Thursday, 14 February 2013

Better Leighton Than Never

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 Royal Academy 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. 

The Keys
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!

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.

The Arrival
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?

The Request
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!


  1. What a lovely and intriguing post - and thank you for introducing me to Leightons that I didn't even know were by him! And Happy Valentines back at you!

  2. Have you seen The Library Time Machine blog's latest post?

    In the photos of a Kensington House you can see:
    1. A picture of Mr and Mrs McCulloch where the central picture is the Garden of the Hesperides by Lord Leighton
    2. Waterhouse's 1894 Ophelia hanging on the wall in the fifth picture with Mrs McCulloch standing

    The article says the couple married in 1893 so that likely makes them the first owners of the Waterhouse and perhaps the Leighton?

  3. Thanks for your comments and a Happy Valentine's Day to all!

  4. Fab stuff! Love Merrian's link, too...

  5. These works are absolutely wonderful. I was aware of "Lord" Leighton but had never heard of Blair Leighton. I never cease to be amazed by how many amazingly talented pre-raphaelite artists there were and the huge body of work that they produced between them. It amkes me think that the Tate or somebody ought to put on another exhibition, this time of the lesser known painters, leaving out the big 3, Burne Jones, Morris and Waterhouse (you could call them the pre-raph "B" team - reminds me of when the Australian "B" cricket team was easily the second best team in the world)

  6. It's been a while since you posted this evocation of EBL's paintings, but I've only just found it as I was looking up something else entirely, Charles Blair Leighton's contacts. Edmund Blair Leighton was my great grandfather, so it's a joy to learn he was appreciated by Agatha Christie as well as by you. I love all your comments about the light and the fabric, he was very interested in fabric and for years my grandmother still had many of the costumes worn in the paintings (sadly she sold them at auction about 35 years ago). His brushwork was beautiful and I THINK virtually all his paintings had roses in them somewhere. As a child I used to love going through the magazines with his Academy paintings in, looking for where he had signed with his initials (EBL and the date). The Signing of the Register (he called it Mated!) shows my grandmother's hand signing, but the face was of a prettier cousin, which thankfully she found amusing. Thank you for a really lovely post. And also for getting his date of birth right!!

    1. Hello I have been sent a copy of your comments above from the Bristol Museum which I understand holds the original painting in storage. I have a print of the signing of the register which my grandmother got when she got married and I was wanting to find out more about the print, because of mine it is called 'Mated' and your comments are the first I have been able to find that refers to that. I am trying to find out when it was changed from 'mated' and how long it was called 'Mated'. Do you have that information please? Wendy

  7. Great story behind some lovely art, thank you.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx