Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922)
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Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922)

God Speed

Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922)
God Speed
signed and dated 'E.BLAIR LEIGHTON.1900.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
63 x 455/8 in. (160 x 116 cm.)
Royal Academy Pictures, 1900, London, 1900, illustrated, p. 55.
Academy Notes, 1900, London, 1900, pp. 24, 118 (illustrated).
Alfred Yockley, 'The Art of Edmund Blair Leighton', Art Annual, London, Christmas 1913, pp. 11 (illustrated), 31.
London, Royal Academy, 1900, no. 606.
A photogravure was published by Louis Wolff & Co. Ltd. before 1913.
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Lot Essay

Edmund Blair Leighton was well known in his day. He contributed a total of sixty-six pictures to the Royal Academy summer exhibitions. Often large and eye-catching works, they were popular with the public and 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 him 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 the Connoisseur carried an obituary.

Yet today Blair Leighton is a somewhat mysterious figure. His pictures are by no means unknown in the saleroom, even if they are seldom as imposing as the two offered here. There is a major example in the Leeds Art Gallery (Lady Godiva, 1892). One of his earliest works (A Flaw in the Title, 1878) is at Royal Holloway College, and a characteristic eighteenth-century genre scene (Launched in Life, 1894) will be familiar to those who patronise the St James's Restaurant at Fortnum and Mason's. But there was never a Chantrey picture in the Tate to appear from time to time and, even in the days when such works were ridiculed, keep his memory green. Nor, so far as we know, has any modern scholar made him the subject of research.

His father, Charles Blair Leighton (1823-1855), was a short-lived painter of portraits, historical subjects and genre. He studied under Benjamin Robert Haydon, being a fellow pupil of Landseer, Eastlake, George Lance and William Bewick, and exhibited for several years at the Royal Academy and the British Institution. His chalk drawing of the radical politician Joseph Hume (1777-1855) is in the National Portrait Gallery. He also conducted research into colour lithography, being a senior partner in a family firm, Leighton Bros, which specialised in lithographic reproduction. From 1852 he had a studio at 4 Red Lion Square in London's bohemian quarter, Bloomsbury, but he can hardly have had any contact with the famous occupants of no. 17. Rossetti and Walter Howell Deverel had moved out in 1851, and Morris and Burne-Jones did not arrive until 1856, by which time Charles Leighton was dead.

Edmund was born in London on 21 September 1858, one of three children of whom the other two were girls. Since he lost his father two years later, there was obviously no question of receiving parental guidance in even the rudiments of art. Indeed, no sooner had he finished his formal education at University College School than, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to work for a tea merchant in the City. Possibly money was short, or perhaps the fact that the family and always been involved in commerce made this seem a natural course. At all events, the boy was determined to follow his father's profession. He attended evening classes at South Kensington and Heatherley's, and in 1874, at the age of twenty-one, he left his job and entered the Royal Academy Schools. He was to remain an RA student for five years, winning a £10 premium for the best drawing done in the Life School in 1878, and in 1879 narrowly losing the Gold Medal for Painting to Henry La Thangue. Meanwhile, like so many young artists at this date, including his exact contemporary Frank Dicksee, he was finding employment as an illustrator with the prolific publishers, Cassell's. He began to exhibit the same year that he became a probationer in the RA Schools, sending a picture called An Answer Required to the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street, modestly priced at 10 guineas. Four years later he had two pictures accepted by the Royal Academy, A Flaw in the Title, already mentioned as at Royal Holloway College, and Witness my Act and Seal, which was sold in these Rooms on 29 March 1996, lot 108. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century genre scenes with legal connotations, they were clearly the work of an ambitious young artist eager to show his mantle. Their careful finish betrayed an anxiety to forestall criticism, and in fact they were well received. The Times admired the way in which the artist had avoided the 'besetting fault' of so many genre paintings, 'too strong a smack of the stage,' while the Illustrated London News observed that although 'the faces [were] limned with well-nigh Holbein-like minuteness, and the details of furniture and drapery [were] all handled with exact care,... the general effect...[was], nevertheless, broad and powerful.' A Flaw in the Title was bought by Thomas Taylor, a wealthy cotton manufacturer, and entered Thomas Holloway's collection when Taylor's pictures were sold at Christie's in 1883.

