by Terah Walkup, Fine Art Curator

We’re currently marking the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Academy (RA), otherwise known as RA250. Today’s post from our Art Department highlights two Plymouth-born painters who had very different experiences of the RA but who both produced dramatic, large-scale works.

After being established in 1768, being elected a member of the RA was an achievement that often secured an artist’s success. It’s still a marker of success today. But what about those that didn’t make the cut?

The story of Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) is tragic but worth revisiting on this anniversary.

Haydon was born in Plymouth and attended Plympton Grammar School, whose graduates included Sir Joshua Reynolds and Charles Lock Eastlake, who later apprenticed under Haydon. He left for London in 1804 eager to study at the RA and pursue his ambitions as a painter. There he met Academicians James Northcote, John Opie and Henry Fuseli who took him under his wing. Haydon excelled in anatomical studies and expanded his circle of artist friends.

This 1805 drawing from our collection by John Jackson RA shows the nature of friendships forged at the RA. On the back of his portrait Haydon wrote: “…in March 1805 Jackson came home with me from the Royal Academy, and drank tea… I proposed we should sit up all night, and sketch each other. He agreed. I put some coffee in the kettle to boil, and he made this drawing of me.”

John Jackson, RA, Portrait of Benjamin R. Haydon, 1805, chalk on paper

Haydon had a promising start: his first painting exhibited at the RA was bought by the collector Thomas Hope. The second was purchased before he had even finished it. Things, however, took a turn. That painting was voted to hang in the celebrated Great Hall but the committee decided to move it to a smaller side room. Haydon took this as a great slight although it didn’t stop him from pursuing being elected as a member of the RA. Three times he submitted to the committee. Three times he was rejected. His growing quarrels with the Academy could not have helped his case.

Haydon exhausted his friends and advocates. He self-financed his grand works and eventually went into irreconcilable debt. He suffered mental health issues unrecognised in his day and committed suicide at the age of 60.

Ideas about art were dramatically changing in Haydon’s day and he produced large-scale works of historical and biblical subjects, which were growing out of fashion. His enormous canvases are still a challenge to museums. Anyone who has seen it on display at Plymouth Guildhall will attest to the weighty subject matter of the ‘Judgement of Solomon’. It’s one of Haydon’s most important paintings for which he was awarded Freedom of the Borough by the Mayor of Plymouth.

Haydon, Benjamin Robert, 1786-1846; Judgement of Solomon

‘Judgement of Solomon’ by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846)

When Haydon died the newspapers were divided in their obituaries. Some critics condemned him and his lofty goals, while Keats and Wordsworth wrote sonnets and eulogies to his memory. Today, his paintings continue to demand our attention due to their sheer force of composition and storytelling, as well as Haydon’s determination to paint the impossible in the face of discouragement. You can read more about him in this 2017 blog post here.

The Maid of Saragossa by Benjamin Haydon

‘Maid of Saragossa’ by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846)

The story of Solomon Alexander Hart (1806-1881) is a happier one.

Born in Plymouth in 1806 to a father who also had aspirations of becoming an artist, Hart was the first Jew to be elected to the Academy and was also Librarian of the RA.

Unable to afford the high fees of apprenticeship in London, he studied by copying ancient statues at the British Museum. Through these he gained the confidence of fellow-Plymothian James Northcote, a well-respected Academician, who wrote a letter of recommendation for him.

In 1839 he embarked on an ambitious painting that would secure his election to the RA and which depicted the dramatic subject of Lady Jane Grey awaiting execution. He planned for it to be over 14 feet high. When a fellow artist visited his studio he advised Hart that he would need to abandon all other projects if he had hope of finishing it.

Hart said: “I devoted a year on it, and paid models the entire time. I could never see the whole of the effect, as I had to fold the canvas at the bottom to get at the top and vice versa. In order to see it as a whole, I hired a room…at a cost of twenty pounds a month.”

Solomon Alexander Hart, RA. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, oil on canvas, 1893 © Plymouth Museums Galleries and Archive (The Box)

‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by Solomon Hart RA (1806-1881)

Hart’s efforts and sacrifice paid off although the enormity of the painting continued to be a challenge. He kept it rolled up for 40 years until 1879 when he gave it to Plymouth to be hung in the newly built Guildhall. It was on view at the City Museum for a while although remains rolled today, where we face the major undertaking of its display and conservation. The image above was taken by conservators before it was rolled for storage in the 1990s.

On his deathbed, Hart undertook an ambitious project to dictate his memoirs. These ‘Reminiscences’ are a unique record of his life and a personal account of the early days of the RA. In them he details the service of the presidents, officials and artists he knew at the time as well as dinner parties, studio visits and the painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey. I’m really grateful to Jerry Sibley, caretaker of the Plymouth Synagogue where Hart was a member and supporter, for his time and expertise and for allowing me to consult Hart’s ‘Reminiscences’.