This picture is a rediscovery, having passed by descent in the family of the artist Herbert Olivier (1861-1952), uncle of the actor Sir Laurence Olivier, and an official war artist who captured for posterity the protagonists at the Treaty of Versailles (see various pictures now in the Imperial War Museum). It is unclear how the picture was acquired by the family, but it is probable that the younger artist came to Leighton’s attention as he started exhibiting at the Royal Academy, where Leighton was President, in 1883. It is possible that the picture was given by Leighton to Olivier as a gift. The artists were neighbours in Kensington. Alternatively, several Capri views were included in Leighton’s studio sale, held at Christie’s in 1896, shortly after his death. Sadly, their titles are so generic as to preclude precise identification and it was the practice then for private individuals to employ dealers to bid for them at auction. Moreover, it appears that this work was reframed in the early 20th Century, and no stock number, or sale date and lot number, is visible on the reverse.
The buildings depicted are identifiable as those to the left seen in Capri, Sunrise (fig. 1), sold at Christie’s, New York, 31 October 2018, lot 2 ($100,000). In April 1859 Leighton embarked on a journey through Italy before spending six weeks on the island of Capri. Unshackled from worries about work intended for public exhibition, the six weeks on Capri proved to be an incredibly fertile period, and he produced a series of ravishing botanical studies, architectural drawings and plein air oil sketches. This was the first time that Leighton had made such a series of studies in oil, which demonstrate his awareness of the tradition of oil sketching en plein air popularized by neo-classical artists such as Pierre-Henri Valenciennes, and the work of his contemporaries Giovanni Costa and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
We are grateful to Richard and Leonee Ormond and to Daniel Robbins, Curator of the Leighton House Museum, for confirming the authenticity of this work.