Fred­eric, Lord Leighton, 1830-1896: Painter and Sculp­tor of the Vic­to­rian Age edited by Mar­got Th. Bran­dl­hu­ber and Michael Buhrs, Pres­tel Pub­lish­ing, 191 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Craig Smith

“Well now, this one has got in here by mis­take; it’s called Flam­ing June, and you can see the girl is asleep, but why Lord Leighton wanted to shove her B.T.M. right into the front of the pic­ture I’ll never know; you may well ask why I bought it, but now I have it I can’t quite bring my­self to throw it away. Isn’t the colour fine?”

In that quote from Robert­son Davies’ novel Bred in the Bone, Mary-Benedetta McRory, “Aunt Mary-Ben,” is show­ing her great­nephew Fran­cis Cor­nish a print of Leighton’s im­age of a sleep­ing maiden— and yes, the lass’s pretty rump is well to the fore, though fully cov­ered by her flow­ing, or­ange-hued gar­ment. One of the artist’s best-known works, Flam­ing June also il­lus­trates the front cover of this crit­i­cal study and mini-life pub­lished as a com­pan­ion to an ex­hi­bi­tion organized by the Mu­seum Villa Stuck in Mu­nich and Leighton House Mu­seum in Lon­don; the back cover shows the gor­geous Arab Hall in what was once the artist’s Kens­ing­ton home.

Leighton, one of the Vic­to­rian era’s most suc­cess­ful and fa­mous artists, is some­times tossed aside now as a merely ac­com­plished painter of gar­ments flow­ing in the wind ( Greek Girls Play­ing at Ball), myth­i­cal scenes ( Daedalus and Icarus and Her­cules Wrestling With Death for the Body of Al­ces­tis), ro­man­tic sub­jects ( Golden Hours), and his­tor­i­cal reen­act­ments or Bib­li­cal events ( Dante in Ex­ile and Jonathan’s To­ken to David). To such crit­ics his su­perb drafts­man­ship, shim­mer­ing color pal­ette, and in­tensely ac­cu­rate yet styl­ized man­ner are of­fen­sive and lack the punch of no-holds-barred ab­strac­tion or mod­ern quasi-re­al­ism. In other words, Leighton is mocked for be­ing what he never could have been.

In fact, Leighton’s paint­ings, mu­rals, and sculp­tures came about through metic­u­lous ob­ser­va­tion and much hard work. His color oil sketches as he searched for val­ues, hues, and bal­ance; his stun­ning life-draw­ings; his stud­ies of how cloth­ing or drap­ery moved with the body un­der it; and even his pen-and-ink sketches of branches and grasses demon­strate his com­mit­ment to meld­ing tech­nique and cre­ativ­ity. He painted slowly, metic­u­lously, and in mul­ti­ple paint lay­ers, achiev­ing glow­ing, al­most ra­di­ant colors. That same eye and in­sis­tence on the best cer­tainly car­ried through as he built his home (re­cently re­stored), which is a mir­a­cle of beauty and prac­ti­cal­ity. But even though the bach­e­lor Leighton loved to en­ter­tain with din­ners, mu­si­cales, and artist gath­er­ings, his own sim­ple bed­cham­ber was the only non-ser­vant’s bed­room in the house. No guests could sleep over.

Be­sides ex­ten­sive dis­cus­sion of Leighton’s con­tri­bu­tion to Clas­si­cism and the progress of his home both con­cep­tu­ally and ar­chi­tec­turally, this book has a first-rate chronol­ogy, and the writ­ing, edit­ing, de­sign, and im­age re­pro­duc­tions are ex­cel­lent. A valu­able re­source.

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