Victorian Art & Design
Frederic, Lord Leighton 1830-1896

Frederic Leighton was famed for his classical paintings of beautiful women in Greek or Roman draperies. He studied art in Germany, Florence, Rome and Paris. He was the friend of other artists and also of writers, like the poets, Robert and Elizabeth  Browning, whom he met at their home in Florence, and the novelist Thackeray whom he met in Rome, Thackeray wrote to Millais to say that he had met "a versatile young dog who will run you hard for the presidency one day". This came true in 1878 when Leighton became President of the Royal Academy and Millais had to wait until Leighton's death to become president, but died a few months later. Leighton was the first artist to be raised to the peerage. He was made a Baron in 1896 but he was only Lord Leighton for two days and then he died.

 Leighton first attracted attention with the painting which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855 of Cimabue's Madonna Carried through the Streets of Florence. Prince Albert bought it for Queen Victoria.  Leighton painted mainly scenes from history, from literature, and from the Bible, until the early 1860s, like his dramatic 1855 Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet and his 1864 Dante in Exile. 

 From the 1860s  until his death in 1896, Leighton concentrated on classical scenes of women in Greek or Roman draperies, like The Syracusan Bride which shows a procession of twenty seven figures leading wild animals to the temple of Diana. It caused a sensation at the 1866 Royal Academy. The  same year Leighton also exhibited his portrait of Mrs James Guthrie, but he painted very few portraits. She is painted with two vases of  lilies and roses painted with the same realism as the flowers in Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

In 1888 Leighton exhibited another huge classical painting at the Royal Academy. This was The Captive Andromache. The Manchester City Art Gallery paid 6000 for this painting, but the press criticised it. The Universal Review said that Leighton substituted "grace of deportment ... for feeling and action". F.G. Stephens in The Athenaeum said, "This work reminds us less of actual life than of an elaborate Greek bas-relief."  It shows Andromache, the widow of the Trojan Hector, as a slave of the Greeks. She stands  in a line of women in various poses collecting water from the well. Leighton's The Bath of Psyche was a very popular classical nude. Leighton's last work was Clytie. This kneeling woman with her arms outstretched towards the sun represents the water nymph, Clytie, who was turned by the Greek gods into a sunflower when the sun god scorned her love.

Leighton's wall paintings include The Wise and Foolish Virgins painted in Gambier Parry's spirit fresco technique in St Michael's Lyndhurst and The Arts Applied to War and The Arts Applied to Peace in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the 1880s he also designed some painted panels for houses.

Leighton also worked as a sculptor. Although he completed very few works, they influenced the English "New Sculpture". In the 1870s he completed a life size bronze statue of An Athlete Struggling with a Python.  Leighton exhibited this at the Royal Academy in 1877.

He made a huge number of drawings for his paintings. The best collection of his drawings is kept in his own home, the Leighton House Museum in Holland Park Kensington. His works are included in the 2011 V&A Exhibition The Cult of Beuty on he work of the aesthetes. Exhibition of fifty of the drawings can be seen there in 1997. The Museum has also started a Catalogue of his drawings on the Internet, which will list all of them and illustrate those at Leighton House. By filling in the name of a painting, like "Clytie", one can see all the drawings for it, illustrations for it, and if possible the actual painting.

Books on Leighton