Biography of Lord Frederick Leighton by Paul Ripley

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Biography of Lord Frederick Leighton

by Paul Ripley

Published Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Frederic Leighton was born on the 31st December 1830 in Scarborough, Yorkshire, a town this writer has known and liked all his life. He was the son of a medical man Frederic Septimus Leighton (1799-1892), and his wife Augusta Susan Nash, daughter George Augustus Nash of Edinburgh. His paternal grandfather was Sir James Boniface Leighton (1769-1843), who had been physician to two Tsars of Russia, Alexander I, and Nicholas I. Alexandra Leighton, the elder sister of Frederic, was the goddaughter of the Tsarina of the same name. The Russian Imperial connections of James Leighton had made him financially independent, and on his death his son inherited this fortunate position.

Frederic Septimus then promptly retired, due some reports say to his increasing deafness, and others due to the delicate health of his wife. The Leighton family then embarked on a peripatetic life around Europe lasting almost twenty years. Initially they stayed in Paris, then moved to Germany, followed by Italy. Leighton, throughout his life, like that other cosmopolitan artist J. W. Waterhouse , loved, and was influenced by Italian art and culture. Young Leighton was a natural linguist, and was soon fluent in French, German, and Italian. 1842
Berlin Academy of Art
In 1842, he enrolled in the Berlin Academy of Art, having been economical with the truth about his age. He followed this with a period of artistic instruction in Frankfurt.

Early 1840s
Move to Florence ¶ Servolini ¶ Hiram Powers
The family then moved to Florence, where young Leighton - it seems odd to call him Fred - had further artistic tuition, and doubtless was fascinated by the artistic greatness around him. He received instruction from, amongst others, Servolini, and the American sculptor Hiram Powers . Powers it was who famously on being asked by Leighton senior if his son should become an artist, replied "that Nature had made him one already", adding he may "go as far as he wishes." It is interesting to speculate if Leighton's own interest in sculpture as a tool in the preparation of his paintings, and as an artistic end in itself, was a result of his relationship with Powers. The move to Italy had been prompted by the political instability in the German states in the mid 1840s, the situation which also caused the emigration of the parents of Hubert Herkomer . 1849
Return to Frankfurt ¶ Apprenticeship to Steinle
In 1849, the Leighton family felt the social unrest had subsided sufficiently to allow them to return to Frankfurt. Here the young artist embarked on three years rigorous study under the guidance of Johan Edward Steinle (1810-1886). He benefited from both the stability of this time, and the instruction from Steinle, whom he always referred to afterwards as his master, and who remained his confidant until his death.

Return to London ¶ The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace ¶ Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In 1851, the Leighton family returned to London, and, visited that seminal Victorian event The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. The Leighton parents must have felt the need for a base in England, because they bought a house in Bath. Young Fred, then twenty-one years old, was by now sufficiently independent, to return to Italy on his own. Initially he stayed in Rome, where it seems he was not happy. It was at this time that he met Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who became lifelong friends, and even more importantly Adelaide Sartoris an attractive sophisticated older woman who became his greatest friend and mentor. Leighton became part of an extensive artistic circle, including Thackeray (William Makepiece Thackeray 1811-1863 novelist and satirist), George Sand (nom de plume of Armandine Lucile Aurore Dupin 1804-1878 pioneer feminist, writer, and mistress of Chopin), George Hemming Mason (1818-1872 landscape painter), Mrs Kemble, Gérôme (1824-1904 historical genre painter), and Bouguereau (Adolphe-William Bouguereau 1825-1905 the great nineteenth century French painter, and opponent of Impressionism).

It was at this time that Leighton started work on his famous picture Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna, which first brought him to the attention of the art-loving public. It also showed many characteristics of his art which persisted until the end of his life. The picture was meticulously planned, highly finished, skillfully painted, showed great talent in composition, and was very static. 1855
First great success ¶ Queen Victoria buys Cimabue
It was shown at the RA exhibition in 1855, when concern about its size was expressed by the Hanging Committee - it is over 17 feet long (520.5 cm). It was bought by Queen Victoria, at the prompting of Prince Albert, for 600 guineas making an auspicious start to the painter's career. Leighton did not regard the Queen's purchase in an entirely favourable light, feeling that it would provoke a reaction from the critics, and he was proved right. The following year his exhibits at the Academy exhibition received a severe mauling from the art press, and for a few years he was unable to repeat his initial success. In 1858 Leighton showed The Fisherman and the Syren. This painting is another expression of the femme fatale theme found so compelling by nineteenth century English artists. It is notable for another reason. It is the only Leighton nude I have seen which could be described as erotic. The Syren is beautiful, with glowing flesh tones and a very sexy figure - to lapse in to modern day vernacular. The painting is in Bristol City Art Gallery.

