E. Blair Leighton - The Prominent Outsider by Kara Lysandra Ross

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E. Blair Leighton - The Prominent Outsider

Kara Lysandra Ross

Published Monday, August 22, 2011

Although the English artist Edmund Blair Leighton is rarely mentioned by name today, his paintings are widely recognized as icons of medieval legend and regency charm. Even during his lifetime, when his pictures sold for high prices, Blair Leighton remained firmly at the fringes of artistic fame. Ultimately though, he influenced his fellow artists and the modern day conception of chivalric imagery and romantic gesture. It is perplexing and significant, that despite his importance, his name has remained at the periphery of the public notice.

Edmund Blair Leighton was the second of three children born to Charles Blair Leighton (1823-1855) and the former Caroline Boosey. Strangely, even though every article and auction record published throughout his life and beyond states EBL was born September 21, 1853, his birth certificate clearly reads September 21, 1852 (not 1853). i.
A copy of which was kindly provided by his great granddaughter Amanda Davey, and was a certified copy from the Registry of Births.
i His father was an upcoming artist who had studied at the Royal Academy Schools. His chalk drawing of the prominent politician Joseph Hume entered the National Portrait Gallery early in the gallery's existence, where it still remains today. Charles' mother's maiden name was Blair and it was passed on to Charles as his middle name. However, it was later taken on by Caroline and given to all three of their children including Edmund, thereby becoming a sort of addition to the surname from Charles Blair Leighton down. Both father and son used it on their paintings in a similar manner, Charles signing C. Blair Leighton, and Edmund signing E. Blair Leighton.

Residing in the London neighborhood of Clerkewell at the time of Edmund's birth, Charles commuted to the successful business of Leighton Bros. Lithographers, which was located at 4 Red Lion square in nearby Bloomsbury. This was a location which attracted some very notable painters including Dante Gabriel Rossetti , William Morris and Deverell . Charles was a senior partner in the company along with two of his brothers John Leighton (1822-1912), and George Cargill Leighton (1826 -1895). Their firm was amongst the first to experiment with translating watercolor and oil pictures through the chromo-lithographic process. ii.
The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume XLIII New Series, by Sylvanus Urban, Gent. January to June 1855, London, John Bowyer Nichols and Sons. Page 657 Obituary.
ii Leighton Brothers was involved with countless illustrations until 1885 when it was bought-out by Vincent Brooks. Tragically, Charles died in 1855 at the young age of 31, leaving Edmund the "man of the family" at age three, with his older sister Fanny at age five, and his younger sister Nellie still in the womb. Caroline moved the family to Bedford Park and opened a boarding school for young ladies in Blenhiem Gardens. The school was quite successful and she was able to support her family. Caroline, believing a female boarding school was not a suitable environment for a growing boy, sent Edmund off to a boarding school in St. John's Wood. Sadly, he had a very difficult childhood where he was poorly fed and extremely unhappy. Even at such a young age he had already become an outsider, a small child from an upcoming prominent family in the art world, sent away as the only male child.

Although Blair Leighton enjoyed drawing from a young age, he was not able to pursue it as a career right away. Being an artist only pays well if one becomes well known for it and in life there are no guarantees. After he had finished his studies at the University Collage School where he attended class between 1864-1867, Blair Leighton was under a great deal of pressure from his mother and his uncle to pursue a career with a more stable and assured form of income in order to help support his mother and two sisters. Why he ended up working in the tea business instead of the family lithography with his uncles is unclear. It was only after a few years that he had saved up enough money to start taking night classes at the South Kensington School of Art. Later, he took some instruction at the Heatherley's School of Art before gaining entry to the five year program at the Royal Academy of Art School in 1874. The RA was Britain's most prestigious art education institution, where students were able to meet and study from the leading academicians of that time. To earn money for his classes he started working as an illustrator for the noted publisher Cassel and Co., as well as for such magazines as Harper's Baazar. In 1878 he became a member of the Langham Sketch Club, and in 1880 he served as its president. He continued attending the quarterly meetings until 1891 where the records show at the March 26 quarterly meeting his name crossed out with the words 'settled up' written over the top. iii.
The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume XLIII New Series, by Sylvanus Urban, Gent. January to June 1855, London, John Bowyer Nichols and Sons. Page 657 Obituary.
iii There is evidence to suggest he continued attending some sessions however through 1895. Although Blair Leighton was elected to The Royal Institute of Oil Painters in 1887, he was never voted in as an associate of the Royal Academy even though he was personally much adored by two of its presidents, Sir Frederick Lord Leighton , and Sir Frank Dicksee . It is revealing that in The Year's Art for 1893, E.B.L. is listed under "portraits of prominent outsiders", with his photograph appearing. iv.
Huish, Marcus B., The Year's Art, J. S. Virtue & Co., London, 1893. Picture appearing between page 80 and 81
iv

