Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Leighton, Frederic
LEIGHTON, FREDERIC, Baron Leighton of Stretton (1830–1896), president of the Royal Academy of Arts, was born at Scarborough on 3 Dec. 1830. His family came originally from Shropshire. His grandfather and father were both physicians. His grandfather James (afterwards Sir James) Boniface Leighton was invited to the Russian court, and was court physician under both Alexander I and Nicholas I. His son Frederic Septimus (1800–1892) was educated for the medical profession at Edinburgh, and practised successfully until about 1843, when increasing deafness compelled him to retire. He settled for a time at Bath, but afterwards returned to Scarborough, and finally to London, where he died on 24 Jan. 1892. In spite of the physical disability just mentioned, he was a man of great social talent and of most agreeable manners. His wife, Lord Leighton's mother, was Augusta Susan, daughter of George Augustus Nash of Edmonton.
The young Frederic Leighton showed an early love for drawing and filled many books with his sketches, but these do not seem to have been of a kind to impress his family very profoundly, and his father, it must be said, disliked the idea of art as a profession. While the boy was still very young, his mother's delicate health gave him his first chance of seeing foreign countries. The family travelled abroad, and in the year 1839, before Frederic was ten years old, he found himself one day in the studio of George Lance in Paris. From this visit his father's acceptance of the idea that possibly nature had made the boy an artist appears to date. Dr. Leighton determined, however, that his choice should not be limited by any one-sided education. In London, Rome, Dresden, Berlin, Frankfort, and Florence, his education was pursued, with the result that, in one particular at least, it was vastly more thorough than usual with an English boy of his condition. He became an accomplished linguist, speaking the four chief modern languages with almost equal facility. It was in Florence in 1844 that his profession was finally settled. Dr. Leighton consulted Hiram Power, the sculptor of 'The Greek Slave,' as to whether he should make his son an artist. 'Sir,' said Power, 'Nature has done it for you,' adding that the boy could become 'as eminent as he pleased.'
Work was begun in earnest in the Accademia delle Belle Arti, under Bezzuoli and Servolini, whose influence did little but harm. Leighton soon left Florence for Frankfort, where he resumed his general education. At the age of seventeen he finally left school, and worked at art for a year in the Staedel Institute. In 1848 he moved with his family to Brussels, where he painted one or two pictures, including a 'Cimabue finding Giotto.' In 1849 he was in Paris, copying pictures in the Louvre, and attending a so-called school of art in the Rue Richer. Leighton's individuality was not robust enough for such constant change, and it is probable that he would have been a greater artist than he was, had his early training been more favourable to concentration. His real and serious studentship began only after he left Paris, when he was already in his twentieth year. He returned to Frankfort, and there worked strenuously for three years under Johann Eduard Steinle (1810–1886), of whom he ever afterwards spoke as his only real master. While under Steinle he painted several pictures, the most notable perhaps 'The Plague of Florence,' a cartoon founded on Boccaccio's description.
Late in 1852 he went to Rome, where his pleasant manners and varied accomplishments won him hosts of friends, among them Thackeray, George Sand, Lord Lyons, Gibson, George Mason, Hebert, Mrs. Kemble, Gerome, Bouguereau, and others. It was after meeting him here that Thackeray wrote to Millais, who was Leighton's senior by rather more than a year, 'I have met in Rome a versatile young dog who will run you hard for the presidentship one day.' Soon after he arrived in Rome, Leighton hegan work on the picture with which he was to draw public attention to himself for the first time. This was 'Cimabue's "Madonna" carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence,' now in Buckingham Palace. It was at the academy in 1855, and was bought by Queen Victoria for 600l. After a happy and triumphant season in London, Leighton went to Paris, where he came under the spell of yet another quasi genius in Robert Fleury. On his return to London in 1858, he became intimate with the members, then shaking apart, of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, an intimacy to which perhaps we owe the famous drawings of 'A Lemon Tree' and 'A Byzantine Well-head,' which drew such inevitable praise from John Ruskin [q. v. Suppl.] The 'Lemon Tree' drawing was made in Capri in 1859. In 1860 Leighton established himself at '2 Orme Square, Bayswater, which remained his home until he moved into his famous house in Holland Park Road. Between 1860 and 1866 he was a steady exhibitor at the Royal Academy, his chief contributions being 'Paolo and Francesca,' 'The Odalisque,' 'Dante at Verona,' 'Orpheus and Eurydice,' 'Golden Hours,' and 'A Syracusan Bride leading Wild Beasts in Procession to the Temple of Diana.' In 1866 he was elected an A.R.A., and immediately justified his election by exhibiting his 'Venus disrobing for the Bath,' an essay in the nude which perhaps he never excelled. This year, 1866, was an eventful one in his career, for it saw his migration to the fine house in Holland Park Road, Kensington, which was built for him by Mr. George Aitchison, R.A., and also the completion of his fine wall-painting in Lyndhurst church, 'The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.'
