Artists at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century

By the end of the 18th Century Paddington and Lisson Green were desirable areas on the edge of the country yet close to the West End. St Mary's Church, 1791, the 1781 houses opposite the Green and a few stucco houses in Lisson Grove, are reminders of this period. A Botanical Garden had been created on the earlier nursery land, while the Yorkshire Stingo was a country pub with a bowling green. There was a popular theatre off Church Street, where the library now stands.

Benjamin Haydon

Many artists lived in the neighbourhood, on the edge of the country, but within walking distance of clients, galleries and engravers. Sandby and Linnell both drew in the area, but the person who gives us the most vivid impression of life at the time is Benjamin Haydon. Haydon's enormous and heroic paintings, which harked back to Greece and Rome, are largely forgotten today and towards the end of his life were often derided. He is now much more famous for his Diaries, which are immediate, vivid and, since he was a very gregarious person, meeting everyone and going everywhere, mentioned almost everyone of note at the time. He began his diary in 1808, at the time of the Peninsular War, and ended it shortly before his suicide in 1846.

Haydon painted a huge picture of the banquet held to celebrate the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill. Every Whig grandee sat to Haydon for this picture and he had already painted many Tories, so he knew many people and commented on them.

He was immediately struck by the quality of the Elgin Marbles when they were first displayed in London and was always in the forefront of artistic discussion. Hard working, he lacked only real genius, but in his diary he is astute and vivid.


Mrs Siddons

pic27Mrs. Siddons as Lady Randolph
in `Douglas', 1787.

Mrs Siddons, the great tragic actress, lived in Paddington: was indeed the most famous person there. Haydon, familiar with her figure as she went about, had never ventured to speak to her. He felt inclined to bow each time he caught her eye, but refrained in case she might think him impertinent, or trying to 'cringe himself into her notice'. However, in 1820, Haydon exhibited a huge religious picture. Mrs Siddons came to see it and approved, saying in her 'solemn and sublime tone', "It's paleness gives it an awful and supernatural look".

Encouraged by this, Haydon ventured to write and was given a very gracious invitation to call. From then things were  easier between them although nobody could ever be entirely at ease with the formidable Mrs Siddons. Haydon records one evening reception where Mrs Siddons was reciting. Everyone of note was there. After the refreshment interval, word spread that Mrs Siddons was reciting again. Instantly there was silence and one could see Members of the Cabinet tiptoeing back to their seats with huge pieces of toast still bulging out of their mouths and sitting with glazed looks, not daring to move their mouths until Mrs Siddons raised her voice to cover the crunching of toast.

Today Mrs Siddons sits on the edge of the Motorway as The Tragic Muse, or more probably, since she has a knife in her hand, as Lady Macbeth. Her statue, on the much reduced Paddington Green, is sadly incongruous, but once her presence dominated Paddington society.


1 The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Ed. William Bussell-Pope, Harvard U. P. 1960, 2 vols.

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Updated June 28, 2011