The Great Party

Haydon lived in Lisson Grove, 'over the pie shop' according to Charles Lamb, who was an old friend and visited him there. On 28 December 1817, Wordsworth, Keats, Charles Lamb, and a cousin of Mrs Wordsworth dined with Haydon1. According to the diary they ' had a glorious set to on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and Virgil.’

Lamb, who soon became tipsy as usual, teased Wordsworth. 'Lamb got excessively merry and witty, and his fun in the intervals of Wordsworth's deep and solemn intonations of oratory was the fun and wit of the Fool in the intervals of Lear's passion.'  Lamb and Keats attacked Newton who had 'destroyed all the Poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.' They then drank 'Newton's health and confusion to mathematics.'

An unknown Comptroller of the Stamp Office, full of his own importance and bustling like a turkey cock, somehow became part of the group, gave his opinions on Poetry and became the butt of Lamb's tipsy derision. To any deep comment by the Comptroller, Lamb roared out,

‘Diddle diddle don
My son John
 Went to bed with his trousers on.’

The Comptroller, bewildered, tried to take it all in good part without losing his dignity, while Wordsworth, venerable and concerned, tried to keep the peace. It is extraordinary, in the traffic of today's Lisson Grove, to hear in one's mind Wordsworth's sonorous voice keeping the peace above a pie shop.

Later, when Lisson Grove had ceased to be a respectable address, the artists began to move away. Samuel Palmer, who lived in Lisson Grove, discovered the charms and varied scenery of Shoreham, in Kent (not in Sussex). Palmer persuaded his father-in-law, Birkett Foster, to move there.

Birkett Foster was a very successful painter of landscapes and country scenes. His pictures sold well but, more financially important, small pieces of them - groups of pretty children in cottage gardens, thatched cottages, patient horses - made popular Christmas cards which can still be found at the bottom end of the Christmas card market. This financial success allowed Birkett Foster to help Palmer and others to move and so founded an artistic colony which was to persist there for years.

All this was possible because, whereas in earlier times artists had had to walk to sell to their London galleries, the railways could now bring them quickly to clients in Town and they could desert Lisson Grove. The romantic painters left Lisson Grove for a place which, because of its unusual geology, could offer a wide variety of different landscapes within a short walk of their own front doors. Samuel Parmer was to paint his more famous pictures here.


  1. As the second edition of this book went to press, Penelope Hughes-Hallett  published a book about this meal called `The Immortal Dinner', Viking, 1999.


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Updated February 3, 2011