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 identified closely with the RA, and maintained an unbroken record of exhibiting there for forty-two years (1878-1920). He continued to show occasionally at Suffolk Street until 1883, and towards the end of his life he became a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Otherwise his loyalty to the RA seems to have been complete. He certainly never supported the Grosvenor or New Galleries, which represented a seemingly more advanced and liberal alternative.

Given this loyalty, it is curious that the Academy failed to make Blair Leighton an associate, let alone a full member. As early as 1900 the Art Journal was hinting that it was only a matter of time before these honours materialised, but they never did. The contrast with Dicksee, who was already an ARA by 1881 and ended his career as President, is striking. It is true that parallel cases of neglect exist. The somewhat younger academic history painter Herbert Draper was likewise never welcomed into the RA fold. But at least Draper had a picture bought for the Chantrey Bequest, the well-known Lament for Icarus of 1898 (Tate Gallery). Blair Leighton failed to receive this accolade, even though, from today's perspective, his work seems almost the embodiment of Chantrey taste.

Perhaps he was simply uninterested in scaling the academic heights. Certainly he chose not to live in one of the enclaves of RA painters, such as Holland Park or St John's Wood, preferring the more radical yet easygoing neighbourhood of Bedford Park. This garden suburb between Chiswick and Acton had sprung up in the late 1870s, largely to designs by Norman Shaw. A revolutionary concept in domestic architecture and suburban planning, it epitomised the so-called 'Queen Anne' taste and was a showcase for the artistic, moral and social priorities of the Aesthetic movement. As Mark Girouard, its historian, has written, 'light gushed out of it, its sweetness was almost overpowering... A 'Queen Anne' church, a 'Queen Anne' art-school, shop, club and inn, and nearly five-hundred 'Queen Anne' houses were set amid green fields and along tree-lined avenues. Almost every house was equipped with a suitably progressive or artistic family. Children in Kate Greenaway clothes bowled their hoops along the street on their way to co-educational school. Fashionable ladies rode out from the West End to stare at all these odd people; parties of architectural students came on pilgrimages...' (Sweetness and Light; The Queen Anne Movement: 1860-1900, London, 1977, p. 160).

Blair Leighton was among the first settlers, and lived to be one of the area's most senior inhabitants. Having bought 20 Queen Anne's Grove (the name, of course, is significant) in 1881, he moved to 7 Priory Road in 1889, and finally, in 1902, to 14 Priory Road, where he died twenty years later. In 1885 he married Katharine Nash; they had two children, a son, J.E. Blair Leighton, who also became an artist, and a daughter. Whether these were among the hoop-bowling infants who attended the local co-educational school, it is clear from photographs of Blair Leighton's house and studio that the family's domestic surroundings were conventionally 'aesthetic', cluttered with what the author of the 1900 article described as 'quite a collection of old furniture, arms, metal-work, pottery, and other unique relics of the past.'

Blair Leighton took sufficient pride in his collection to mention it in his Who's Who entry. Formed partly as an aid to his elaborate reconstructions of historical events, it was no doubt larger than most. Yet interiors crowded with picturesque bric-à-brac were not unusual in the homes of Bedford Park's 'artistic', 'progressive', or sometimes just 'odd', inhabitants. Blair Leighton's neighbours included T.M. Rooke, Burne-Jones's studio assitant and a protégé of Ruskin; W.B. Yeats and his family, both his father and brother being artists; the Arts and Crafts architect C.F.A. Voysey; the dramatist Arthur Pinero and the actor William Terriss; Frederick York Powell, socialist, Icelandic scholar, and Professor of Modern History at Oxford; Sydney Cockerell, secretary to William Morris's Kelmscott Press and later a distinguished director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge; the 'advanced' American clergyman Moncure Conway; Canon J.W. Horsley, the chaplain of Clerkenwell prison, who devoted himself to the reclamation of burglars; C.S. Loch, secretary to the Charity Organisation Society; the Fenian revolutionary John O'Leary; and the Russian anarchist Sergius Stepniac, who was killed by a train in 1895 when he absentmindedly strayed onto a level-crossing.

