Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. (1830-1896)
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Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. (1830-1896)

In St Mark's

Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. (1830-1896)
In St Mark's
oil on canvas
42 x 27 in. (106.7 x 68.6 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 27 November 1953, lot 32 (unsold).
Times, 29 April 1865, p. 12.
Athenaeum, no. 1957, 29 April 1865, p. 593.
Art Journal, 1865, p. 163.
E. Rhys, Sir Frederick Leighton, Bart. P.R.A., London, 1895, p. 67. Mrs Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, London, 1906, vol. 2, p. 384.
L. and R. Ormond, Lord Leighton, New Haven and London, 1975, p. 156, no. 109.
London, Royal Academy, 1865, no. 316.
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VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.

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Lot Essay

This attractive but deeply felt and subtle picture is a rediscovery. Recorded as 'untraced' by the Ormonds in their 1975 monograph, it has not been seen in public since it was offered at Christie's in November 1953, unsurprisingly failing to sell at a time when Victorian art was in almost total eclipse. It was one of five works that Leighton showed at the Royal Academy in 1865, no doubt hoping to make as favourable an impression as possible and justify the Academy's decision to elect him to associate membership the previous summer. The other four exhibits were Helen of Troy (private collection, India); David (Cleveland Museum of Art; see the Leighton Exhibition at the R.A., 1996, cat. no. 34, illustrated); and two smaller works: Mother and Child (Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery; 1996 exh., cat. no. 32, illustrated) and Widow's Prayer (Cecil French Bequest, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham; exh. Beauty Never Fails, Fulham Palace, 2008, no. 29, illustrated).

In St Mark's and Widow's Prayer are closely related. Both are genre subjects treated with the idealism that Leighton habitually brought even to quotidian themes; and both are products of his visit to Venice in the autumn of 1864. Widow's Prayer shows a young widow in deepest mourning praying at an altar in the shadowed recesses of St Mark's, her infant daughter playing nearby in happy ignorance of her mother's grief; while in In St Mark's a mother carrying her little girl emerges from an aisle of the great basilica, a painted shield and evergreen festoons high above her head, pigeons flapping at her feet. The child is almost identical in both pictures and they might indeed be the same couple, especially as the mother's dress in In St Mark's is black. Over it, however, she wears a cloak of deep moss-green of which there is no sign in Widow's Prayer.

Both pictures make great play with dramatic lighting, emphasising the way shafts of sunlight, piercing stained-glass windows, pick out architectural details in the church's cavernous depths. Leighton also explored this effect in more objective studies, presumably painted on the spot while the two figure subjects are studio products (for one of these studies, see C. Newall, The Art of Lord Leighton, Oxford and New York, 1990, p. 65, pl. 40); and they would undoubtedly have featured yet again in The Mosaicists, another picture he planned to execute under the influence of St Mark's. It never materialised, but the concept found echoes in a later work, After Vespers (1872; Art Museum, Princeton University), in which an Italian girl is seen leaving church, her three-quarter-length figure etched against the glowing tones of a mosaic-lined apse.

In other respects In St Mark's and Widow's Prayer are very diffferent. In St Mark's is an upright composition, grave and monumental in both mood and design. The figures are seen from a low viewpoint to emphasise their statuesque character, while the layers of masonry, receding from the great framing doorway, create an overpowering sense of structural stability and weight. Only the quarrelling pigeons break the feeling of poise and reserve, or rather heighten it by contrast.

In Widow's Prayer, on the other hand, all is emotional intensity. The almost square format offers no escape from the drama of the young woman's grief, which is focussed still further by a device comparable to but more overt than the pigeons in In St Mark's: the widow's oblivious child, happily playing in a sunbeam with an apple. There is something decidedly Pre-Raphaelite about this conception, and it is probably no accident that Leighton had been seeing much of the Pre-Raphaelites recently, having collaborated with them on the Dalziel brothers' projected illustrated Bible and the furnishing of William White's new church at Lyndhurst in the New Forest. While Morris and Burne-Jones had been responsible for the church's stained glass, Leighton had painted a mural above the altar representing the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. He announced the completion of the mural on 23 August 1864, and within a few days had set out on the visit to Venice of which our paitning and Widow's Prayer are products.

Everyone liked In St Mark's when it appeared at the Academy. F.G. Stephens, now in his fourth year as art critic on the Athenaeum, thought it 'a beautiful, indeed almost perfect study of colour in an artistic sense; the admirable disposition of the drapery and the perfect combination of the figure with the background, as respects chiaroscuro and tones, merit great applause'. The Art Journal too, if insufferably pompous, was complimentary. It considered the picture 'in some respects the artist's most satisfactory [exhibit]. There are in it a simple nature and a vigorous truth, and especially in the architectural background of shadow-casting arches in the caverned cathedral, a solemnity to which we trust Mr Leighton may, as years add to the sobriety of his judgement, again and again recur with gathered strength'. As for Tom Taylor in the Times, he could not resist slightly sneering references to Leighton's 'culture', 'refinement' and 'technical mannerism', phrases which betray all too clearly a philistine's response to the rising tide of Aestheticism. Even he, however, was forced to admit that the new A.R.A. was 'one of our few painters who aim at style and the expression of a dominant idea'. He was highly 'accomplished', showed astonishing 'versatility', and In St Mark's and Widow's Prayer were 'poems of Venetian life and colour'.

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