George Dunlop Leslie is renowned for having established a category of painting in which feminine beauty and finely painted decorative accessories play a major part. With the late eighteenth century as his favourite setting, Leslie successfully combined the old-fashioned charm of a previous age with the sophisticated technique perfected in his own. It is a formula which is seen at its finest in Pot-Pourri.
Leslie first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857, initially 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. This was to have a profound effect on all the more progressive artists of the day. After a brief experiment with classical motifs of the kind Moore regularly employed, Leslie found his own niche in subjects like Pot-Pourri. The artistic potential of an eighteenth-century world populated by elegantly dressed young women had been recognised initially by James Tissot, who came to London in 1870. It was to be developed substantially by Leslie and Marcus Stone, but the emotional tensions of the love-crossed couples who inhabit Stone's world have no place in Leslie's, where serenity and beauty reign undisturbed. 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', and which gave him 'an entrée to an eighteenth century arcadia to which none of his rivals has found the key'.
In the present picture two young women are engaged in preparing pot-pourri. A china bowl, already filled with freshly mixed petals and spices, stands on a table; the sprigs of lavender and twist of orris root, as well as the pestle and mortar, provide evidence of the mixture's completion. The elder woman tests its perfume, while the younger one awaits her judgement. Both are dressed in the costume of the late eighteenth century, with delicate muslin skirts and fichus, and soft silk overdresses in the subdued colours beloved by the Aesthetic Movement - in this case a soft leaf green, dark blue and grey. Leslie's technique is seen at its best in the rendering of fabrics such as these; in the warm, pale, diffused light which filters through the linen blinds, illuminating the whole interior; and in details like the bee perched on the left hand windowpane, or the cord tassle hanging from the blind. The cane-backed Queen Anne chair and modest table, together with the magnificent specimens of imported china and the formal garden - a gentle harmony of pale greens and yellows glimpsed through the window, are typical of the elements from which Leslie created his gracious, old-world subjects.
When Pot-Pourri was exhibited in 1874 it earned universal praise. The Athenaeum commented on its rare beauty and predicted that it would be a 'centre of attraction'. The critic admired the women as of a type especially associated with Leslie: a type which no-one else 'paints so well or half so well as he'. The Art Journal agreed, congratulating the artist on his abandoning of classical subjects in favour of a category more sympathetic to his talents. The critic noted thorough understanding of 'the sources of a certain delicate beauty proper to a refined type of English girlhood', and also 'the power - genuinely artistic in its kind - to bring all the materials of the composition into accord with the dainty spirit that inspires it. A remarkable feature of this and other pictures by Mr Leslie', the critic added, 'is the unforced impress of brightness and gladness' which he infused into the compositions. 'Such a bright joyous harmony as Mr Leslie has secured in this picture, with the rose-leaves and the space of the garden behind, and the great jars of oriental china, must be reckoned as a merit of a very rare kind'.
More than one critic commented on the effect of filtered sunlight. F.G. Stephens, writing in the Athenaeum, thought it exquisitely rendered, and the Art Journal also 'the drawn blind upon one of the windows... cleverly employed to emphasise the warm sunshine it effects to exclude'. Stephens also enthused about the admirable painting of the china vases: 'bowls and beakers of quaint devices and delicious tints.'
Pot-Pourri was recognised as one of Leslie's most important works and, together with other paintings in the same vein, earned his election as R.A. in 1876. Pot-Pourri was chosen to represent Leslie at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, the Manchester Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1887, and the Guildhall Modern Masters Exhibition in 1900, and drew praise on every occasion. The Aesthetic quality and feminine charm of Leslie's work would always ensure its popularity, but it was also recognised as serving an important function in the modern world, in the sense of providing a palliative to its increasing pressures. In a review of Leslie's achievement, Wilfred Meynell praised the artist for supplying what was perhaps the the most pressing need of the age, 'the need for sweetness and cheerfulness of heart.' Meynell felt that 'the painter... who towards the end of a melancholy century, gives us the images of free and serene happiness, has understood his art and his time'. Leslie himself agreed on the point, explaining that his aim had 'always been to paint pictures from the sunny side of English domestic life... the times are so imbued with turmoil and misery, hard work and utilitarianism, that innocence, joy, and beauty seem to be the most fitting subjects to render such powers as I possess useful to my fellow-creatures'.
George was the son of one of the great originators of Victorian genre, Charles Robert Leslie. He was a founder member of the St John's Wood Clique which included Philip H. Calderon, George Adolphus Storey, H. Stacy Marks and W.J.F. Yeames - all highly successful painters of literary and historical genre. In her memoirs, Storey's daughter recalls how this 'splendid, happy, unselfish and high-sprited' group would meet almost daily for mutual criticism, encouragement, and advice. Their adopted crest - a gridiron - was chosen to indicate 'that members were constantly on the grill' in the sense of criticizing 'each other's works in the frankest and most unsparing manner' (Gladys Storey, All Sort of People, 1929, pp. 52-3). But although close friends and associates, each member retained his own distinctive individuality, a point emphasised in 1874 by the Saturday Review. Each in his own way played an important role in helping to elevate genre subjects to a new level of sophistication, devising attractive subjects which appealed to the taste of a growing number of discerning collectors. 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 his paintings. In 1898 T.H.S. Escott, in a book significantly entitled Personal Forces of the Period, described Leslie and fellow artists Marcus Stone and William Quiller Orchardson as 'finished and prosperous men of the world in social request everywhere', and noted how each had helped to materially improve 'the status of his... profession.'
Leslie exhibited at the Royal Academy annually from 1857 to 1920, the year before his death. In 1884 he moved to Riverside House at Wallingford-on-Thames. His enthusiasm for the area resulted in an illustrated book, Our River (1888), which includes descriptions of architecture in the locality, dating from the period he most admired, the eighteenth century. His amusing and informative account of The Inner Life of the Royal Academy, which has remained an important source for historians, appeared in 1914.
We are grateful to Mary Cowling for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.