Death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In 1861 Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at her home in Florence, to the great distress of her famous husband who asked Leighton to design her tomb, in the Cimiterio Accatolico. It is very handsome monument to a great human being. Should any of our visitors wish to have a look at it, the tomb may be seen on

Early 1860s
Friendship with G. F. Watts
In the early 1860s Leighton met Ruskin , and G. F. Watts who painted his portrait on a number of occasions, less than convincingly I think - than the artists' self-portrait in the Uffizi Gallery which is much superior. This I find surprising as, for instance, Watt's portrait of Edward Burne-Jones is superb. Watts and Leighton became close friends, and remained so until the latter's death. At this time the painter, as well as keeping up his busy working life, travelled extensively in Europe and the Near East, mainly alone, but sometimes with Adelaide Sartoris. 1864
Associate of the Royal Academy
In 1864 he became Associate of the Royal Academy. Two years later Leighton moved from his previous residence at 2 Orme Square, Bayswater, to Leighton House, which was designed for him by George Aitcheson RA, though the artist himself supervised the construction of the house.

12 Holland Park Road, London, W14 8LZ

Open daily from 10.00 am to 5.30 pm, except Tuesdays

Trip to Egypt
Some of the pictures he painted in the 1860s are amongst the most accomplished things he did, for instance the smaller decorative ones, like the Odalisque. In 1868 Leighton made a further visit to Egypt, followed by a tour of the country in the company of Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) the originator, and the prime mover in the construction of the Suez Canal. In 1870 the Winter Exhibitions of Old Masters commenced at the Royal Academy mainly at the instigation of Leighton. Throughout the 1870s Leighton continued to work relentlessly, and to live an extremely active life. 1873
Return to Egypt
In 1873 he, once more, traveled to Egypt, and, perhaps as a result of this, there followed a number of Orientally-inspired pictures, including The Egyptian Slinger and The Moorish Garden. He had also collected some Persian tiles, which were the inspiration for the famous Arab Hall at Leighton House.

Elected President of the Royal Academy
In 1878, Sir Francis Grant , the President of the Royal Academy, and emphatically not an admirer of our man died. Frederic Leighton, aided amongst others by his friend the Prince of Wales, was elected the new President, a role he was to hold for the next eighteen years. 1879
Death of lifelong friend Adelaide Sartoris
In 1879 Adelaide Sartoris died, a considerable blow for the artist, but she had lived to see her protégé achieve the leading role in English art. In the early 1880s the painter met Ada Alice Pullen, a cockney girl who was attempting to support herself and her younger sisters by working as an artists' model. Leighton was very fond of Dorothy Dene the (stage name of Ada Pullen), and painted many pictures using her as his model throughout the 1880s. Her sisters Edith Ellen, Henrietta Sarah (Hetty), and Isabell Helena (Lena), also sat to him. Dorothy had aspirations to a career as an actress, which the painter did his best to assist, but she was not successful. Leighton used to visit these pretty, vivacious sisters in their small home, and this must have provided a welcome relief from his classical paintings, ceremonial and administrative duties the RA, and high profile social life. George Bernard Shaw knew the artist and his favourite model, and there has been speculation that they provided the inspiration for Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.

The Daphnephoria

c.1874-c.1876 | Oil on canvas | Lady Lever Art Gallery

Death of his father
From the early 1890s Leighton's health gradually started to decline, though his artistic standards did not deteriorate. His father 1892 died in his ninety third year. In truth the PRA had travelled, painted, worked and lived at a frenetic pace for many years, and was now having to pay the price for a life lived in such a way. 1895
Leighton's health declines
At the beginning of 1895, his health deteriorated further, and the heart condition angina was diagnosed. A restful holiday in a warm climate was the treatment recommended by his doctors. In the absence of the President his duties were assumed by his old friend Sir John Millais, unhappily himself no longer enjoying the robust health which had been such a feature of his life. Leighton was, unfortunately, chronically hyper-active and unable to live life at a slower pace. In the Summer he returned to London and his duties at Burlington House. In the early Autumn, he set off on his travels again, going first to Worcester, where he stayed for a few days, then taking the ferry to Ireland. From Dublin he went to Killarney, and then up the West Coast to Donegal. This does not sound very restful to me. It is also to be remembered that he took the tools of his profession with him, and in 1998, an oil sketch of a Head of a Girl painted during this holiday was sold at Sotheby's. I say a sketch, but it is an exuberant production of a talented artist enjoying the handling of paint.

Ennoblement ¶ Death
On January 1st 1896, it was announced that Sir Frederic Leighton was to be ennobled as Baron Leighton of Stretton. His patent bore the date January 24th, and on the afternoon of Saturday 25th January he died at Leighton House after a few days of extreme pain and distress which had ultimately made the use of Morphine necessary. He was, therefore, only a peer for one day. With him at the end were his sisters Alexandra, Mrs Orr Sutherland, and Augusta Mrs Matthews, as well as his great friend Val Prinsep RA .

