Lord Frederick Leighton
Image courtesy of Don Kurtz
Biographical InformationLord Frederick Leighton
by Paul Ripley
The leading establishment figure in Victorian art, was the first artist to be en-nobled. He was President of the Royal Academy for almost two decades, & his presidency was a time of unrivalled prestige, & success. Leighton carried out his duties with panache, & scrupulous fairness. He was a classical painter producing highly finished pictures, & was also an excellent portraitist (see his portrait of Sir Richard Burton the explorer & orientalist). Leighton was a sophisticated, cosmopolitan figure, much of his early life having been spent in Germany & Italy. The Leighton family was financially independent, his grandfather having been Doctor to the Russian Royal Family. Leighton’s father was also a Doctor, but retired in middle-life due to the onset of deafness. Leighton enrolled in the Berlin School of art in his early teens, having lied about his age. The following year he enrolled in an Art Academy in Florence. The Nazarenes & Italian Renaissance painters were considerable early influences. His cosmopolitan early life exposed him to a wider range of influences than any other English painter of his day. Many people now believe that his decorative pictures of the 1870s represent his best work, though his large classical pictures remain extremely impressive.
In 1855 Leighton sent his vast canvass ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence,’ to the Royal Academy Exhibition, where it was a sensation, creating his reputation as an artist overnight. This vast painting, done in Rome was the product of two years work. It is over 17 feet long! The subject concerns Cimabue’s Rucellai Madonna being taken in procession from the painter’s house to a large church in 13th century Florence. The painting was meticulously planned by Leighton, & a great number of preparatory sketches were used. The whole vast picture is wonderfully painted, & in it’s style points towards the mature large works of the painter. It is, however, very static, also an enduring feature of Leighton’s work. The picture was greatly admired by Prince Albert, & as result was bought by Queen Victoria. In the immediate following years, Leighton was unable to repeat this success, but as the 1860s progressed grew steadily more successful. He moved to London in 1859, was elected in Associate of the Academy in 1864, a full Academician in 1868, & PRA in 1878.
Leighton was a lifelong bachelor. In later life his favourite model was Ada Alice Pullen, known as Dorothy Dene. George Bernard Shaw knew them both, & it is likely that they were the models for Professor Higgins & Eliza Doolitlle in Pygmalion. Throughout his life he was energetic, & hardworking, & his inability to take life more easily when in his sixties accelerated his death. It is a curious fact that Leighton was only Baron Leighton of Stretton on the last day of his life. His funeral was at St Pauls Cathedral.
Leighton’s magnificent home Leighton House, is now a museum.
ADVICE TO YOUNG ARTISTS.
By Sir Frederic Leighton 1893.
At the Royal Academy Banquet on the eve of the opening of the exhibition, the President gave expression to what must have been often in the minds of all artists for a considerable time past. Sir Frederic’s words were directed to young artists only, but his excellent advice might be profitably considered by every painter, old and young. After referring to what he considers to be the comprehensive catholicity of the present collection, a phrase perhaps a little over-strained, Sir Frederic continued: “Looking from a wide standpoint at this exhibition and embracing further in the field of vision the many and manifold exhibitions, especially of paintings, which each season brings forth; struck as we all must be, deeply with the vehement and almost feverish strife of conflicting theories and opinions which is rife about us, it is impossible not to feel how perplexing such a condition of things must be to the very young, who, on the outer threshold of their career, eager and still malleable, seek a secure path in such a labyrinth of contradictions. Extreme youth when it is healthy is bold and fearless, and not a little inclined to rebel against tradition, however rooted in the long assent of men. And here, gentlemen, I would not be misunderstood. Steeped as I am to my innermost marrow in reverence for the mighty men of the past to whom Art owes whatever true sublimity it boasts; convinced, unshakably, of the vital validity of the great principles on which their achievements rest, I am yet not one of those who would refuse to Art all power of evolution, or who believe that, though assuredly it will never reach more lofty summits, it may not send forth lateral green shoots fresh and delightful as only they are, indeed, nourished from the strong sap of the parent stem. In brief, I do not believe - to change the metaphor - that they who, in our time, have wedded their lives to art have clasped to their breasts a lovely but lifeless corpse. To the very young then, I would fain offer one or two matters for thought, if, perchance, they will hearken to one who has grown old in unwavering sympathy with their struggles and doubts. I would beg them to keep ever before their eyes the vital truth that sincerity is the well-spring of all lasting achievement, and that no good thing ever took root in untruth or self-deception. I would urge them to remember that if every excellent work is stamped with the personality of its author, no work can be enduring that is stamped with a borrowed stamp; and that, therefore, their first duty is to see that the thoughts, the emotions, the impressions they fix on he canvas are in very truth their own thoughts, their own emotions, their own spontaneous impressions, and not those of others: for work that does not spring from the heart has no roots, and will of certainty wither and perish. The other maxim also I would urge on them - that true genius knows no hurry, that patience is of its essence, and thoroughness its constant mark; and, lastly, I would ask them to believe that the gathered experience of past ages is a precious heritage and not an irksome load; and that nothing will fortify them better for the future, and free development, than the reverent and loving study of the past."
Source: Victorian Art in Britain