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