Benjamin Williams Leader
by Paul Ripley
Worcestershire's leading artistic son. Leader was born Benjamin Leader Williams in Diglis in Worcester City in March 1831. His father was involved in the management of traffic on the River Severn, in those days before Great Britain developed the obsession with road transport, which has ultimately proved so mistaken. Williams senior knew and was a great admirer of John Constable, and himself was a keen amateur artist. Benjamin Leader Williams changed his name to Williams Leader, to distinguish himself from the legion of artists called Williams.
He attended the Royal Grammar School in the city, and studied in the evenings at Worcester School of Design. In 1854, following a number of years working for his father ( a mistake the writer made too), he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools. During his first year at the RA Schools, Leader had a painting in the Summer Exhibition, and, more importantly, sold it.
From the outset Leader's interest was in landscapes, his early work, in it's detailed painting and bright colours showing the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. Later in his career he gradually changed to a looser, less detailed style of painting. Unusually for the time he painted out of doors, if only at the initial stages of work on his pictures.
Leader was a typically industrious artist of the second half of the 19th century, a confirmed sufferer from the Victorian work ethic. He felt that his residence in Worcester made it more difficult to secure recognition by the RA. In truth he was very successful, but that success was always more marked with the public than the critics.
Leader married, in 1876, Mary Eastlake a niece of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, President of the Royal Academy in the mid 19th century. In 1883 he became ARA, and in 1898, at the age of sixty- seven a full Academician. In 1888 he had moved to Surrey, then a beautiful county close to London, and as a result much favoured by painters. Leader was masterly at painting winter scenes, with bare trees, and an atmosphere of bleakness, and cold the viewer can almost feel. His most famous painting of this type is February Fill-Dyke, now in Birmingham Art Gallery. In 1914 he became a Freeman of the City of Worcester. Leader exhibited three paintings at the RA in 1922, at the age of ninety-one years, an indefatigable worker to the last.
Should any reader wonder why this short biography is more comprehensive than some more celebrated painters, I live near Worcester. I would like to acknowledge the debt this piece owes to the catalogue and notes of the exhibition in the City Museum & Art Gallery of Worcester, signed by Deborah Green.OBITUARY
The Worcester Herald, Saturday March 24th 1923.
We regret to announce the death, which took place at Burrows Cross, Gomshall, Surrey, on Thursday of Mr Benjamin Williams Leader RA, who celebrated his 92nd birthday on the 12th March.
Mr Leader was a painter of great repute, his landscapes, which had a peculiar beauty of their own, being great favourites with collectors. He had sent paintings to the Royal Academy for 70 years, and among his best works were charming Worcestershire scenes.
The dead artist was the son of Mr E Leader Williams, and his education was received at the Royal Grammar School Worcester, the Worcester School of Design, and the Royal Academy Schools. He was a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. The Freedom of the City of Worcester was conferred on him in 1914. HIS FIRST SUCCESS.
Mr Leader once confessed that he had never had any satisfaction to equal that of the sale of his first picture Cottage Children Blowing Bubbles.
Perhaps one reason for that feeling was that it meant his father giving his consent to enable him to follow art as a career, and in that way it practically decided the whole of his future life.
Mr Williams, his father, was the engineer to the Severn Navigation Commissioners, and at one time was anxious that Leader should follow his own profession. It is worth noting, however, that the future famous artist's father was an amateur artist and a friend of Constable. For the subject of his first Royal Academy picture, Leader selected a cottage with some children playing in the foreground, and in order to make studies for every detail, he used to walk three miles to sketch the particular cottage he had selected. In the same way he made careful studies for the trees and background, and the various objects in the foreground, and used his younger brothers and sisters as models for the children. He then painted his picture, which, in due course as sent to the RA. He had put a price of £50 on it, and it was bought before the exhibition ended by an American.
From the point of view of the public, however, his first success was with February Fill Dyke.
It attracted a good deal of attention at the RA, and the Chantry Fund wanted it, but it was already sold, and the buyer refused to part with it.
At the time he painted it the young artist was living in Whittington.
It was this picture, and In the evening of time it will be light,
that lead to him being elected ARA.
It is impossible to give a brief list of best-known canvases. Those which he painted in his native county of Worcestershire are mostly on the same general lines. He was particularly careful to gain an effective sky-line with his groups of trees arranged nearly always on a pyramidical plan, so that the largest shapes were near the place he intended to be the focus of sight, according to the distance at which they were intended to stand in the landscape. This general scheme is well exemplified in the paintings already named, and in The Ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
and in the Worcester Cathedral,
under the shadow of which almost he was born. In the later case the Cathedral tower is the apex of the sky- line. He was fond of the reflections of the evening sky upon water, and if no river was at hand the wet ruts in a flooded field would serve the purpose of carrying the light of the sky to the foreground.
Source: Victorian Art in Britain