This is a plaster cast of a lost sketch for Leighton's Athlete wrestling with a Python, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877 (see lot 28). None of the original wax or clay models appears to survive, but casts similar to the present one exist in the Royal Academy, the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tate version was given by Leighton to Alphonse Legros, while the RA version was a gift to John Pettie. The latter is illustrated in the catalogue of the RA's Leighton Exhibition, 1996, p. 182.
The present cast was given by Leighton to George Clausen in February 1895. Clausen was twenty-two years younger than Leighton and, as a leading exponent of British impressionism, much influenced by Millet and Bastien-Lepage, poles apart from him in style. He had also been a critic of the Academy under Leighton's presidency; in a letter to the Times of 7 August 1886 he had joined Holman Hunt and Walter Crane in advocating a more representative exhibition of national art. Despite all this, Leighton had the highest regard for Clausen. He was a generous patron and encourager of young artists, helping to promote the work of Lavery, Furse and the Newlyn School, and personally commissioning drawings from Beardsley, Laurence Housman and Charles Ricketts. However, as Leonée and Richard Ormond have observed, 'of the younger group of artists, George Clausen was the one he probably admired the most. He tried to buy a watercolour of a white horse from him in 1893, and when that failed asked the artist to keep him in mind for something similar; he eventually acquired a small oil landscape. He was no doubt largely responsible for the Chantrey purchase of Clausen's Girl at the Gate (Tate Gallery), and he continued to regard Clausen and Sargent as the two great hopes of British painting' (Lord Leighton, 1975, p. 106).
Despite his criticism of the Royal Academy, Clausen showed there from 1876 and was elected an Associate in 1895, a year before Leighton's death. In the catalogue of Joanna Barnes's exhibition (loc. cit.), the plaster is said to have been given to him on this occasion, but it is possible that Leighton exchanged it for Clausen's 'small oil landscape.' Three letters from Leighton to Clausen concerning his aquisition of a work by the younger artist are in the Royal Academy's archive, but they shed no light on the matter beyond confirming that the landscape was in Leighton's possession by November 1895, nine months after he had given Clausen the plaster sketch.
The phrase 'O Captain, my captain' inscribed under the base is borrowed from Walt Whitman (apostrophising Abraham Lincoln). It was presumably intended by Leighton as an elegant compliment, reflecting his admiration for the younger artist.