The Accolade
Oil on canvas, 1901
God Speed!
Oil on canvas, 1900

Edmund Blair Leighton hit his professional peek in and around 1900, painting his most famous works of God Speed, and The Accolade (1901). Both these works can be found in almost every poster shop around the world and can be seen on pillows, handbags, and numerous other accessories, permeating our culture as the epitome of our modern conception of medieval legend and romantic sentiment. God Speed portrays a beautiful maiden with golden hair flowing down to her waist. She is tying a red sash around her loves arm, literally a knight in shining armor, as he is about to ride off to war on his white steed. Such a sash was bestowed with the understanding that the knight must return it, reassuring both parties that they would be reunited. Very few paintings encapsulate with this strong a sense, the sensibilities of this genre; with the beautiful maiden, the knight in shining armor, the white steed, and the sense of immediate peril which threatens the subjects contentment. Few images of any date have impacted so deftly our modern-day imaginations of both chivalry and the Middle Ages.

The Request
Oil on canvas, 1892

When E. B. Leighton's paintings do not contain medieval imagery, for the most part, they are still very much about romance and the male-female interaction. Rather than being outwardly dramatic, they contain a quiet sense of beauty, capturing the subtle yet cherished moments of life. The Request painted in 1892 is about one such moment. A beautiful girl in a golden dress leans against a stone archway, nervously twisting a ribbon from her dress around her finger. Her gentleman caller, who also appears to be nervous, clutches his hat while he makes his request. What the request is the viewer cannot know for sure, but it is most definitely of an intimate nature. His face and half his body are hidden from view, giving the onlooker the sense that they are observing a private moment between the couple while simultaneously making the lovely maiden the focal point of the picture. The fence and thick foliage in the foreground also give a sense of separation. Though we are the viewers now, Blair Leighton was the original onlooker and it was his view. E.B.L.'s paintings place the viewer as he placed himself, the outsider, looking in on someone else's special, fleeting, moment in time.

Like John William Godward (1861-1922) and so many other successful artists of his time, Blair Leighton was born and raised in the heyday of one tradition of painting and died, rejected in another. Having outlived the popularity of their vision, these men and woman fell rapidly from commercial favor. Modernism was already taking hold at the turn of the century, and by 1913 it was so prevalent that in the critic Alfred Yockney's admiring monographic essay on Blair Leighton in the Christmas Art Annual of that year; he did not actually open with a discussion of E.B Leighton, but rather the perplexity with what was occurring in the art world. Yockney states: "It is peering too far into the future to see the day when unanimity will prevail in regard to the progress of art. It is as remote of the time of the merging of all creeds into one faith. Just as religious convictions differ, to the bewilderment of the people, so the citadel of art is held by many companies. There are jealousies within to assist the assaults of the Philistines from without, though from time to time the main issues have been confused the integrity of art as a living force has always been maintained... Much of the art of recent years should bear the mark of interrogation. Innumerable canvases have been covered with symbols yielding no direct appeal and many mysteries have been left to the specter for solution. Sometimes the task has been easy and sufficiently amusing, but the sequel to it has been a suspicion that the avowed purpose of art has been tampered with by introducing the elements of a missing-word composition. As often as not the problems cannot be unraveled. The painter's intentions if he had any are lost, and his printed explanations, for such there are usually, do not help to convince the beholder. It does not seem possible that permanent interest can be obtained from such work. Put forward as political humor it would have a legitimate claim to attention, but as it is shown and described with all seriousness it must risk the fate of obscurity. Many friends of art expect that it will meet its fate, but a few champions see a revolution in progress."v v.
Yockney, Alfred. The Art Annual: The Art of E. Blair Leighton, London Virtue & Co, Christmas 1913, introduction

Yockney is defending academician painting clearly knowing that the war between the academic and modern paradigms of art are not going well for E.B. Leighton or his associates. This is evident by his need to start off his essay by addressing the polar shift in the art world. Although Yockney believes his way of thought will still prevail, it is with great seriousness and concern that he makes his defense.

Edmund Blair Leighton did many of his smaller paintings during his summers in Norfolk where he leased a cottage called Kirby Green. It was on the estate of Kirby Manor and was located across the street from the old church at Kirby Cane. The porch, home, and garden were used in several of his paintings, including The Fate of the Rose, 1921. The Waveney River that runs through the area and down into Suffolk was also used with much frequency and much of the area surrounding as well. E.B. Leighton became ill shortly after World War I, and though he returned to Norfolk for two more summers, he was eventually confined to a chair. He continued to paint up to the end of his life, the last painting dated the year of his death. He died on September 1st, 1922, twenty-one days shy of his 70th birthday.

Alain Chartier
Oil on canvas, 1903

Today, when few art-historical surveys even acknowledge Blair Leighton or his academic peers, there is a large and growing population of collectors, scholars, and art experts who love and respect his work. There are many references to him or his paintings in modern works of literature both fictional and historical. For example, in the book Alain Chartier: The Quarrel of the Belle Dame Sans Mercy which is the foremost of works dedicated to the legendary medieval writer and poet, Joan E. McRae acknowledges the role of Blair Leighton's 1903 masterwork Alain Chartier in the revival of interest in this medieval poet: "The Pre-Raphaelite painting by Edmund Blair Leighton depicting the kiss has brought this legend of Alain Chartier into the modern imagination." vi.
McRae, Joan E. Alain Chartier: The Quarrel of the Belle Dame Sans Mercy; Taylor & Francis Books, Inc, Routledge, 2004, page 1
vi The painting of Alain Chartier is in the top 1% of his well known and widely recognized works. The legend of "the kiss", as McRae calls it, is of the French queen, Marguerite of Scotland, kissing the sleeping Alain Chartier. Supposedly, as legend has it, she came across him while he was sleeping and gently kissed him on the lips. When one of her followers criticized her for doing this she replied, "I did not kiss the man, but only his precious mouth, from which have issued so many witty words and virtuous remarks." vii.
McRae, Joan E. Alain Chartier: The Quarrel of the Belle Dame Sans Mercy; Taylor & Francis Books, Inc, Routledge, 2004, page 1
vii E. B. Leighton, who was of Scottish descent, undoubtedly was inspired by this legend.

It is a paradox, then, that Alain Chartier fetched an impressive 311,750 BP, (442,198 US$) at Christie's London on November 28th, 2001, even as its creator remains a prominent outsider a decade later. Despite his relative anonymity within a historical period still being rediscovered, Blair Leighton's compelling images have worked their way into the living day psyche, impacting our perceptions and understandings of romance, chivalry, and the medieval era.

A version of this article was first published in Fine Art Connoisseur, June 2011 it was then reprinted in the Epoch Times on August 18th, 2011.

Kara Lysandra Ross is currently researching and writing the Catalogue Raisonné on E. Blair Leighton.

i.

A copy of which was kindly provided by his great granddaughter Amanda Davey, and was a certified copy from the Registry of Births.

ii.

The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume XLIII New Series, by Sylvanus Urban, Gent. January to June 1855, London, John Bowyer Nichols and Sons. Page 657 Obituary

iii.

Langham Sketch Club records, provided by the current president of the Langham sketch, Clifford Hatts iv Huish, Marcus B., The Year's Art, J. S. Virtue & Co., London, 1893. Picture appearing between page 80 and 81

iv.

Huish, Marcus B., The Year's Art, J. S. Virtue & Co., London, 1893. Picture appearing between page 80 and 81

v.

Yockney, Alfred. The Art Annual: The Art of E. Blair Leighton, London Virtue & Co, Christmas 1913, introduction

vi.

McRae, Joan E. Alain Chartier: The Quarrel of the Belle Dame Sans Mercy; Taylor & Francis Books, Inc, Routledge, 2004, page 1

vii.

McRae, Joan E. Alain Chartier: The Quarrel of the Belle Dame Sans Mercy; Taylor & Francis Books, Inc, Routledge, 2004, page 1

Chief Operating Officer for the Art Renewal Center and Chief Executive Officer for The Da Vinci Initiative, Kara Ross is a regular columnist in the arts section of The Epoch Times and is a contributing writer for Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. She was the co-editor of the William Bouguereau Catalogue Raisonnée and is also researching and writing the catalogue raisonnée on Edmund Blair Leighton, for which she is accepted as the world authority on the artist.