An Athlete Wrestling with a Python was Leighton's first and most celebrated sculpture. From its debut it has been revered as a major work of art. The muscular youth entwined in battle with a serpent, so invocative of man's ceaseless struggle against temptation, is instantly recognisable and a seminal achievement of British sculpture.
Leighton's paintings far outnumber his sculptures. Apart from a handful of maquettes made to aid his painting, and designs for funerary monuments, Leighton produced only three distinct fine-art sculptures. Each an ideal work, the first was An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877, followed by The Sluggard and Needless Alarms, both exhibited in 1886.
The critic A.L Baldry said Leighton was 'by instinct and habit of mind, more a sculptor than a painter', that he 'looked at nature with a sculptor's eye', with a 'technical process [...] closely akin to modelling' (A.L. Baldry, Leighton, London, 1908, pp. 75-76.).
A more sculptural quality imbues Leighton's paintings from the mid-1860s. After a visit to Athens in late 1867, where he admired the ruins of the Acropolis and the Nike Frieze, there is apparent in his work a greater attention to the subtleties of drapery whereby the paint mimics creased folds of cloth (see Clytemnestra from the Battlements of Argos, 1874, Leighton House, London).
Leighton's studies of classical art in Frankfurt, Rome and Paris inevitably bred an appreciation for the importance of Roman sculpture to modern figure painting. In his painting Hercules Wrestling with Death (1869-71, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT), Leighton shows his confidence with archaic drapery and introduces the heroic nude in the figure of Hercules who, posed like the Borghese Warrior, foreshadows An Athlete.
Thus the history of An Athlete began not in sculpture but in painting. Its conception can be pinpointed to Leighton's painting the Daphnephoria (1874-76, Lady Lever Art Gallery), the celebration of Apollo, for which he produced a series of plaster modellos to ensure the figures were realistically posed with reference to antique sculpture. These also inspired Leighton to model figures not in the painting and thereby develop An Athlete Wrestling with a Python:
'When I was at work upon the Daphnephoria it occurred to me to model some of the figures [...]. It was at this time that the idea of my Athlete struggling with a Python came into my mind.'
('Artist as Craftsmen, no. I: Sir Frederic Leighton, Bart., P.R.A., as a Modeller in Clay', The Studio, no. 1 (1893) p. 6).
The lifesize bronze An Athlete Wrestling with a Python was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877 where it immediately drew comment. The literally-minded Victorian audience speculated whether man or serpent would win this life and death struggle. The Times newspaper supposed the athlete's left arm to be ineffective: 'The Struggle will soon be over and then heaven help the man!'. Leighton thought this was rather missing the point, and was similarly unmoved when a group of naturalists criticised the rendering of the python as inaccurate. Beyond the biblical symbolism, the Laocoön is an obvious source, as is the struggle between muscular male nude and python in the story of Apollo and the Python of Delphi: the python being a regular attribute of Apollo - see the Apollo Belvedere. Leighton might also have known Hercule Combattant Achéloüs Metamorphose en Serpent by Bosio (1824, Louvre, L.L. 325). Despite the parallels, Leighton always referred to 'an athlete', never Apollo. The spiral movement of the composition is strikingly modern as is the drama of the muscular youth, locked in a life and death struggle with the python.
Referencing masterpieces of antiquity suggests great confidence, but Leighton suffered setbacks and did not grasp the sculptural medium unaided. He miscalculated the proportions in enlarging the figure from the original sketch which forced him to destroy his first plaster. He also sought considerable technical expertise from his protégé, the sculptor Thomas Brock, and in later works from his close friend Hamo Thornycroft. Leighton's achievement in An Athlete, was to observe the sculptural legacy of antiquity but also absorb the multitude of influences granted by his position at the centre of an increasingly international art world. Brock's heroic bronze Hercules Strangling Antaeus (1870) predates An Athlete, and its influence is obvious. Edmund Gosse, writing in the 1890s, saw analogues with contemporary French sculptors of the Salon school, such as Dubois, Merci and Delaplanche. Until An Athlete, uniquely British sculpture had been neglected and undervalued since John Gibson. In the interim British sculpture had too often had a distinctly funereal tone of austere portraiture or sickly sentimentality, only fleetingly injected with life by French émigrés such J.-B. Carpeaux, A.-E. Carrier-Belleuse and J. Dalou.
It was common practice for sculpture to be first exhibited in plaster, which if admired, only then secured a commission to be cast in bronze. However, as if certain of its importance, Leighton presented An Athlete at the Royal Academy in 1877, cast expensively in bronze so that every detail was rendered with permanence. It was placed in the centre of the Lecture Room, facing the central hall which singled it out for special attention. It was immediately recognised as a major work of sculpture and the start of something quite new. Leighton's triumph was cemented by the decision by the Chantrey Trustee's to purchase the work for the nation at a fee of £2,000. It was one of the first purchases, and the first sculpture, bought by the Chantrey Bequest. After such a hiatus, British sculpture gloried in international acclaim the following year when An Athlete won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Joseph Edgar Boehm, Queen Victoria's Sculptor-in-Ordinary wrote to Leighton in praise: '[The Athlete] is superb. I think it the best statue of modern days. I was riveted with admiration and astonishment ' (E. Barrington ed., The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, London, 1906, II, p. 200).The reviewer in The Times enthused 'whether we look at the action or the anatomical details of this figure, we must at once admit it to a place among the few great English works in bronze or marble'.
Such acclaim helped Leighton secure the presidency of the Royal Academy in 1878. From this platform he began to rehabilitate British sculpture, which had languished in stagnation compared to the painterly achievements of the academicians. His influence, through the Academy Schools, upon the younger generation of sculptors was very great, supporting and securing commissions for Hamo Thornycroft, Onslow Ford and Harry Bates to name a few. Most importantly Leighton's patronage was later crucial to the luminary of the New Sculpture movement, Alfred Gilbert. Leighton employed his Athlete as a sculptural manifesto, its great significance being a call to arms which ushered in a new golden age of British sculpture. The importance of Leighton's sculptural legacy was acknowledged at his death: 'His acheivements in sculpture were the fore-runners of a new renaissance of the art amongst us' (The Studio, 1896, p. 66).
The original bronze cast of An Athlete Wrestling with a Python is unique and its display alternates between Tate Britain and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Leighton gifted the plaster to the Royal Academy in 1886, where it remains. Carl Jacobsen, owner of the famous Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen, sought to own An Athlete as one of the finest examples of British sculpture, and commissioned a marble version for the museum he founded (fig. 2, deaccessioned in 1974 and sold from the Forbes Collection, Christies, London, 19 February 2003, lot 28).
Bronze reductions such as the present lot were published in two sizes by Messrs. Ernest Brown & Phillips, for the Leicester Galleries in circa 1909-10 (fig. 1).
'Messrs. Ernest Brown & Phillips have much pleasure in announcing the publication, for the first time, of a small version of the late Lord Leightons famous bronze statue of An Athlete Struggling with a Python in the National Gallery of British Art.'
The present lot is very rare example of the large version, measuring three feet in height. A contemporary advertisement published by Ernest Brown and Phillips specifies that the three foot version was limited to ten casts, yet only three such bronzes are known: the present example, one at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (purchased from the Leicester Galleries, 1910) and another at the Union Club, Sydney. No other example of the large version is known to have appeared at auction. An example of the smaller version, measuring 20 inches high and numbered XVIII, was gifted by the Royal Academy in 1922 to Princess Mary, Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood (d. 1947) and sold at Christies, London, 5 December 2012, lot 519 (fig. 3, £91,250 including premium).