About the artwork
This picture was commissioned in 1837, from the ‘celebrated Haydon’ - London painter, lecturer and tireless champion of High Art - for the Chapel of the Liverpool Blind Asylum. Built by John Foster in 1819, the neo-classical Chapel stood on the north western corner of Great Nelson (now Lord Nelson) Street and Duncan Street (part of which remains, now Hotham Street).
William Hilton’s 'Christ Healing the Blind' - also in the Walker’s collection but not currently on display - hung to one side of the altar and Haydon’s picture occupied the corresponding space on the other. The expenditure of 400 guineas on a painting to decorate a Chapel for the blind might seem an incongruous use of funds, but such visual splendours were intended for the sighted public who visited each Sunday and, deeply affected by the singing of the blind scholars, were expected to leave charitable donations to the institution on their way out.
Haydon’s painting was greeted with enthusiasm by the local press, not least because it offered a source of civic pride. ‘No distinguished town in England’, trumpeted The Albion:
‘has set the example of wishing to revive public native art, by public employment, with anything like the spirit of Liverpool. It is surely no exaggeration to say, that, for the last hundred years, no commission to English historical painters has been given by any other city, or by any gentlemen or members of public bodies in any other part of the country. Vast have been the subscriptions for portraits of members and mayors, and the town-halls teem with them; but any subscriptions for any great work of imagination, of religious, patriotic, or local history, it would, we believe, puzzle the best disposed to discover... [We must encourage] genius in great works, of a large scale, with figures, passions, faces, and groups the size of nature, and exciting the public mind by their public impression. This is the art to be restored, and can only be restored by such commissions as the one given by the Blind Asylum Committee.’
The Liverpool Journal declared the picture to be ‘universally recognised as a noble specimen of modern art, fully calculated to sustain the reputation of the painter’. But posterity has not dealt kindly with the picture’s creator. What William McGonegal was to poetry, declares one modern authority, Benjamin Robert Haydon was to painting: ‘He is so bad he is almost good. But not quite.’ To be fair, Haydon was labouring under a severe handicap for a painter, an ironic handicap considering his Liverpool commission. Today he would be diagnosed as partially sighted but he himself used to joke that he was ‘the first blind man who ever successfully painted pictures.’ His son remembered his working methods:
‘His natural sight was of little or no use to him at any distance, and he would wear, one pair over the other, sometimes two or three pairs of large round concave spectacles, so powerful as greatly to diminish objects. He would…look at [the model] through one pair of glasses, then push them all well back on his head, and paint by his naked eye close to the canvas. After some minutes he would pull down one pair of his glasses, look at [the model], then…walk slowly backwards to the wall, and study the effect through the one, two, or three pairs of spectacles; then, with one pair only, look long and steadily in the looking glass at the side to examine the reflection of his work; then [go back to the canvas], and paint again. How he ever contrived to paint a head or a limb in proportion is a mystery to me…’
It is apparent, in 'Christ Blessing Little Children', that he did not contrive the desired proportion. The left arm of Christ looks too long and we can imagine that, if the figure were to stand up, this particular limb would touch the ground. Such mistakes were magnified by being rendered on a grand scale and matters were not improved by a modestly sized painting room which did not allow him to view such a large work from the requisite distance.
Haydon’s failure was made heroic by the very breadth of his ambition: nothing less than the salvation of High Art in England through State patronage and the advancement of public taste. In 1846, when it became clear to him that State patronage had finally passed him by and that the English public was more interested in seeing P.T. Barnum's latest novelty attraction, 'General Tom Thumb', than his own exhibition of High Art, Haydon cut his throat.
As for the Chapel of the Liverpool Blind Asylum: in 1851, to make way for the expansion of Lime Street Station, the building was dismantled and re-erected on the corner of Hope Street and Hardman Street. It was finally demolished in 1929.