Edmund Blair Leighton was well-known in his day. During the course of his long career, he contributed a total of sixty-six pictures to the Royal Academy summer exhibitions. Monumental in scale and appealing in subject matter, his paintings were very popular with the public and were widely reproduced. 'No work is more popular than his among publishers' wrote a critic in 1900, and his Times obituary noted that his pictures were 'in photogravure form seen in so many homes'. The Art Journal devoted an article to Blair Leighton in 1900, Windsor Magazine in 1904, and at Christmas 1913 he was the subject of its Art Annual. He had an entry in Who's Who and not only the Times but also the Connoisseur carried an obituary.
Blair Leighton was born in London on September 21st, 1852. His father, the artist Charles Leighton, died when he was three years old and Edmund was sent to a boarding school in St. John's Wood where he was reportedly poorly fed and extremely unhappy. At age 12 he attended the University College School where he completed his studies at age 15, and was sent to work for a tea merchant in the City. Despite this, the young man was determined to follow in his father's footsteps and attended evening classes at South Kensington and Heatherly's. At the age of twenty-one, he left his job and enrolled full-time in the Royal Academy schools where he stayed for five years.
Blair Leighton debuted at the Royal Academy in 1878 and exhibited continually for forty-two years. In 1885, he married Katherine Nash and they had two children. It is clear from the photographs of Blair Leighton's house and studio that the family's domestic surroundings were conventionally 'aesthetic', cluttered with what the author of one article described as 'quite a collection of old furniture, arms, metal-work, pottery, and other unique relics of the past' (Sweetness and Light; The Queen Anne Movement: 1860-1900, London, 1977, p. 160).
The majority of Blair Leighton's work reflects the Victorian interest in images of the historical past, and his work was well-received. Like Alma-Tadema, he tended to choose anecdotal subjects in which his audience could see a reflection of their own everyday hopes, fear, woes and joys. To Arms!, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888, depicts a young knight and his bride leaving the church immediately following their marriage ceremony. The young couple's parents stand on the Church steps and look on in consternation as a knight in full armor urgently informs the newlywed groom of impending war and his need to join the fight. This picture was clearly the first of a series of large paintings in which a knight and his lady are seen in incidents illustrative of the code of chivalry; God Speed was painted in 1900 (fig. 1), The Accolade followed in 1901 (fig. 2) and The Dedication in 1903. Much of the arms and armor that feature in all of these paintings as well as others were no doubt from the artist's own collection.
Although not specifically Arthurian in subject matter, these pictures represent a late phase of Victorian revival of interest in the national legend. Blair Leighton's medievalist paintings spoke to his audience because they cloaked contemporary life under the guise of the past. In the years to come, historical and literary subject matter would lose ground to realism, but in 1888 this subject matter still retained an extraordinary hold on popular imagination, especially when powerful emotions were involved. The work of Edmund Blair Leighton has proven to be instrumental in shaping the modern day conceptualization of chivalry and medieval imagery. When people call to mind Arthurian legend, the imagery created by Leighton, Frank Dickee and John William Waterhouse immediately come to mind.
We are grateful to Kara Lysandra Ross for confirming the authenticity of this painting, which will be included in her forthcoming Edmund Blair Leighton catalogue raisonné.
(fig. 1) Edmund Blair Leighton, God Speed, Christie's, London, 14 June 2000, lot 16.
(fig. 2) Edmund Blair Leighton, The Accolade, Christie's, London, 13 June 2001, lot 15.