David Jesson-Dibley


The Immortal Dinner  by  Penelope Hughes-Hallett (Viking 2000)

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 19, Spring 2002, pp.77-79)




sing the occasion – a dinner party for which the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon invited a few friends to his home in Lisson Grove, Paddington, on 28 December 1817 – as the focal point of her narrative, the author lays before her readers the ever widening context of the day, the year and the lifetimes of Haydon and his chosen guests, on whom, with himself included no doubt, Haydon conferred ‘immortality’ in his copious Diary by virtue of their presence at the meal.  Not without justification: the guests for the dinner comprised: Wordsworth, senior in age at 47, Keats, at 22 the youngest; Charles Lamb and Tom Monkhouse, City merchant, literary layman and hospitable friend of all the others.  As yet incomplete, presiding massively over the studio where they dined, was hung Haydon’s painting of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. Trusting may be that they would enhance the great work’s canditure for immortality, Haydon was in the process of including among the spectators of the Entry, portraits, not only of Wordsworth, Keats, Hazlitt and Haydon’s most promising pupil, William Bewick, but also Isaac Newton and Voltaire.

       Further distinction to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s verbal tapestry is supplied by a handful of after-dinner guests, invited for tea and supper: John Landseer, son of Sir Edwin; John Scott, editor of London Magazine, who suffered an untimely death in a duel four years later and whose funeral Haydon attended; John Kingston, a well-meaning fish-out-of-water in this literary circle, whom Wordsworth was later to succeed as Comptroller of Stamps; and most notable of all in terms of the author’s narrative, Joseph Ritchie.  As well as training like Keats for a career as surgeon, meeting in Paris Keats’s brothers, George and Tom, who were there on holiday, and who had already noted Keats’s gifts and commended his Poems 1817, Ritchie was also to suffer untimely death two years later, while leading an unsuccessful expedition in search of the source of the River Niger.

       As host, Haydon is as much the centrepiece as the dinner itself by virtue of his web of in-and-out friends, acquaintances and patrons. There were several more ‘great spirits…sojourning’ than Wordsworth and Haydon – selected for celebration by Keats in his sonnet – who might have been invited to add further lustre to the gathering.  But Leigh Hunt, the third of Keats’s trio, was temporarily ‘Out’, as may have been Hazlitt.  As for Coleridge, less than a month earlier he had been a guest, as were Charles and Mary Lamb, at Tom Monkhouse’s home, where Wordsworth was staying, off Cavendish Square.  In contrast to his amiable mood at Haydon’s dinner, Wordsworth was out of sorts on this occasion, which Monkhouse had designed unsuccessfully




to bring about an improvement in the strained relationship between the two poets.  Had a reconciliation occurred then rather than at a future time, Haydon might well have invited Coleridge to the dinner, if only because the generous hearted Haydon took pleasure from the cementing of friendships.

       Besides working into her narrative relevant biographical details of the lives of the host and his guests in the months and years before and after the dinner, Hughes-Hallett, drawing upon letters and diaries, especially Haydon’s, and upon her assured knowledge of London at this time, creates convincing vignettes of each guest as they make their separate ways to and from Lisson Grove on this winter’s day and while they are there: the clothes they wore, the moods they were in, the food most likely to have been set before them and the topics of conversation that engaged them during dinner and with the larger company later in the day.

       These included poetry and the visual arts, inevitably; the threat to the literary imagination of the advances of science through Newton’s observations; the experiments and lectures of Humphry Davy, a good friend to Haydon and others present, and the threat to religion as embodied in the portrayal of Voltaire, a bete noire to the staunchly Christian adherent, Haydon.  The name of the ‘atheist’ Shelley, who was to be one of Leigh Hunt’s guests with Haydon and Keats at a future, somewhat tempestuous dinner party, would never have featured on any guest list of Haydon’s.

       Repercussions from the defeat and exile of Napoleon, the repressive measures of a Tory Government to which Wordsworth now had sympathetic leanings, to the dismay of some of the younger guests, are alluded to as divisive or at least discussible issues of the day.  But much more prominent in subsequent chapters are such relative topics as patronage supplied by the likes of Sir George Beaumont, a generous friend to the Wordsworths, and Lords Mulgrave, Lonsdale and Egremont, on whose good will Haydon and his artist friend David Wilkie were so much dependent and with whom the headstrong and touchy Haydon from time to time to his own disadvantage fell out – as he did with influential members of the Royal Academy.  Haydon’s active role championing by written and spoken word Lord Elgin and his acquisition of the Marbles is fully recorded, as is the inspiration the Marbles gave to Haydon’s pupils and to such admirers as Keats and Hazlitt.

       Byron, who judged Elgin to be ‘a despoiler and a blunderer’, and Thomas Moore are worked into the narrative through the letters of Joseph Ritchie to his friend Richard Garnett, during the course of a chapter on ‘Medicine and Poets’. In this Hughes-Hallett gives an account of the training Keats and Ritchie received at Guy’s Hospital and of the dependence of distinguished surgeons of the day on the trade of ‘body-snatchers’ for instruction on anatomy and surgery.  One can understand why Keats, who had shared lodgings with the future creator of blue-black ink, Henry Stephens, did not choose to make a career for himself as a sawbones on land or at sea.

       As for the attractively modest yet determined Ritchie, the interest he




acquired in fashionable taste for Oriental and Egyptian culture, stimulated for him by his reading of Thomas Moore’s ‘Lalla Rookh’, put an end to his pursuit of medical studies in Paris, when he accepted an invitation to lead an expedition to the source of the Niger from Tripoli.  Like his predecessor, the ill-starred Mungo Park, he was not to find it.  His venture and its poignant conclusion are vividly described in another ‘after Dinner’ chapter, ‘Tragedy in Africa’.

       The interweaving of the lives of the various luminaries who cluster and fan out from ‘The Immortal Dinner’ concludes where it began with the life and written thoughts of Haydon: his happy marriage; his much loved children, his stimulating teaching of his students and, alas, his distracting debts, which took him to prison more than once. The ultimate failure of his treasured masterpiece, ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’, to merit the seal of approval from Royal Academicians, though it acquired initial respect, not least from society’s arbiter of taste, Sarah Siddons, or to be purchased by a wealthy patron, bore heavily upon the painter. When it was shipped off to America for a modest fee, even the proselytising Haydon had to accept that his conceptions of historical art on the grand scale of Raphael no longer had its appeal.

       In the hot summer of 1846, at the age of 62, Haydon committed suicide, clumsily and gorily, with a pistol and razor. His body was interred in the churchyard of St Mary’s Paddington. Of those present at the dinner of 1817, only Wordsworth out-lived him.

       I noticed one minor error in the text, concerning Leigh Hunt’s libel of the Prince Regent: he wrote “this ‘Adonis in loveliness’ was a corpulent man of fifty!”, not as recorded here ‘a fat Adonis of forty.’  But although much of the content of the book may be familiar to readers of The Bulletin, Penelope Hughes-Hallett, carrying her scholarship lightly, has prepared a rich and varied fare, skilfully assembling and serving it up in easily digestible fashion.  An additional pleasure is to be had from the inclusion of numerous portraits and prints of buildings and monuments, all relevant to the author’s narrative.