The Man

Frederic Leighton was one of the great Victorians, more so than any other artist. He was immensely industrious, he was a skilled painter, he was a sculptor, and he was a linguist, who spoke at least five languages fluently. Underneath the suave assured exterior dwelt a rather nervous, insecure, being. He was a very solitary man. His friend the Prince of Wales described him as "touchy." His father had not been sympathetic, and withheld approval of his distinguished son's considerable achievements. Perhaps this is an explanation of his relentless addiction to work. It made him, though, very sympathetic and supportive of young artists, whom he often helped financially out of his own pocket. He gave to others the approval and encouragement that had been denied to him. Leighton was a skilled manager and was, for instance heavily involved in the construction and planning of Leighton House. His expertise and shrewdness in the management of his finances had made him independent early in his career. He was also very good-looking, immaculately tailored, and of course highly successful. Such a man cannot be universally liked, and thus it was with Leighton - Sir Francis Grant loathed him, and George du Maurier heartily disliked him. But considering his pre-eminence he did not have many enemies, and his kindness and generosity of spirit was widely recognised.

President of the Royal Academy

There is an old adage "Cometh the hour, cometh the man" which could have been written about Leighton in this context. He was the President of the RA at its zenith, the twenty years or so when art had an importance and prestige in national life it had never enjoyed before, and has never enjoyed since. The artist, with his patrician looks and splendid presence, was ideally fitted for the ceremonial aspect of this role. Functionally he was highly competent. A piece written shortly after his death states that he was punctual, almost to a fault, tactful, energetic, and socially adept. He was also highly principled, and scrupulously fair. It is well-known that he had great personal sympathy and respect for the work of Albert Joseph Moore and felt that his exclusion from the RA was a great mistake, but his position as PRA made it impossible for him to give Moore the endorsement to assist him.

Leighton was also a good administrator, and skilled financial manager. He was a zealous representative of the RA and its interests. He delivered eight biennial addresses to students between 1879 and one 1893, about the history, background, and practice of their craft. I do not doubt that these addresses would be very ornate and verbose by the standards of our time, but they will have required an enormous amount of work, and, incidentally, have been fundamentally wise and instructive. It is interesting to note that Edward Poynter , who worked with him for many years at the Academy, hero-worshipped him.

Leighton and Millais

Meeting with Thackeray in Rome
When William Thackeray, met the young Fred Leighton in Rome in 1851, he sent a highly prophetic letter to Millais in which he wrote that "I have met in Rome a versatile young dog who will run you hard for the presidentship one day."

In the event, as history shows us, not only did he run Millais close, he outran him altogether. Yet Millais, the older man by a year, who had established himself as a leading artist before Leighton, did not, throughout the latter's eighteen years as President show any resentment, referring to him as a "dear good fellow." I have found this intriguing for a considerable time now, and attempt to offer some explanation for it.

Millais was a craftsman and not an intellectual, and was, I suspect, well aware of this. He would not have had the administrative skills to have done such a competent job in the role of PRA. I do not think that he would have relished the committee work, and the need to act as a politician. He was a direct, blunt, and breezy Englishman (though in reality more French!). His habit of taking three-month holidays in the Autumn in Scotland, would have been restricted by his duties as President. Millais was also one of the most successful portrait painters of the day, and earned very large sums of money as a result. Yet again duties at the RA would have restricted his freedom.

When, eventually, following the death of Leighton, Millais became PRA, he was already terminally ill, and for a few short months acted as a figurehead. His election was a tribute, by the Academicians to a popular man and a great artistic career. I suspect that John Everett Millais was very grateful, that Leighton beat him to the position of President of the Royal Academy.


Leighton was knighted in 1878 on his appointment as President of the Royal Academy. He was then created a baronet in 1886. NB. A baronet is a knight whose title is hereditary. I recently read of a Leighton painting of considerable value found in the United States. 1886
It was badly in need of cleaning, and the American family who owned it could just make out the signature Bart, which not unreasonably, they thought was the name of the painter. In fact the signature will show, when cleaned, F. Leighton Bart, as Bart is a shortened version of baronet. He was also President of the international jury of painting for the Paris Exhibition of 1878. 1879
Honorary LLD of Cambridge University, DCL Oxford, LLD Edinburgh
He was Honorary LLD of Cambridge University, DCL Oxford, LLD Edinburgh all in 1879. Leighton was an honorary member of too many foreign art bodies to mention here.



  • The Leighton family originated in Shropshire.
  • He was a non-smoker and non-drinker.
  • His studio sale was held in July 1896, and there was considerable competition for his landscape studies, amongst other things.
  • His elder sister Mrs Alexandra Orr Sutherland (1828-1903), was a considerable intellectual in her own right, and wrote and edited the Life and Letters of Robert Browning.
  • He was a sympathetic friend to the Jewish community in England.
  • He was an excellent pianist and singer.
  • He was in favour of women being admitted to the ranks of Academicians and Associates.



