wanted to introduce young Keats to the venerable Wordsworth, and he wanted all the guests to see his rather fabulous, if somewhat bizarre, canvas entitled Christ Entering Jerusalem.

The bizarre aspect stems from the fact that Haydon has included small portraits of his present day friends in this work. If you look closely at the three men at the extreme right, you can see Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Keats. (I’m pretty sure that the figure with the slightly bowed head is Wordsworth.) Apparently other of Haydon’s friends and acquaintances are also represented therein. Few of these individuals were particularly religious.

The occasion was a great success, at least in the eyes of the host. This is what he wrote about it later in his autobiography:

It was indeed an immortal evening. Wordsworth’s fine intonation as he quoted Milton and Virgil, Keats’ eager inspired look, Lamb’s quaint sparkle of lambent humour, so speeded the stream of conversation, that in my life I never passed a more delightful time. All our fun was within bounds. Not a word passed that an apostle might not have listened to. It was a night worthy of the Elizabethan age, and my solemn Jerusalem flashing up by the flame of the fire, with Christ hanging over us like a vision, all made up a picture which will long glow upon

“that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude.”

Haydon began writing his autobiography in 1839. He was still working on it at the time of his death in 1846. I think it quite marvelous that he quotes from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” also known as “Daffodils,” a poem written by his  friend Wordsworth in 1804.

Portrait of Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842

 

Manuscript copy of “Daffodils,” held at the British Museum

There are at least two other books about Haydon’s “Immortal Dinner:” The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb by Stanley Plumly (2014), and The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817, by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (2002).

[A footnote, but an interesting one: Charles Lamb was a distinguished essayist. He is probably best remembered today for Tales of Shakespeare, on which he collaborated with his sister Mary. Mary was mentally unstable; in 1796, while experiencing a severe breakdown – what today we would probably call a psychotic break – she stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife. Charles remained devoted to his sister until his death in 1834. Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Lambs of London vividly recreates the turbulent events surrounding this calamity.]

I was completely spellbound by A Sultry Month; I look forward to reading it again.

1 Comment

  1. Rose Johnson said,

    Thanks for the recommendation. The type of work more enjoyable the more you’ve already read the guests works. Delicious.

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