In 1868 Leighton made the Nile tour in company with Lesseps, who was then nearing the conclusion of his own great work. This journey led to a little dabbling in oriental subjects, which, however, took no great hold on his imagination. In 1869 he was elected a royal academician, exhibiting 'Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon' and 'Dædalus and Icarus,' and painting a St. Jerome as his diploma picture. In 1870 the winter exhibitions, which owed much to his advocacy, were started at Burlington House. The two succeeding summer exhibitions contained three of Leighton's best pictures, the 'Hercules wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis,' 'The Condottiere,' and 'The Summer Moon.' In 1873 he paid a second visit to the East, the outcome of which was a series of oriental pictures, 'The Egyptian Slinger' and 'The Moorish Garden' being perhaps the best. The creation by which, in some quarters, Leighton is best known had its origin in this eastern tour. He collected a number of fine Persian tiles, and was smitten with the desire to make appropriate use of them. Hence the famous Arab hall in his house at Kensington. To the next few years belong some of his best pictures, e.g. the 'Daphnephoria' and the 'Portrait of Sir Richard Burton'(1876), 'The Music Lesson' (1877), 'Winding the Skein,' and 'Nausicaa' (1878). In 1877 he burst on the world as a sculptor, exhibiting the ' Athlete struggling with a Python,' which is now in the gallery at Millbank.
In 1878 Sir Francis Grant [q. v.] died, and Leighton succeeded him as president of the Royal Academy, the usual knighthood following his election (25 Nov. 1878). As president he completely realised the hopes of his friends. Punctual almost to a fault, tactful, energetic, and equal to every social demand that could be made upon him, he filled the office with extraordinary distinction in the eyes both of his fellow-countrymen and of strangers. And yet the years which followed his election were among the most prolific of his artistic career. Between 1878 and 1895, when his activity was abruptly closed by disease, he painted the two fine wall-pictures in the Victoria and Albert Museum; he completed his second statue, 'The Sluggard,' which now stands at Millbank as a pendant to the 'Athlete with a Python,' as well as a charming statuette, 'Needless Alarms,' which he presented to Sir John Millais; and sent the following pictures, among others, to the exhibition of the Royal Academy: 'Biondina' (1879), 'Portrait of Signor Costa' and 'Sister's Kiss' (1880), his own portrait for the Uffizi (1881); 'Wedded,' 'Daydreams,' and 'Phryne at Eleusis' (1882),' 'Cymon and Iphigenia' (1884), 'Portrait of 'Lady Sybil Primrose' (1885), 'The Last Watch of Hero' (1887), 'Captive Andromache' (1888), 'Greek Girls playing Ball' (1889), The Bath of Psyche' (1890 ; Millbank Gallery), 'Perseus and Andromeda' (1891), The Garden of the Hesperides' (1892), and 'Rizpah' (1893). His last important works were the wall decoration on canvas for the Royal Exchange, 'Phœnicians trading with the Britons,' finished in 1895, and an unfinished 'Clyde,' which was at the 1896 academy. On 11 Feb. 1886 Leighton had been created a baronet.