Leighton himself did not think that he was a great painter. He said "Thank goodness I was never clever at anything." He may or may not have been a great painter, but he was extremely clever at most things. [ Most Victorian scholars today consider him one of perhaps 8 to 10 from the period who will ultimately be considered on a par with the all time greats from prior centuries. - Ed ] Leighton was a creator of beautiful pictures, some of them, for instance Flaming June, masterpieces, and among the most memorable images of the nineteenth century. His smaller decorative works of the 1860s which he regarded as unimportant, were often immaculately painted, and very beautiful.

Throughout his career he produced many small pictures of the heads of young women, which bring high prices today, and deservedly so. He was a portrait painter of outstanding gifts, his picture of Sir Richard Burton coming immediately to mind. The large classical paintings which he himself would have regarded as the very core of his achievement are sometime less successful, but two of them And The Sea Gave Up the Dead Which Were In It and The Garden of The Hesperides are masterpieces. His gorgeous picture Mother and Child gives the lie to the belief that he was unable to express emotion and tenderness in his paintings. He was, I think, the ultimate Renaissance man. With his intelligence, principles, and capacity for hard work, he would have been a great success in any area of public life. Frederic Leighton, Prime Minister, does not stretch the imagination.

Frederic Leighton as well as being the leading figure in English art in the second half of the nineteenth century was one of the greatest Englishmen of his time.


The Times, Monday 27th, 1896.

Death of Lord Leighton

We announce with deep regret the death of Lord Leighton, President of the Royal Academy, which took place on Saturday afternoon at his residence, 2 Holland Park Road Kensington.

Early last year Sir Frederic Leighton, as he then was, saw his friend Dr Lander Brunton, and subsequently Sir William Broadbent, in association with his usual medical attendant, Dr Roberts for some heart affection. He was with some difficulty dissuaded from presiding at the Academy dinner, and went abroad to Algeria. Since then, though frequently suffering attacks of pain, he continued to fulfil most of his numerous appointments. Last Monday he caught a slight cold, but seemed fairly to have recovered, when, on Thursday morning severe symptoms set in suddenly, and Dr Roberts and Dr Lander Brunton were early in attendance. On Thursday evening pain and heart distress became very severe, and Dr Barton sat by his bedside all night. The pain and difficulty in breathing increasing it was decided in the early hours of Friday morning to administer morphia, which greatly relieved him; and after some hours quiet sleep he woke so much relieved that some hope of recovery was entertained. The pain was incessant all Friday, but was partially relieved by morphia, and even then hope was not abandoned. Dr Barton again remained with him all Friday night, and undertook the nursing, but on Saturday morning a change for the worse set in, and the gravest fears were entertained. About noon it became evident that the end was fast approaching, the pain and distress becoming intense, and he passed away a few hours later, the last moments being free from pain, due to the merciful administration of chloroform. At his bedside were his two sisters, Mrs Matthews and Mrs Sutherland Orr, Dr Barton, Mr Prinsep RA , and his intimate friend Mr S. Pepys Cockerell. To them he uttered almost his last words, 'Love to the Academy and all its members.'

To the public at large Lord Leighton's death will have come as a painful shock. It was hoped that he had fully recovered from his illness of last Spring - a hope that seemed to be confirmed by his recent visits to the Royal Academy on the occasion of the students prize-giving on December 11 and at a private Academy dinner on the last day of the year, when he was able to announce that the Queen had honoured him with the offer of a peerage. It was understood a day or two later that he would take the title Lord Leighton. He attended also a meeting of the council of the Academy as lately as the 9th of this month; and he has frequently appeared and chatted with friends at the Athenaeum Club, a favourite resort of his in the afternoon.

The news of Lord Leighton's death was telegraphed to the Queen by officials of the Royal Academy, and her Majesty has telegraphed a message of condolence to Lord Leighton's sisters.

Messages of sympathy and condolence were left at Lord Leighton's home throughout yesterday. A telegram was sent by the Prince of Wales. The callers included Mr F. A. Eaton secretary to the Royal Academy, Sir Frederick Burton , Mr Walter Ouless RA , Mr Colin Hunter ARA, and Mrs Hunter, Mr Philip Calderon RA , Colonel Ellis who succeeded the late Lord Leighton in the command of the 20th Middlesex (Artist's) Rifle Volunteers, Mr John Sargent ARA , Mr Frampton ARA , Mr Harry Bates ARA and Mrs Bates, Mr and Mrs C. E. Perugini , Sir Nathaniel Staples and Mr J. R. Ponsonby Staples , Mr George W. Joy , Mr G. Henschel, Mr W. E. Lockhart RSA, Mr John Leighton, Mr and Mrs Arthur Lucas, Mr Seymour Lucas ARA, and Mrs Lucas, Mr Alfred East , Mr and Mrs Arthur James Lewis, Lieutenant Stanley Clarke (20th Middlesex), Mr Kiallmark, and Mr Charlie W. Wyllie.

