Frederic Leighton holds the record for the shortest peerage in history (one day) and was mourned by Queen Victoria. Rose Balston writes about this underestimated artist whose opulent house can still be visited today.
Frederic Leighton was the first English painter to be made a peer. On 24 January 1896, one hundred and six years ago this month, he became Baron Leighton of Stretton in the County of Shropshire. The next day, he died. The shortest peerage in English history, Leighton’s influence on the Victorian art world in the second half of the 19th century was unparalleled.
That said, Leighton’s life is often underestimated. Art history has lain disproportionately on his painting, which is considered by many as lacking the intellectual vigour, spiritual depth and technical genius of ‘great art’. Fair enough. Yet it is often forgotten that he was an astonishingly generous patron of the arts, a well-seasoned traveller, an exceptionally discerning collector and a much valued President of the Royal Academy. When Leighton died, his body was laid in state in both his studio and the RA. He was carried with full pomp to St Paul’s Cathedral, crowds lining the streets, women crying and fainting. The Times wrote of ‘a light put out’. The Queen too was affected, falling into deep mourning for this social and benevolent lion.
Born to a family that had made its money doctoring the Imperial Court of St Petersburg, Leighton left Russia to travel and gain his education in Europe. In Germany, Italy and France he trained, studied the old masters and developed his artistic style. Back home his first major coup was to sell his canvas of ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is carried through the streets of Florence’ to the Queen in 1855. The painting now hangs prominently at the National Gallery’s main entrance. In 1864, Leighton moved to Holland Park, following the footsteps of his great friend and fellow artist George Frederick Watts. By the time of Leighton’s death, 22 young artists had moved to the area in hope to shine under these two great artistic lights. And shine they did, for Leighton ceaselessly promoted them, bought their work, encouraged them and even lent them money.
It was not just artistic talent Leighton encouraged, but also beauty. The best known case was his model, the young, ravishing, aspiring actress Dorothy Deane. Unfortunately for her, her voice grated even the most hardened ears. In Pygmalion-smacking style, Leighton paid for elocution and acting lessons, and provided nourishment for her impoverished east-end family. And no, we don’t know whether there was a love affair. While always in the lime-light, Leighton was in fact scrupulously private, leaving little for voyeuristic biographers as regards his love life. His stark single-bed bedroom doesn’t do much to build up his image as a great lover, though…
In sharp contrast to his monkish cell, the remainder of Leighton’s house is opulent to the extreme. Understand that his exotic collection came first (a combination of middle-eastern trophies and English contemporary art), and the house second, the latter shifting and developing organically for the next jigsaw piece that entered the front door. It became a testament to the promotion of talent and to the Aesthetic core ideal: ‘art for art’s sake’. The house was regularly thrown open to the public, aiming to inspire and astonish, to raise the individual up from the industrial revolution’s drudgery to a place of beauty, harmony, light and luxury.
To appreciate the house, you need to go. Set just off Holland Park, exotic beauty shines in each and every room. There’s an Egyptian window niche; Millais’ ‘Woman shelling Peas’; a tinkling fountain; a Turkish wedding chest; embroidery by the Princess of Wales; deep blue Damascene tiles; Gilbert Scott’s statue of Icarus; a seductive painting of Orpheus and Euridice; and a stuffed peacock; there are countless other treasures besides.
Leighton’s most famous paintings pales in comparison to the opulence and grandeur of his house. It is this building that is the true testament to the man, his style, the artists he ceaselessly helped, and his vision of combating the ever-changing turbulence of the modern world.
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