Blair Leighton seems to have played his part in this lively community. According to the 1913 Art Annual, he was 'an authority on [the area's] history, ancient and modern', and when his funeral took place at Bedford Park church, St Michael and All Angels, on 4 September 1922, it was attended by at least three other artists who lived locally: J.C. Dollman, who, like Blair Leighton himself, specialised in historical genre and showed regularly at the RA, the popular landscape painter Harry Sutton Palmer, and James Clark. Frank Dicksee was also among the mourners, and the RA sent a wreath.

Blair Leighton never abandoned the pictorial territory he had staked out at the beginning of his career. This was more remarkable than it might seem since historical and literary subjects, so popular during the middle decades of the century, became increasingly less fashionable as impressionism and other forms of French realism strengthened their hold on British taste in the 1880s and '90s. Burne-Jones, who died in 1898, was vividly aware of this development, observing stoically in his declining years that 'the rage for me is over'; and many younger artists who had begun their careers in the same tradition turned to portraiture and other more profitable areas in later life. J.W. Waterhouse and Frank Dicksee are typical examples.

Blair Leighton may not have followed this course, but he did tailor his historical subjects to popular taste. Like Alma-Tadema, whose figures are sometimes characterised as 'Victorians in togas,' 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, but it has always been under the guise of the past.' The most familiar of these costume pieces are those set in the late eighteenth century or the Regency period - The Question (1892). Next-Door Neighbours (1894), In 1816 (1895), A Summer Shower (1896), A Favour (1898), and many more. They are comparable to the work of Marcus Stone, the leading exponent of star-crossed Regency lovers, although the 'Queen Anne' ethos of Bedford Park is also relevant.

But there was more to Blair Leighton than this. He explored many other historical periods, and his work sometimes has an intensity which may surprise those who only know his essays in easy viewing. The two early legal subjects, each rather sombre in mood, have already been noted. They were followed two years later by The Dying Copernicus, and in 1884 by a possibly harrowing Roman subject, The Gladiator's Wife, and an account of one of the most famous (and ill-fated) medieval love-stories, Abelard and his pupil Heloise. The Secret and The Confessional (1885-6) were historical psychodramas in the manner of John Pettie or Seymour Lucas. Romola (1887) illustrated George Eliot's novel set in Renaissance Florence, and To Arms! (1888), in which a youth leaving a church with his bride on his arm is confronted by an armed knight demanding that he immediately enlist, is set in Lutheran Germany. Lady Godiva (1892) examined the famous legend from a new angle, focusing not on the heroine riding naked through the streets of Coventry but the tense encounter between her and her husband which led to her noble action. Melodrama pure and imsple was the object of In Nomine Christi (1896). A group of nuns give refuge to one elderly Jew while the mother superior repels his pursuers by brandishing a cross.

In the late 1890s Blair Leighton's work took on a more poetical and even symbolist tinge. A King and a Beggar Maid (1898) looked again at a theme popularised by Tennyson and Burne-Jones. Elaine (1899) was also Tennysonian, illustrating a subject from the Idylls of the King which inspired an astonishing number of Victorian artists, not to mention the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Blair Leighton continued to explore the Arthuriad in Tristram and Isolde (1907), this time choosing a story to which Swinburne and Wagner had given memorable form; while Pelléas and Mélisande (1910) kept up the symbolist reference, in this case evoking thoughts of Maeterlinck and Debussy. Ultimately, however, this was a passing phase. Perhaps because symbolism itself was losing its hold on popular imagination, or perhaps because it was not Blair Leighton's natural territory, he was soon returning to more literal historical themes. The Boyhood of Alfred the Great (1913), Crusaders (1918), and Evicted (1919), an imaginary scene from the suppression of the English monasteries in 1536, were all among his last exhibits at the Royal Academy.