It is true in a sense, that art is of no particular country; but in the present case, while the whole world of art is the poorer for the loss of Lord Leighton, England especially has to mourn for one of her most distinguished men. No other artist of the Victorian age has done better work, has been better known in the world, or has filled a larger space in the eyes of the public. The Presidency of the Academy gave him a public position; but he was already eminent more than a quarter of a century ago, when Lord Beaconsfield, introducing a great artist into his novel Lothair, portrayed most of Leighton's most remarkable features, and to some extent characterised his genius. He had, indeed, very various gifts, and excelled in so many directions as to almost convey the impression that painting was less the business of his life than an incidental accomplishment. 'Paints too,' was the epigrammatic remark of one of his brother artists; and Sir John Millais presiding, in Leighton's absence, at last year's annual Academy dinner spoke of him with equal truth and compliment as 'our admirable Leighton - painter, sculptor, orator, linguist, musician, soldier, and above all, a dear good fellow.' As Sir John Millais's epithet suggests he was a Crichton among painters, a follower not of one muse but of many, a man whose insight into all forms of art raised him above other artists of his time. The Academy, moreover, which admired him for those reasons owes much to him for his fidelity to its interests, and for his great efficiency as its President. He had courtesy, tact, and sympathy; a fine presence, and much personal distinction. His pictures spoke for themselves; but his biennial addresses to the students of the Academy, elaborate the results of learning and observation, proved his knowledge of arts other than his own. Whenever it was necessary for him to appear in public, either as the representative of British art, or as spokesman of his fellow Academicians, he played his part with a happy mixture of dignity and vivacity. At the annual dinners of the Academy his speeches, optimistic as they were, and somewhat florid, were never commonplace, but expressed even well-worn sentiments with verbal novelty. They were essentially speeches of an artist - as, for instance, when he said of Linnell that "on his canvas the drowsy reaper nods beneath the sheaf, the shepherd pipes and watches, the new-felled timber strews the ground or strains the wagon's aching wheel." In this, as in many other passages that might be quoted, the artist does not for a moment forget art, but only exchanges one mode of expression for another. Here is the true artistic instinct, many-sided and appreciative, and based on a general sense of beauty that might easily have made him a poet or an architect as well as a painter and sculptor.

But life as the truism has it, is short, and Leighton's life though full and energetic, was not even relatively long. He was born at Scarborough in December 1830, the son of Mr Frederick Septimus Leighton by a daughter of Mr G. A. Nash. His grandfather Sir James B. Leighton was physician to the Empress of Russia and chief of the Medical Department of the Imperial Navy. His father, also was a physician, but, in consequence of his wife's ill-health, relinquished his practice and lived and traveled on The Continent. Young Leighton's talent for drawing showed itself at a very early age, and was so far encouraged that when the family were in Paris in 1839, he received a few lessons from the well-known George Lance. The next winter or two were spent in Rome, where the boy had drawing lessons from Fillipo Meli. Then came visits to Dresden and Berlin, and more art teaching, and a longer stay for the purposes of general education at Frankfurt-on-the-Main. It was at Florence in the winter of 1846, that his father yielding to young Leightons wishes allowed him to make art his profession. Hiram Powers , the American sculptor was consulted by Mr Leighton. 'Your son,' said he 'may be as eminent as he pleases.' 'Shall I make him an artist?' asked the father. 'No, nature has made done it for you,' and accordingly an artist he became. The gifts of nature, however, were supplemented by a variety of good training at Paris, Frankfurt, and Brussels. At Brussels the artist painted his first serious picture Cimabue finding Giotto drawing in the fields At Frankfurt he spent several years under the tuition of R. Steinle , Professor of Historical Painting in the Academy. The Death of Brunellesco, is an early work belonging to this period. Three winters in Rome followed, in the course of which he painted his first great work, Cimabue and his Friends and Scholars at Florence accompanying his picture of the Madonna to the church of Santa Maria Novella. This was in the RA of 1855, and was bought by the Queen. From that time Leighton never failed to secure admission to exhibitions of the Academy, but began a long series of successes. The Triumph of Music, The Fisherman and the Siren, and Romeo and Juliet, - all of them at the RA - were the work of the next four years, which were spent mostly in Paris. Capri - Sunrise, recalls a visit to the island in 1859. Paolo and Francesca, and The Star of Bethlehem, bring us to 1864, in which year he was made an Associate of the RA. Soon afterwards he made a long tour in Spain, and on his return settled in London, in Holland Park Road.

Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis

Oil on canvas, 132.4 x 265.4 cm
Wadsworth Atheneum | Hartford | United States

From this period date the majority of his important works - works that not only brought him the success in the material sense of the word, but also proved to his countrymen that they had among them a great classical artist. The sensation, perhaps, was novel, for our great artists had usually been distinctively British and indigenous and lost little or nothing of their nationality in their treatment in their treatment of classical subjects. But here was an Englishman striking a true classical note, and not lured into mere archeology, but going on from strength to strength till at last his art seemed to culminate in The Daphnephoria. In this great picture, which is comparable only to Cimabue, of 20 years before, the artist shows a long and admirably grouped and animated procession of young men and maidens to the Temple of Apollo at Thebes. It has like others of Leighton's works, a decorative background of dark pines and cedars, and in the multitude of its figures it contains not one that is not drawn with the utmost grace of line. The public, no doubt, felt the force of the maxim Omni ignotum pro maginifico, and admired without appreciation; but that did not signify, for the work-it was nearly 20 ft long-was a private commission, and was painted for the country house of Mr Stewart Hodgson. This was in 1876; but the preceding ten years had been rendered notable by such works as Venus Unrobing, Daedalus and Icarus, Electra, Clytemnaestra, Eastern Slinger, and Hercules wrestling with Death for the body of Alcestia, which was one of the pictures of the year in 1871, and one of the best ever painted by Leighton; it had the honour of being referred to by Browning in his poem Balaustion's Adventure. But the Eastern Slinger, is, on the whole, the most classical, as it is certainly the most statuesque and the most virile. The slinger, it will be remembered stands on a platform raised in the middle of a standing cornfield. He is all but nude, and is in the act of discharging his sling against a bird. In the distance, on another low platform, is a second man scaring birds in the same way, but the whole interest of the drawing centres on the drawing of the chief figure.

The personal event of these ten years was the election of the artist as a full Academician in 1868, an honour as certain as it was well-deserved. In 1879 the death of Sir Francis Grant, the portrait painter deprived the Academy of its President. The loss was great, for Sir F. Grant had the social as well as the professional qualifications it was desirable to find in his successor. No one was surprised when the vacant office was bestowed on Leighton. The singular efficiency with which he performed the various and onerous duties of his post has already been referred to. It is entertaining to recall - as Sir J. Millais did at last year's annual dinner - the words in which Thackeray prophesied half in joke young Leighton's coming eminence: 'Millais my boy, I've met the most versatile young dog you ever heard of. His name's Leighton, and if you don't mind he'll run you hard for the presidentship some day.' The honour of a knighthood in the same year was a matter of course, and a baronetcy followed in 1886, the peerage only having been bestowed on the first day of the present year.

It may be that the Daphnephoria of 1876 remains an unsurpassed example of Leighton's pictures, but not a year has since passed without at least one memorable work from his easel. Among them will be specially remembered the large and imaginative Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite, Elijah in the Wilderness, also on a large scale; The Light of the Harem, Phryne at Eleusis, and in the last Academy Exhibition Lachrymae, and Flaming June. These, of course, were all of them at the Academy. At The Grosvenor Gallery, besides some charming sketches of Damascus, the record of an Eastern tour, were a good many of his minor pictures, and some of his portraits, Mrs Algernon Sartoris, for instance, and Miss Stewart Hodgson. But his portraits, able as they were, were not numerous. We may mention chiefly his own portrait, a full face, painted by himself, for the collection at the Uffizi; Professor G. Costa; Sir E. Ryan; Countess Brownlow; Captain Burton, 1876, an extremely fine head, almost in profile; Lady Sybil Primrose.

These works, the few that we have named to say nothing of the minor pictures that came from his studio and the mass of sketches and studies that remained in it, would surely be enough for a longer life than Leighton's. But so various was his activity that besides all this, besides his official and literary work in connection with the Academy, he found or made time for sculpture, for fresco-painting, for traveling, for society, for public speeches, and for Volunteering. He was one of the earliest members of the Artists' Rifle Corps and subsequently its colonel; and he took a deep interest in its welfare and efficiency. As might be gathered from his active interest in the Volunteer movement, Leighton though formed on Greek and Italian rather than English art, was an ardent patriot. He also took an interest in the larger issues of politics; he was a member of the original Liberal Unionist Association in 1886; and rejoiced in the last days of his life, in the spirit shown by the country under menace from the East and West, and in the determination universally shown to increase our defensive preparations. On so popular a man honours fell quite naturally. His genius was recognised in this country by the Presidency of the Academy and a baronetcy, which latter honour was merged for little more than three weeks in the only peerage that has ever been awarded to an English painter. The Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh gave him the honorary degree of DCL, and LLD. In France he was a Knight of the Legion of Honour, and in 1878, President of the International Jury of Painting at the Paris Exhibition. As Lord Leighton died unmarried the baronetcy and peerage become extinct. The honours that were showered on him only ratified the opinion of him formed by his friends in all classes, from the Royal to the Bohemian, to whom he was endeared by his many social qualities, his buoyant and cheerful spirit, his ready sympathy, his unfailing generosity - specially manifested towards the young and struggling artists - and, we may perhaps add, his striking personal beauty, which yet had nothing effeminate or unmanly about it.

