The Dedication is an important rediscovery in Edmund Blair Leighton's oeuvre. Known only through a black and white photogravure published in 1908 it has not appeared on the open market for over seventy-five years. The picture is one of several painted in the 1900s in which a knight and his lady are seen in incidents illustrative of the code of chivalry. This series included The Accolade; and God Speed (Fig. 1) which established a new auction record for the artist when it sold at Christie's in 2000 for £707,750.
Although not specifically Arthurian in subject matter, these pictures represent a late phase of the Victorian revival of interest in the national legend. Pictorially, they have many antecedents. Perhaps the most obvious are William Dyce's murals in the Queen's Robing Room in the House of Lords, in which the artist used incidents from the Arthurian stories to embody abstract concepts such as religion, chivalry, generosity and mercy, and the chivalric subjects that Rossetti and his followers were so fond of in the late 1850s.
By the first decade of the 20th Century Blair Leighton had established himself as an artist whose work bridged the commercial and critical divide. He tended to choose sentimental and anecdotal subjects in which his audience could see a reflection of their own everyday hopes, fears, woes and aspirations. As the author of the Art Annual put it, 'as often as not he has painted contemporary life, butit has always been under the guise of the past.' The Victorians' tendency to use history as a mirror for their own preoccupations was often thrown into higher relief by current events, and never was this more the case than in this period, with the Empire at its height and the Boer War raging.
Blair Leighton's debut at the Royal Academy occurred the same year that Frederic Leighton became President, and it is possible that he emphasised his second forename, making it almost part of his surname, to avoid confusion with his famous but totally unrelated namesake. He had exhibited at the Royal Academy almost yearly since 1878, and his most popular pictures were reproduced in photogravure form. The son of the artist Charles Blair Leighton, he was determined to follow in his father's profession. He attended evening classes at South Kensington and Heatherley's, and in 1874, at the age of twenty-one, he entered the Royal Academy Schools. He was to remain an RA student for five years, winning a £10 premium for the best drawing executed in the Life School in 1878. His oeuvre encompasses three main types of historical genre: seventeenth and eighteenth-century scenes (often of a legal or domestic hue); subjects derived from Arthurian legend or literary sources; and those depicting incidents of national history.
Often large and eye-catching works, they struck a chord 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, 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.
We are grateful to Kara Lysandra Ross for her help in preparing this catalogue entry. The picture will be included in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Edmund Blair Leighton.