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

The End of the Song

Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922)
The End of the Song
signed 'E. BLAIR LEIGHTON. 1902' (lower left)
oil on canvas
50½ x 58 in. (128.4 x 147.3 cm.)
R. Schumacher, 1913.
Royal Academy Pictures, 1902, London, 1902, illustrated p. 169.
Academy Notes, 1902, London, 1902, pp. 22, 106 (illustrated).
Frank Rinder, 'The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1902,' Art Journal, 1902, pp. 206 (illustrated), 216-7.
Alfred Yockney, 'The Art of Edmund Blair Leighton,' Art Annual, London, Christmas 1913, pp. 24, 26 (ilustrated), 31.
London, Royal Academy, 1902, no. 401.
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Lot Essay

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1902, two years later than God Speed (lot 16), this picture is one of the artist's innumerable scenes involving young lovers, whether set, as here, in the Middle Ages, or, as is much more common, the Regency era. Alfred Yockney, in the Blair Leighton issue of the Art Annual published at Christmas 1913, devoted a whole section to 'Mr Blair Leighton's Love Stories,' and commended 'his insight into the ways of lovers.'

The picture shows a young woman, evidently a princess, listening to amorous overtures from a good-looking and equally youthful harpist; he has no doubt just been singing a song on the same theme, while she has been busy with her embroidery. Up the steps on the right walks a crowned figure, presumably a king and the girl's father. He strokes his beard quizzically as he contemplates the young couple, who, wrapped in their own thoughts, are unaware of his approach. The honeysuckle which twines round the Romanesque column on the left represents 'love, happiness, and new opportunities' in the language of flowers.

The picture originally struck a much harsher note, and one that greatly enhanced both the poignancy of the title and the force of the honeysuckle symbolism. The king wore an angrier expression and had his right hand on his sword, the inference being that he would soon be drawing it to slay the young musician, who was by no means the sort of person with whom he wished to see his daughter flirting (Fig. 1). As the Victorians (or Edwardians, as they were by this time) would have been well aware, perhaps more so than we are today, Blair Leighton's picture was as much about class distinction and the social status of the artist as it was about amorous dalliance and the capacity of music to be, in Shakespeare's famous phrase, 'the food of love'.

Whatever the subject's implications, an early owner of the picture, possibly the Mr Schumacher who had it in 1913, must have found the original conception too disturbing and asked Blair Leighton to soften it. The artist responded by turning the murderous king into the benign, avuncular figure we see today, at the same time altering the outline of the masonry on the far side of the steps. While the overwork is so much of a piece with the rest of the picture that it can only be autograph, it is not clear when the changes were made. Since the picture is both described and reproduced in its original form in the Art Journal of 1913, one might assume that they were carried out between that date and Blair Leighton's death in 1922. It is not impossible, however, that the writer was working from an earlier photograph (so many of Blair Leighton's pictures were published in photogravure), and that the alterations were already in place by this time. Indeed, it seems more likely that a patron had requested them when he bought the picture on its exhibition in 1902 than that he or some later owner returned the canvas to the artist for revision after 1913.

John Ruskin once confessed that he had 'a great dread of subjects altogether painful,' and he was by no means alone. On 4 November 1994 (lot 99), Christie's sold a picture in London which had been altered for similar reasons to the present work. J.W. Waterhouse's The Crystal Ball, which was in fact exhibited at the RA the very same year as The End of the Song, shows a young sorceress standing in her cell, surrounded by necromantic bric-à-brac and gazing into the eponymous ball. A skull which appears on the table in a photograph published in the Art Journal in 1909 had been painted out, in this case probably not by the artist himself.

Although The End of the Song illustrates no specific incident in history or literature, it recalls two well-known literary subjects, Tristram and Iseult and Paolo and Francesca. The connection with the theme of Tristam and Iseult is underlined by the fact that Blair Leighton actually painted these celebrated medieval lovers in a picture exhibited at the RA in 1907 but now apparently lost. The story is part of the Arthurian cycle, but enjoyed a vigorous life in European medieval literature long before Malory appropriated it for the Morte d'Arthur. Iseult was the daughter of King Anguish of Ireland and the wife of King Mark of Cornwall, Tristram's treacherous and mean-spirited uncle. The love between her and Tristram, conceived in Ireland when he went to ask for her hand in marriage on Mark's behalf, was confirmed when, by a fatal mistake, they drank the love-potion intended for Mark during their sea voyage back to Cornwall. Wagner's operatic treatment of the theme was first performed in 1865, and Swinburne's epic poem Tristram of Lyonesse followed in 1882. Pictorial accounts had been rare, but in the early 1860s the story had inspired a well-known set of domestic stained-glass panels which were made by the William Morris firm to designs by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, Morris himself, and others. Several of the artists had painted easel versions of their stained-glass cartoons, and it is not impossible that Blair Leighton knew Madox Brown's Death of Sir Tristram (Fig. 2), a characteristically eccentric composition in which King Mark interrupts the lovers and murders his nephew.

The real-life story of Paolo and Frencesca is also one of adulterous passion. Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta fell in love while reading a romance (as it happens, about another Arthurian hero, Sir Lancelot), and were discovered and murdered by Francesca's outraged husband. Dante refers to the tragedy, which occurred c. 1285, in the Divine Comedy, describing how he encounters the lovers in the second circle of hell, where carnal sinners are punished. It was this reference which made the story so popular in the nineteenth century. Keats treated it in a sonnet and it was attempted by many artists, including Flaxman, Ingres (Fig. 3). Blake, J.A. Koch, Delacroix, Ary Scheffer, C.W. Cope, William Dyce (Fig. 4), G.F. Watts, Frederic Leighton, D.G. Rossetti, and the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Alexander Munro. A monumental painting by Charles Edward Hallé, dating from as late as 1888, was sold in these Rooms on 13 March 1992, lot 89 (Fig. 5). Any number of versions might have been known to Blair Leighton and coloured his conception of The End of the Song. Dyce's painting, dating from 1837 (Fig. 4), makes a particuarly interesting comparison, if only because a former owner, finding the figure of the jealous husband too distressing, had him cut out, leaving only the tips of his fingers visible on the left-hand edge of the canvas.

The harp which the young musician has been playing in The End of the Song was no doubt in Blair Leighton's possession. As he tells us in his Who's Who entry, he had 'a collection of old musical instruments,' and they appear in many of his pictures. Other examples are My Heart and Lute (Regency love scene, 1885), Fame (Anglo-Saxon bard rivalry, 1889), and How Lisa loved the King (subject from Boccaccio, 1890). Since Sir Tristram was also a great harpist, it would not be surprising to discover that he was shown playing his instrument in the missing Tristram and Isolde of 1907.
Fig. 1 The End of the Song, as originally executed by the artist (Art Annual, 1913)

Fig. 2 Ford Madox Brown
The Death of Sir Tristram
(Courtesy of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

Fig. 3 Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Paolo and Francesca
(Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library)

Fig. 4 William Dyce (1806-1864)
Francesca da Rimini
(Courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)

Fig. 5 Charles Edward Hallé (1846-1919)
Paolo and Francesca
(Christie's London, 13 March 1992, lot 89)

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