Tomorrow I commemorate the centenary of the death of a popular nineteenth century British painter, Edmund Blair Leighton (1852–1922), who died on 1 September 1922. He was one of three notable near-contemporaries with the same surname: the best-know today is Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), who was unrelated to the other two, Charles Blair Leighton (1823-1855) who was the father of Edmund Blair. Now that I’ve cleared that up, in the rest of this and tomorrow’s article, all references to Leighton without further qualification are to Edmund Blair, the youngest of the three.
Leighton’s father died when he was an infant, and he started to learn to paint at evening classes at the South Kensington School of Art before gaining admission to the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 21, in 1873. The following year he had his first painting accepted by the Royal Academy, where he became a regular exhibitor until 1920, a remarkable forty-six years, despite never becoming one of its Associates.
During the 1880s he established himself a reputation for finely crafted realist, if not photo-real, oil paintings of earlier, usually chivalric times. As many of these develop from Arthurian legend, he has been associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. However, his themes and style are quite unlike those, and perhaps best summarised as an academic outsider.
Although most of his paintings tell a story, his narratives are usually simple, and his paintings lack the intricate symbols and allusions more typical of the Pre-Raphaelites. They also avoid becoming ‘problem pictures’ posing the viewer an unresolved narrative to encourage speculation or debate, a sub-genre which was becoming increasingly popular at the time.
In 1882, he painted Abelard and his Pupil Heloise, referring to the famous courtly love affair between Héloïse d’Argenteuil (c 1100-1163), a nun, philosopher and woman of letters who eventually married the logician and theologian Peter Abelard (c 1079-1142). He depicts this as a delightful romantic fantasy.
Conquest from 1884 shows a stereotype knight in shining armour walking through an arch with its portcullis raised, a fair maiden walking behind him, as this victor enters the castle he has just conquered. Behind them one of the wounded is being carried in to receive aid. The knight appears to be an idealised self-portrait.
Vanquished (1884) shows the other side of chivalric life, as a defeated young knight is led on his well-armoured horse, away from the jousting green outside a castle.
Leighton also painted many ‘Regency’ scenes, including The Elopement from 1893, where a woman is leaving home to run away with her lover, the oarsman in the boat.
His painting of the famous story of Lady Godiva from 1892 is one of very few in which there is no nudity. We’re not even allowed to see the feet of the legendary wife of the Earl of Mercia, who protested his taxes on the city of Coventry by riding through its streets stark naked. In this early scene from the legend, the Earl is telling Godiva of the terms under which he would reduce Coventry’s taxes. Although Leighton had several opportunities to provide clues to the rest of the story, in the reliefs carved on furniture and above the arch of the doorway, the viewer is left to rely on their memory of the legend, and a glimpse of the lady’s bare hands.
The Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary from about 1895 shows another famous woman, who built a hospital where she personally served the sick. Born in 1207, she died in 1231 at the age of only twenty-four. Leighton doesn’t show her in her nursing role, though, but handing out loaves to the poor.
In Leighton’s A Wet Sunday Morning from 1896, a well-dressed man is sheltering a young woman under his umbrella as they walk away from church in the rain. There’s a little more depth to this simple story, with two young women enthusiastically watching the couple from the top of the church steps, although no one seems to care about the old widow left to walk behind the couple, alone and without an umbrella.
At the Royal Academy exhibition in 1897, he exhibited one of his best-known paintings, In Time of Peril, for which a study also survives.
Leighton described this scene as being “laid at the water gate of a monastery in the fourteenth century; the outcome of reading of the shelter afforded by such places to the women, children and treasure, of those who were hard driven, and in danger”.
In the study above, the door to the monastery remains closed, and the head inside is barely visible. The family in the boat are looking imploringly at the door, as the father points in the opposite direction, at the oncoming threat to their lives.
Leighton’s finished painting of In Time of Peril from 1897 opens the door so there’s no doubt about the figure of the monk inside. While the mother and father in the boat still look at that monk, with the father’s hand on the tiller of the boat, the child looks towards the imminent threat.
Art Renewal Centre account by Kara Lysandra Ross.