Sunday, March 27, 2011

April 4, 1846 --- Killed by Tom Thumb?

A private opening for "friends and select connoisseurs" launches Benjamin Robert Haydon's exhibit at London's Egyptian Hall. A one-time prodigy now out of favor at 60, Haydon is a muralist of the grand historical school. Bitterly disappointed when his latest paintings had been passed over for the new Houses of Parliament, Haydon hopes the showing will prove that his work is still popular. He displays "The Burning of Rome by Nero" and "The Banishment of Aristides."  The Times critic thought the latter work was "perhaps the best picture ever painted by the artist; it deserves to secure a fitting reward for his labors."

Unfortunately for Haydon, however, also holding court in the Egyptian Hall is the sensational 31-inch dwarf Tom Thumb. The disconsolate artist can only complain to his diary:  "They rush by thousands to see Tom Thumb. They push, they fight, they scream, they faint, they cry help! ... They see my bills, my boards, my caravans, and don't read them ... It is an insanity, a rabies, a madness, (etc). I would not have believed it of the English people."

In desperate newspaper ads, Haydon reminds the public that he has "devoted 42 years to improve the taste of the people," but the tactic serves only to add to his debts. In one week, Haydon recorded: "Tom Thumb had 12,000 people. B.R. Haydon had 133 1/2." The exhibition closed on 18 May, with Haydon owing the Hall over  £111. Prime Minister Peel, hearing of the artists's distress, provided £50 pounds. But on 22 June, in his studio, in front of his newest canvas, "Alfred the Great and the First British Jury," Haydon shot himself after first cutting his throat. His 16 year old daughter, one of four children, found the body and his diary; the final entry read: "God forgive me! Amen. Finis."

The obituary in The Times, amid polite comment on his work, noted that Haydon's demise had "been hastened by pecuniary embarrassment." Another contemporary account, however, was more to the point: "It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that poor Haydon, the historical painter, was killed by Tom Thumb."

1 comment:

  1. What an entertaining post! It shows that popular interest in freakery and marvels did not end in the 18th c. Readers might also be interested in

    The Little Everyman: Stature and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century English Literature
    Deborah Needleman Armintor

    See also my blog on cultural teratology: