The Victorian art world had its full share of knights – John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Edward Poynter, for example, all received peerages – but the grandest of its grandees, by some distance, was Frederic Leighton (1830-96). In 1896 Leighton, already a baronet, was created Baron Leighton. His elevation was, however, short-lived; he died the following day of angina pectoris, and since he was unmarried and without children, his hereditary title became immediately extinct – a record for the peerage.
By then he was the nation’s most respected artist and had been for decades. He had served the Royal Academy (RA) as president for 18 years; been commanding officer of the Artists Rifles; and was revered, hugely rich and the owner of a glamorous Moorish palace by Holland Park. An augury of this success came in 1855 when the unknown 25-year-old painter’s first exhibit at the RA, a huge painting showing Cimabue’s Madonna carried in procession through Florence, was bought by Queen Victoria.
Leighton’s place atop the Victorian Parnassus had been won by paintings that were modern incarnations of the works of the fabled High Renaissance masters. Like them, he treated ennobling subjects in the grand style and produced mythologies, religious and historical scenes, and glamorous portraits as if he were Raphael or Titian reborn. His immaculate technique, which married fine draughtsmanship with harmonious colour, was learnt abroad – in Frankfurt, Florence and Paris – and was well suited to large compositions (he was also an important sculptor). He favoured emotive pictures of limpid women, moist-eyed with feeling, which reflected back to his audiences their own classical learning and morality with its admixture of beauty and sensibility. He was the perfect artist for the age – accomplished, Olympian, and slightly unknowable. His works have not all worn well and can sometimes seem bombastic and operatic, but there are passages of
beauty in everything he painted.
Leighton’s aim, as both painter and figurehead, was to raise the status of British art. As he told the students in the RA schools, great art comes from “a noble personality” and never from “a disordered or vulgar temperament”. To develop this nobility, he encouraged the tyro artists to “study with deep and revered admiration – and that admiration cannot be too deep or too reverent – the works of the great men who have gone before you”. This, however, did not mean becoming Victorians in togas and living off a purely Hellenistic diet, but studying the early Italian painters as well as the Spanish and German schools – wherever excellence was to be found.
The public Leighton was, if not a front, then not the whole man. Unusually, most of Leighton’s youth had been lived abroad; when his grandfather, who had been physician to the Tsar, died and left the family a hefty sum, they set off on an extended tour of Europe and Leighton himself did not return to England to live until 1860. He was by then continental in his outlook, while a love of travel remained with him for the rest of his life. Unencumbered by dependants (his personal life and sexuality remain mysterious), he would set off for the Mediterranean each year and spend August to October in Italy, Capri, Greece, Spain or Egypt.
The trips were partly for his health, partly to escape his usual way of painting, and partly to lift the burden of being Frederic Leighton and the worthiness and workload that involved. Over the course of these foreign sojourns he painted some 200 small oil landscape sketches that are quite different from his exhibited works. In them, not only could he emulate an unlikely hero, the resolutely unacademic Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, but revel in rapid brushstrokes and sinuous texture.
As in this picture, The Isle of Chios, circa 1867, now in Manchester Art Gallery, Leighton’s little landscapes lack the high finish of his public paintings and have a bravura freedom and spontaneity he denied himself elsewhere. It is the masses of the landscape and the quality of the light that are paramount. The foreground sea is thinly painted while the rocks are tactile with thick dabs; a swirl and a flick lays in the vegetation but the transition of the sky from dusty nougat pink to blue is handled with delicacy. It is as if he is reminding himself of what he could do.
A few such pictures were repurposed in the backgrounds of his mythologies or served as “a reminiscence and suggestion”, but they were painted first and foremost for his own pleasure. As he wrote back to a friend, he spent his time abroad “sketching (landscape bits) from nature – it is the most irresponsible restful thing I can do and fills time delightfully”.
The great majority, like this view, also show his near spiritual devotion to the sun. Life and art were heliocentric, he believed: “Sunlight can never be accessory – its glory is paramount where it appears, everything except water is tributary to its song of splendour.” When working in oils outside he could luxuriate in sunlight while trying to render it in paint, almost as a substance itself. He became particularly alive too to the sun’s effect on colours: in a brief passage in a letter sent from Egypt in 1868 Leighton describes a spot by the Nile in terms of his palette – “fawn-coloured brown… cool purple mystery of shadow… broad coffee-coloured sweep of the river… a fillet of green… golden light which inundates it”. This is landscape as a sensual experience.
Back in England he would tuck this lusciousness and spontaneity away and become the dignitary once more. If his landscape sketches revealed his true painterly instincts then, Leighton hid them from sight. His personal sheen could, however, sometimes act as a shield itself, as Whistler, at the Royal Academy and surrounded by a group of women cooing over Leighton’s multiple attributes – “Such a wonderful musician! Such a charming host! Such an amazing linguist!” – felt forced to remind them: “H’m, paints too, don’t he?”