Born in London, the son of Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859), the genre painter, who wrote the Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Leslie studied under his father and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1855. The following year he began to exhibit at the Academy, of which he was elected an Associate in 1868 and a full Member in 1876. He lived for many years in St John's Wood, north London, where he belonged to the group of artists known as the St John's Wood Clique, which also included P.H. Calderon, H. Stacy Marks, G.A. Storey and W.F. Yeames among its members, all of whom are represented in this sale. It was an affluent age in which artists acquired large fortunes and a growing social status. Leslie was among a number of artists who commissioned the distinguished architect Richard Norman Shaw to design houses for them in favoured areas like Holland Park or, as in Leslie's case, St John's Wood. Artists took a pride in their houses as a means of displaying their taste and wealth. Leslie's own interiors were handsomely furnished in a style appropriate to Shaw's 'Queen Anne' architecture, and closely correspond to those which appear in many of his paintings. In the 1880s he moved to Wallingford on the Thames in Berkshire, next to the Hayllars (see entry to the previous lot), where he wrote several books about the river and local life. In 1906 he settled at Linfield in Sussex, and in 1914 he published The Inner Life of the Royal Academy, an interesting account of the Academy, based on long personal experience, in which he recalled, among other things, seeing Turner retouching his paintings on Varnishing Day and how he himself had acted as assistant to the famous painter of animals, Sir Edwin Landseer. He died, the oldest surviving member of the Royal Academy, in February 1921.
George Dunlop Leslie is attributed with having established a category of aesthetic painting in which feminine beauty and fine painted decorative accessories play a major part. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857, as a painter of historical and literary genre, but in the mid-1860s a more purely Aesthetic approach to painting was developing, most notably in the work of Albert Moore and James McNeill Whistler, which was having a profound effect on all the more progressive artists of the day. Leslie often used the eighteenth century as his setting for a composition and combined the old-fashioned charm of a previous age with the sophisticated technique perfected in his own. Critics frequently identified Leslie's distinguishing feature as an exceptional degree of refinement, which enabled him, as the Illustrated London News acknowledged in 1874, to render 'the sweet naiveté and innocence of pure maidenhood with rare delicacy'.
Leslie's aesthetic approach is here applied to a modern genre subject. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874 and was aptly described by the Athenaeum as representing a lady 'seated in a conservatory, with a tea equipage at her side, waiting the return of her husband, and with a sweet look on a face, the fresh beauty of which Time has marred, while it has somewhat dimmed a pair of eyes that retain an exquisite grace of look.' Minutely painted, Leslie's evocation of the popular Victorian theme of a solitary female in a garden has many precedents including Ford Madox Brown's The Nosegay (circa 1865-6) and John Atkinson Grimshaw's portrayal of his wife in The Rector's Garden: Queen of the Lilies of 1877. Leslie himself had done earlier examples such as Lilies, (circa 1868) and Lady in a Garden (1869-70). In 1865, John Ruskin had written an essay entitled 'Of Queen's Gardens' in which he promoted the idea of the Victorian lady as the ultimate gardener and guardian of virtue in both the home and country. The enclosed garden also has an earlier Biblical reference to the hortus conclusus emblematic of Mary's purity.
Five O'Clock was exhibited in the same year as Pot Pourri which was sold in these Rooms on 27 November 2002, lot 13 (£446,650). It was one of his most celebrated works in which he employed the costumes and designs of the eighteenth century to achieve his aesthetic aims.