God Speed, which appeared at the RA in 1900, shows a young woman binding an embroidered sleeve on the arm of her knight as he departs, horsed, fully armed, and bearing a lance decorated with a pennant, for the tournament. Other knights have already passed beneath the portcullis and are entering the field of battle. The picture was the first of several painted by Blair Leighton in the 1900s in which a knight and his lady are seen in incidents illustrative of the code of chivalry; The Accolade (Fig.2) followed in 1901, and The Dedication in 1908. The arms and armour which feature in all these pictures were no doubt in the artist's own collection, which is known to have included many examples.

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 nurals in the Queen's Robing Room in the House of Lords, in which the artist used incidents from the Arthurian stories to embody such abstract concepts as religion, chivalry, generosity and mercy, and the chivalric subjects that Rossetti and his followers were so fond of in the late 1850s. Blair Leighton's approach, of course, was much more academic, and may owe something to a picture such as John Pettie's The Vigil (Tate Gallery), bought for the Chantrey Bequest in 1884.

As for his literary source, this is not so much Malory's Morte d'Arthur itself as Malory seen, in the words of the Art Annual, 'through the interpretation of Tennyson.' Nor is this surprising since in the Idylls of the King Tennyson adopted an approach analogous to that of Alma-Tadema or Blair Leighton, deliberately casting the stories in terms which encouraged his audience to identify with the protagonists. It was Swinburne who wickedly called the poem 'the Morte d'Albert, or Idylls of the Prince Consort', and many of the Laureate's more sophisticated readers had their doubts about the way his work was developing. With the public, however, the Idylls were an enormous success. Written over many years, they were all in print by 1872 with the exception of 'Balin and Balan,' which followed in 1885.

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 1900. The Boer War was raging, and the Royal Academy was full of its reflections, not only A.S. Cope's full-length portrait of Lord Kitchener but subject pictures such as John Bacon's Ordered South (young officer in khaki takes leave of wife and child). George Harcourt's Good-Bye! (more heart-rending partings, this time as the Grenadier Guards leave Waterloo Station), G.D. Leslie's In Time of War (young widow mourns in a poignantly beautiful garden) or David Farquharson's War News (fisherfolk reading a newspaper).

These, however, by no means exhausted the references to the war, which were often cast in historical form. Marcus Stone's A Soldier's Return re-trod his familiar Regency ground, while Seymour Lucas's 'I could not love thee, dear, so much,/Loved I not honour more' showed a young seventeenth-century soldier writing to his sweetheart from the front, using the top of his drum as a makeshift desk. Most numerous of all were the medieval parallels. Briton Riviere's St George, Sigismund Goetze's Dream of the Knight Errant, W. Onslow Ford's Joan of Arc, Solomon J. Solomon's Equipped (knight being armed by kneeling page) and Frank Dicksee's The Two Crowns (knightly hero catches glimpse of a crucifix as he returns in triumph) - all these gain resonance from the events in South Africa and seem to embody some aspect of the complex emtions that the war evoked at home.
Blair Leighton's God Speed is clearly another example of this genre. It is, in effect, a medievalist version of Harcourt's Good-Bye! or Bacon's Ordered South, and perhaps spoke all the more potently to its audience precisely because it cloaked 'contemporary life...under the guise of the past.' Historical and literary subject matter may have been losing ground to realism, but they still retained an extraordinary hold on popular imagination, especially when powerful emotions were involved or the artist was required to distance reality and allow space for self-delusion. Dicksee's Two Crown was, after all, voted 'the best picture' in the exhibition by readers of the Daily News, and bought for the Chantrey Bequest for the then considerable sum of £2,000.

Fig.1 Edmund Blair Leighton

Fig.2 Edmund Blair Leighton
The Accolade
(Private Collection)

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