Wonder is a very apt word—the painters, poets, chemists and physicists of the time—to name just a few of the disciplines—shared a sense of wonder over the intricate workings of the natural world around them, and saw themselves as sharing a common creative spirit and imagination as they sought to understand and celebrate its infinite wonders. Today, it seems, the fields of art and science are worlds apart, but back then, they admired each other’s work, and kept abreast of all the latest developments—the poet John Keats studied medicine, the great chemist Sir Humphry Davy wrote lyrical poetry.
They exchanged letters, they met frequently over liquid libations to discuss ideas—and I can’t help but feel that the interchange between different points of view sparked both artists and scientists to challenge their own points of view. So when I came across an intriguing mention of an “Immortal Dinner” held by the painter Benjamin Haydon, I was of course, fascinated and decided to dig a little deeper . . .
It took place one late winter evening in 1817 at the artist’s studio, the occasion being to celebrate the unveiling of his new allegorical painting, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. (Slyly depicted in the crowd were the faces of many notable artists and scientists of the day.)The guest list featured leading artists and scientists of the day, including Wordsworth, Keats, Charles Lamb, surgeon Joseph Ritchie, engraver John Landseer, and Mary Wordsworth's cousin Tom Monkhouse
Here is a quote from Haydon’s diary:
“On December 28th the immortal dinner came off in my painting-room, with Jerusalem towering up behind us as a background. Wordsworth was in fine cue, and we had a glorious set-to--on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and Virgil. Lamb got exceedingly merry and exquisitely witty; and his fun in the midst of Wordsworth's solemn intonations of oratory was like the sarcasm and wit of the fool in the intervals of Lear's passion. He made a speech and voted me absent, and made them drink my health. "Now," said Lamb, " you old lake poet, you rascally poet, why do you call Voltaire dull? " We all defended Wordsworth, and affirmed there was a state of mind when Voltaire would be dull. . . .”
By all accounts, the conversation covered a wide range of topics (Newton’s color experiments were much maligned as having taken the poetry out of a rainbow) with erudition and no some amount of impish humor. Oh, I dearly would have loved being a fly on the wall.
Which of course got me to thinking . . . after all, it is heading towards the end August, when a last flurry of summer parties traditionally mark the end of the season’s lazy days and nights making merry with friends. So I began musing on who, if I had my choice of any figure in past or present history, I would ask to my own immortal dinner. Should I bring together like-minded people, or like Haydon, invite a little controversy to make things really interesting? Hmmm.
Having an art background, I like the idea of having a painting as the centerpiece of a party. I decided I could invite Pablo Picasso, and have him bring Guernica. Then include Carl von Clausewitz, Henry Kissinger and Winston Churchill (who was an avid painter) among the other guests and debate the morality of war. Okay, okay, maybe too heavy for summer dining. Keeping on the science-art theme, an amazing gathering would be Leonardo da Vinci, Issac Newton, Mary Shelley and Richard Feynman, the brilliant and artistic theoretical physicist who helped create the atom bomb. On a lighter note, I’d probably just invite some of my favorite artists see what color splashed across the canvas—Thomas Lawrence, JMW Turner, David Hockney, Maurice Sendak and William Bailey would be on the list.
So now it’s your turn! Who would be on your “Immortal Dinner” guest list? Let’s have some fun! (I shall send a case of cyber champagne!)