I’ll start today with a quote from A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie:
“And his dear wife is making a name for herself too, as an artist. Mostly jugs of dying flowers and broken combs on window-sills. I never dare tell her, but I still admire Blair Leighton and Alma Tadema.”
On Monday we saw an unknown artist called Henry Stock, and I promised you I would bring you a contemporary of his who was so popular that we have ceased to take him seriously. On this chilly Valentine’s Day I bring you a tale of romance and all things lovely.
If I was to mention a Victorian artist called Leighton probably most people would think of this…
|Flaming June (1895) Frederick, Lord Leighton|
Rather than this…
|The Accolade (1901) Edmund Blair Leighton|
But Edmund Blair Leighton, although familiar, very familiar, to us is at best overlooked, at worst seen as the excesses of Victorian sentiment and ‘pretty history’. While Henry Stock has been forgotten, Blair Leighton is still with us but ignored for reasons of that familiarity. So what are we overlooking?
|Blair Leighton in his studio|
Edmund Blair Leighton was born in 1852, the son of an artist, Charles Blair Leighton. He was a prodigious painter, exhibiting at the
from 1878 until
1920. He was happily married, had a
couple of kids, but what of the art? One
of the problems with Blair Leighton is that he found his groove early and did
it better than anyone. When considering
who to look at for Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t find a better subject. Royal
No-one does romance like Blair Leighton. I’m not talking about bodice-ripping, giant lips, burning in hell, lust inducing jollity of some artists (yes, Rossetti, I’m looking at you), but romance, glances, flowers, longing, sighing, remembering, being nice and tidy and still a bit naughty.
Nowadays, Blair Leighton's best known works are definitely his medieval works of damsels and knights. The Accolade is very popular, as is God Speed!
The purity of his vision is astonishing when taken out of the context of biscuit tins of notelets. My love affair with Leighton is definitely in the details, like the little stone griffins and the flowers, their petals tumbling ominously. I don't know if he is coming back (with his fine moustache) but it is not looking good.
|Tracing the Shadow|
The use of light in Leighton's work is beautiful, making everything seem clean and sparkly. It doesn't hurt that this young lady has been using Daz in her washing to make it extra white. Mind you, she has obviously not been up to anything naughty to get her dress dirty. Look at how shiny her beautiful hair is. I love the idea that she traces the outline of her love on the wall, so while he is off being eaten by a dragon, she can look at it and sigh while polishing her chastity belt.
|Stitching the Standard|
Heroic flags don't just sew themselves, so occasionally you have to perch yourself on a turret wall and make your beloved knight his flag which will no doubt be consumed by the same dragon that eats your knight. While Leighton isn't afraid to give you the world of little details, he also has a habit of focusing in on a moment, either of action or reflection, as if it is the most beautiful thing just for his looking. The fall of the fabric, the grace of her stitch, the elegance of her simple attire are all the picture consists of, but even so, they are wonderful.
Something I hadn't worked out, due to my lack of attention to Mr Blair Leighton and his splendid works is that he didn't just hang around the 'medieval' period (where everything was sparkly clean and no-one smelt like dung), but also took his caravan of longing looks and rampant hand-holding to the Georgian and Regency era. Really, the early nineteenth century was tailor made for Leighton, as the polite society of Jane Austen novels, where people showed some control of their emotions and everyone was nice and quiet...
|A Source of Admiration|
That's about as lustful as it gets - hello there! There is a bevy of such images, of gentlemen admiring pretty ladies in high-waisted frocks, from a polite distance, with usually nothing more than the raise of a monocle.
|The Time and The Place|
Even when there is the hint of some lustful goings-on, you know these two will be far too polite to get her frock grubby, so there will be no rolling around on the grass, thank you very much. Mind you, I love it when there is a definite story left untold for you to fill in - why does she look so apprehensive? Why the need for secrecy?
Similarly, who is asking for what? Nice nasturtium, I do like edible flowers. Maybe he is asking for an edible salad for lunch? Okay, maybe not.
My favourite of Leighton's Georgian/Regency works has to be Off, as I do feel he missed a word out...She doesn't look too bothered, but the discarded bouquet and the man stalking off tell that something is indeed 'off'. I love the little seat she is on, on the bridge. I wonder if Leighton saw such a bridge-seat and got the idea for the image? It makes me smile as she does not seem bothered at all. Never mind Love, you can do better.
|The Wedding Register|
I could talk about Leighton pictures from now until Christmas as they are so very plentiful, but I will end with what must be one of the most profitable images from Bristol Art Gallery (a gorgeous place, worth a visit). Again, it's a study in elegance and light, and the ultimate white frock, shining like a star. I have seen so many wedding cards with this image I have lost count. It sums up the dream of the perfect wedding, unlike this one...
|Till Death Do Us Part (1878)|
I didn't realise this was by Leighton. Given the amount of people airing their dirty linen on telly these days, possibly it would be more accurate to pop this image on a wedding card. The lady in the blinding white dress here has married a gentleman with blinding white hair, while the man she should have married (with the luxuriant moustache) looks at her in an accusing manner. No-one looks very happy, maybe Mr Moustache is actually dead? Oh dear. Better luck next time...
Sorry, I should end on that image, this is Valentine's Day after all. Hang on...
|The King and the Beggar Maid|
That's better. In his obituary in 1922, it was written ‘he did not attain to the higher flights of art, yet played a distinguished part in aiding the public mind to an appreciation of the romance attaching to antiquity’. Edmund Blair Leighton may not be revered, not be enjoying any sort of renaissance yet, but his work is so effortless and, well, nice that it seems a shame to overlook him for more lusty, pessimistic artists. There are times when you need to be woo-ed, and I am a girl who likes being very woo-ed indeed.
Happy Valentines, my Darlings!