The Daphnephoria

Oil on canvas
226 x 518 cms | 883/4 x 2033/4 ins
Lady Lever Art Gallery | Merseyside | United Kingdom

Anything like a complete estimate of Lord Leighton's work, in relation to contemporary art, would not be possible in an obituary notice, nor perhaps, would it be appropriate. It is the artist whom we have lost, and not his works; and it seems, therefore, more proper to record the outlines of his career than to discuss his pictures. These may be left to the secure judgment of the future. But this much, at least, must be said of them, that for a variety of reasons they gave him a position apart from his brother artists, and in some respects above them. He belonged to no English school of painting, was influenced little, if at all, by English art and English traditions, and, as far as we can see, has left behind him admirers only and no disciples. Much of his strength came from what may be called, not invidiously, the un-English qualities of his art. He drew his inspiration mainly from Greece and the Italian Renaissance, and thus learned the importance of dignity of form and line and consummate drawing. He had also a fine natural sense of colour, and was fond of such harmonies of white and gold and purple and red as appear for example in The Vestal, Whispers, and The Music Lesson. But drawing was his delight, and not least the drawing of drapery, which he always accomplished in a most careful and learned manner, studying the every figure first in the nude, and every fold of drapery separately. Many of his studies, in chalk on tinted paper, are harming proofs of his thoroughness and industry. And as with drapery so with the nude human figure in all its attitudes; it was something more than the Paris life-school and anatomical studies at Rome that enabled him to render repose, activity, and violent exertion with the facility and truth of Greek art. His figures departed little from the classical ideal, and may sometimes have lost interest what they gained by being "faultily faultless but their beauty and the artist's mastery of drawing and colour are beyond dispute. And if, in consequence of the remoteness of his subjects, he rarely touched the heart, it must be admitted that in his handling of them he was frequently original and romantic. His great picture of 1892, And the Sea gave up the Dead which were in it, is sufficient proof of this, without further argument.

It should be remembered that Leighton was not alone a painter in oil colours. Water colour he seldom employed, and unlike other artists, he hardly ever illustrated a book - Romola, we believe is the only instance; but he also worked in fresco, and added sculpture to his other achievements. His best known frescos are the two large lunettes at the South Kensington Museum, representing respectively war and peace. It is a pity that there is no attainable point of view from which they can properly be seen. Another of his frescoes is the altar-piece at Lyndhurst Church, which was painted almost entirely in the course of hasty Saturday afternoon visits to that village in 1866. The subject is the Wise and Foolish Virgins, decoratively treated, and full of fine grouping and drapery. More important, and more surprising, are Leighton's excursions into the field of sculpture, "The Kindred Art" is the usual phrase, though, in truth, the aims and method of the sculptor are absolutely unlike those of the painter. The production, therefore, of two such works as Athlete Struggling with a Python, in 1876, and the Sluggard, of 1886 is a proof of remarkable versatility. The contrast too, is equally remarkable. The former which is Leighton's representative in the Chantry Gallery at South Kensington, is the very embodiment of intense, muscular effort, and the uncertainty of issue gives it a strange dramatic interest; in the latter work every joint and sinew is relaxed, and the whole figure is a type of nerveless and sensuous inertness.

Much more might be, and will be written concerning the work of this great artist. We have attempted only to indicate its main features. It may be described summarily as idealistic, classical, and romantic, but not popular, except so far as all things of beauty have a limited popularity. He had no predecessors in English art, and leaves no one to succeed him. He was one of the very few men of whom it may be said, without exaggeration that his place cannot be filled.

My Comments

Should any one doubt the importance of the position of Lord Leighton in late Victorian art, this obituary will sweep all those doubts away. At the absolute zenith of the importance of art to the cultural and public life of the country he was its leading representative. Leighton, the man, seems almost to have been intentionally designed for this role. The combination of artistic talent, administrative skill, public relations expertise, presence, and handsome appearance made him the ideal President of the Royal Academy. In truth he was not universally liked, his predecessor Sir Francis Grant loathed him, as did George Du Maurier. The Prince of Wales described him as "prickly," but his generosity, both financially and artistically in helping younger and less fortunate artists more than made up for any shortcomings. The mental picture of Leighton taking tea with Dorothy Dene and her cheerful cockney sisters in their small house is an appealing one. Millais, who should have been one of his main rivals, was very fond of him, and Poynter his successor, hero-worshipped him.

Just beneath Leighton's obituary in The Times of Monday January 27th 1896 the following notice appeared. I reproduce it without comment, as no comment is necessary.