Early in 1895 his health had given disquieting signs of collapse. He was ordered to cease all work, and to take rest in a warm climate. Prompt obedience to his doctor gave him temporary relief from his most distressing symptoms. Sir John Millais, who was himself beginning to suffer from the disease which was afterwards to prove fatal, took his place at the academy dinner, and did what he could to lighten his colleague's anxieties. It was hoped that these prompt measures had proved more or less effectual, and when Leighton returned to England late in 1895, the immediate danger was thought to have passed away. On 1 Jan. 1896 it was announced that he was to be raised to the peerage as Baron Leighton of Stretton. His patent bore date 24 Jan., and on the following day Leighton died at his house in Holland Park Road; his peerage, which 'existed but a day, is unique' (G. E. C[okayne], Complete Peerage, viii. 245). He was buried on 3 Feb. in St. Paul's, the coffin being inscribed with his style as a peer.
Lord Leighton was an honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, a LL.D. of Cambridge, and a LL.D. of Edinburgh, all of which degrees were conferred in 1879. He was a member of many foreign artistic societies. He was president of the international jury of painting for the Paris Exhibition of 1878. He was a member of the Society of Painters in Watercolours from 1888 onwards. He was for many years colonel of the artists' regiment of volunteers, but resigned the post in 1883. He was unmarried. His heirs were his two sisters, Mrs. Sutherland Orr and Mrs. Matthews. After his death a movement was set afoot to establish a memorial museum in his own house in Kensington, a project which, in spite of controversy, was realised. A large number of those drawings and studies on which his fame will rest perhaps most securely in the future have found a home in what was once his studio.
It is recorded that Leighton used to assert of himself that he was not a great painter. 'Thank goodness,' he also declared, 'I was never clever at anything!' The first of these assertions was truer than the second. He was not a great painter. He lacked both temperament and creative power, and had nothing particular to say with paint. On the other hand he saw beauty and could let us see that he saw it. He was clever in the best sense, and by dint of taking thought could clothe his intentions in a pleasant envelope. Occasionally he failed disastrously through pure lack of humour, as, for instance, in his 'Andromeda;' on the other hand, the frankness of his objective admirations led him occasionally to success of a very unusual kind in such pictures as 'Summer Moon,' ' The Music Lesson,' and 'Wedded.' In spite of his training under various good draughtsmen, Leighton was not a great draughtsman himself. His forms were soft, the attaches especially — wrists, ankles, &c. — being nerveless and inefficient, a fault which was accentuated by the unreality of his textures. But in design, as distinguished from draughtsmanship, he is often as nearly great as a man without creative genius can be. His studies of drapery are exquisite, and nothing could well be more rhythmical than the organisation of line in such pictures as the three just mentioned. Leighton contributed designs to George Eliot's novel of 'Romola' and to 'Dalziel's Bible,' which take a very high place among illustrations in black and white; also one design each for Mrs. Browning's poem, 'The Great God Pan,' and Mrs. Sartoris's 'Week in a French Country House,' both published in the 'Cornhill Magazine.'
Lord Leighton delivered biennially eight discourses at the Royal Academy between 1879 and 1893. They formed a series tracing the development of art in Europe, and dealing philosophically with the chief phases through which it passed; they were published as 'Addresses delivered to Students of the Royal Academy,' London, 1896, 8vo ; 2nd ed. 1897.
The contents of Lord Leighton's studio were sold at Christie's in July 1896, when the studies, especially those of landscape in oil, were eagerly competed for. A catalogue of his principal works is appended to the short biography by Mr. Ernest Rhys, published in 1900.
His portrait by himself is in the famous collection of artists' portraits in the Uffizi at Florence ; another, by Mr. G. F. Watts, R.A., is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.[Times, 26 Jan. 1896; Athenæum, January 1896 ; Life and Work of Sir Frederic Leighton, P.R.A., by Helen Zimmern; Frederic, Lord Leighton, by Ernest Rhys, 1895 ; private information.]