Lord Leighton

Posted on March 7th, 2011 by

Lord Leighton – ( Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton by George Frederic Watts oil on canvas, 1881 Primary Collection)

 Lord Leighton’s studio in Holland Park was a mecca for the creative community, where one might find Joseph Joachim playing the Bach Chaconne  in his multipurpose studio/concert room. This has two stages-one, between an acoustic apse, at the end of the room, for music, the other, under north facing windows, to the side, for sitters and sculpture.

 Through all three centuries encompassed by this exhibition, the use of the artist’s studio for another purpose, for a concert, a reading, a party, recurs. Very often, the performers were the artists themselves. In 1900, a photograph of just such an occasion was taken in the Munich studio of the artist Heinrich Knirr. Five musicians are waiting to play, their music propped on easels, sitting on a Bunte  of artist’s benches. There are two cellists, a violist and two violinists, so I would imagine that they are about to read Schubert’s Quintet. The youngest player, playing second violin, on the right hand side of the photo, the 20 year old Paul Klee, the greatest violinist of 20th century artists.Lyonel Feiniger later noted about his work:                             

 ‘It is obvious to me that he plays the violin. The conjure up a world of notes from the four strings is the same as conjuring up a view of the world from pen strokes and crosses and triangles…’

 Leighton was one of first generation of artists to be photographer in their studios; he was photographed, by J.P.Mayall,  at ease in his Holland Park studio, surrounded by his pictures, palette laid to one side, his hand on a maquette of his epocal sculpture, Athlete struggling with a Python.  This is the very room in which Joachim came to play Bach. Unlike Ingres or Watts, he does not seem to have aspired to play the violin.

 Leighton was a complex character, as he confessed himself:

 ‘ … always that other strange second man in me, calm, observant, critical, unmoved, blasé – odious! He is a shadow that walks with me, a sort of canker of doubt and dissection; it’s very seldom that I forget his loathsome presence.’

 George Frederik Watts’s house and studio was nearby. In 1881 Watts and Leighton corresponded as to what to buy Joachim for his 50th birthday.  Curiously there is no evidence that Leighton ever got around to painting or sketching Joachim.


 IN 1867, Watts painted A lamplight study: Herr Joachim.  Three years earlier, h had married the sixteen-year old actress, Ellen Terry, who was three times older than her at the time of her marriage in 1864. This soon ended in divorce. Watts himself confessed that he ‘ought to have been a musician instead of a painter’. He was an amateur violinist, like Ingres,  and was depicted in two photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron entitled The Whisper of the Muse, holding a violin. Music was in the family-his father built pianios. In December 1891, Vanity Fair published Leslie Ward’s carton of G F Watts, with a pertinent caption: ‘He paints portraits and ideas.’

 Joachim often gave performances, sometimes accompanied by Charles Hallé, who later married Wilhemina Hallé, at Watts’s ‘Little Holland House’. Watts always refused to sell this picture, as ‘it belongs to my gallery’, although he painted a copy for his patron, Charles Rickards.

 Ten years later, Cosima Wagner visited Watts’s studion and saw the A Lamplight Study:…. Her reaction to the painting speaks more of her prejudices than anything else:

 May 21 1877: ‘R.is not well. I go out to breakfast and dine, visit the studio of the painter Watts, in which there hangs a quite amazing picture of Joachim; I can read the whole biography of this thoroughly bad person in this picture; that is not what the painter intended, but it is the very thing which reveals his talent – that he had depicted the truth without knowing it.’

 That same year, Leighton completed his Sculpture Athlete struggling with a Python. With one stroke, it seemed, Leighton had revitalised sculpture, and helped if to escape from a limbo of portrait bust and funerary monuments.

In Howard’s End the art enthusiast Schlegel’s speculate as to the table talk of Leighton and his circle:

‘Well, I‘ll give you another example. It’ll shock you, but I don’t care, Suppose Queen Victoria gave a dinner-party, and that the guests had been Leighton, Millais, Swinburne, Rossetti, Meredith, Fitzgerald, etc. Do you suppose that the atmosphere of the dinner would have been artistic? Heavens, no! The very chairs on which they sat would have seen to that.’

 David Cannadine narrates the events that led to Leighton’s elevation to the peerage:

 ‘In 1891, Lord Salisbury explained to the Queen that it was ‘very desirable to give the feeling that the House of Lords contained something besides rich men and politicians.’ What it needed, he felt, was ‘eminence of a different kind.’ To this end, he obtained peerages for Sir Frederic Leighton, the President of the Royal Academy… William Thompson {Lord Kelvin}, and Sir Joseph Lister, the ‘first medical man to be made a peer.’’

 Watts was hailed as England’s answer Michelangelo, which might seem a little hard to believe today. He was no atheist, but rejected organised religion.In his attempt to create a new language, a classical revived vernacular, he recorded that  he was deeply affected influenced ‘Elgin Marbles’, newly installed in the British Museum in  after their arrival in 1832. Benjamin Haydon, who met Watts in the mid-1830’s, encouraged him along this road:

 ‘The Elgin Marbles were my teachers. It was from them that learned.’”

 The fear of renewed aggression from France in the late 1850’s sparked a revival of volunteer brigades. One of these was the ‘Corps of Artist Volunteers’, formed in 1859. William Morris,  Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Ford, Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt, Leighton, and G F Watts all joined the Corps, and made a motley crew, marching across the capital in grey and silver uniforms

Bildarchiv Felix Klee

Quoted in: Paul Klee: Painting Music, Hajo Düchting, Prestel, Munich, 2002, P.93

The Life, Letters, and Work of Frederic Leighton, Mrs Russell Barrington, New York,1906, Vl.1, P.18

G.F.Watts-Victorian Visionary, Mark Bills and Barbara Bryant, Yale University Press/Watts Gallery,London, 2008, Pp. 158, P45

Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, Ed. Geoffrey Skelton, Pimlico, London, 1994, P. 283

The Spirit of Britain, Roy Strong, Hutchinson,P592

Howard’s End, E M Forster, Penguin, London, 1985, P.56

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, David Cannadine, Papermac, London 1996, P.198

William Morris, Fiona McCarthy, Faber and Faber, London, 1995, P.170