Yesterday afternoon Dr Adler, the Chief Rabbi, took part in the ceremony of laying the foundation-stone of an extension of the Hammersmith and West Kensington Synagogue at Brook Green. The stone was laid by Mr B. L. Cohen, M.P. The Chief Rabbi said that, while he was reluctant to introduce an element of sadness on an occasion of that kind, he was sure, that being an assembly of Englishmen, they could not meet together that day without adverting to the great and irreparable loss which the nation had suffered in the death of Lord Leighton. It was his privilege to make his acquaintance, when he was Sir Frederic Leighton, some 12 or 13 years ago, when he sat next to him at the opening of Parliament on the last occasion when the Queen performed the ceremony in person. It was, Sir Federic told him, the first occasion on which he had been present at the interesting ceremony. Since the acquaintance he had shown much kindness to the Jewish community, and only last year was a steward at the anniversary festival of the Jews Hospital, and he expressed his regret that his many engagements, just before the opening of the Royal Academy, prevented his being present on that occasion. Weightier voices than his would bear tribute to one who was so great an artist, inspired by the loftiest ideals. The colours of his canvas, as the periods of his eloquent orations, were always glowing with sunshine, beauty, and warmth of Italian skies. The country had of late suffered keen and great losses. Let the earnestly pray that the Almighty God would save and preserve them for a long period from losses so great and so keen as those which their country had had to deplore during the last few ...

Contemporary Comment - Lord Leighton

Private Views in the Artists' Studios - 1892.

Never before in the course of a long and busy career has the President of the Royal Academy sent so many works to the summer show at Burlington House as this year; and never, probably, have his exhibits been more characteristic of his many-sided genius.

We naturally deal with the most important picture first. The title which Sir Frederic Leighton has finally selected for this work is taken from the twentieth chapter of the Revelation "And the sea gave up the dead which were in it." It is, in a word, a vision of the Last Judgement. Three figures dominate the spacious canvas. In the centre is a man - the only living being of the group - who with his right arm supports his wife, while with his left he clasps his boy who clings with filial affection to his side. The three are being slowly drawn by some unseen mysterious all-compelling force from the depths of an inky and turbulent sea upwards. The man's eye is fixed upon the heavens, which are strangely troubled and filled with an unnatural light - "a dramatic sky," as the artist tersely and fittingly describes it - and it expresses hope tempered with fear. The interval between death and judgment is at an end; the soul has dawned; and filled with thoughts of his early career, the man gazes with awe upon the great white throne, whereupon sits the author of his being with the great book of Life. His wife still sleeps the sleep of death; but a certain warmth of colour in the limbs of the half naked boy indicates his rapid return to existence. Hard by the dominant group is a half risen corpse, whose arms are folded across the breast, and who is still clad in the cerements in which he was committed to the deep; while king and commoners are rising in the background. For "the dead, small and great," are to stand before God. The design for this picture was prepared some years ago, and it was originally intended for the decoration, in mosaic, of the dome of St Paul's. eight large circles were to be filled by Sir Frederic Leighton, and a number of smaller ones by Mr Poynter. The subjects - all Scriptural of course - were chosen by the Dean and Chapter, and this pictorial rendering by the President of the verse in the Revelation was actually "offered up." But the public did not warmly support the scheme; and it consequently fell through. When, however, Mr Tate approached Sir Frederic with the object of purchasing a picture for his collection, the artist at once thought of this design, which he regards as the best thing of the kind that he has ever done. Hence the picture which now hangs at Burlington House.

The picture from the same brush which hangs in the large gallery (No 111) is circular in form like the last-named, but smaller in size and of an entirely different character. This design is full of youth, and beauty; the colour is rich and warm - almost voluptuous. In the place of dead men rising from their graves we have the tree of life with its golden apples; for a rocky coast we have the beautiful Garden of Hesperides, with the purple ocean beyond. The three daughters of Atlas sit beneath a the wonderful tree, around the trunk of which is wound the body of a huge serpent. The girl in the centre, who is half-draped, caresses the scaly hide of the monster; her sister on the right sings to the accompaniment of a lyre; while the maiden on the left toys carelessly with the food which she holds in a bowl. The grace and serenity of the composition are eminently characteristic of the President's later manner.

We have spoken of the striking contrast that exists between the two works we have described. A Bacchante (257) and At The Fountain (156) are equally different in style and in treatment. The former portrays a dark-skinned damsel, full-blooded and keen to taste the delights of existence, who dances merrily along a beechen forest, her dappled fawn at her side. She appears intoxicated with the joy of living, gaily snaps her fingers at care and sorrow, and beats her tambourine with all the abandon of excited youth. The colouring of this picture is warm and intense - as well in the flesh tints as in the leopard skin which covers her body, and in the coronal of ivy leaves which binds her rich brown hair. At The Fountain, on the other hand shows us a young, pure, and tender girl, "in the maiden meditation, fancy free." Here the tones are limpid and soft, a delicate colour predominating. The sky is of a beautiful light-blue colour; the cool whiteness of the marble is accentuated by the fresh running water; and the palest of pale lemons hang on the wall.

We have left ourselves but little space to deal with Leighton's landscape (489) - in some respects as important a work as any that he has sent to this year's Academy. It represents a sunset - a remarkable sunset, and one which impressed him very much when he saw it in Ireland some years ago. Here again, we have what may best be described as "a dramatic sky." The simple title of this work is Clytie.

Our thanks go to Paul Ripley for kindly allowing us to quote these articles from his website, Victorian Art in Britain.