By the start of the twentieth century, the paintings of Edmund Blair Leighton (1852–1922) were becoming valued. As I described in my first article about him and his work, he continued in his role as an academic outsider, painting chivalric tales in almost photo-real detail.
In God Speed from 1900, a fair maiden bids her knight a safe return as he departs on his next quest, as she ties a red sash around his arm that he must return to her. This was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year, and sold to a Captain Mendoza, a collector of Leighton’s paintings. A decade ago this came up for auction at Sotheby’s in London, where it fetched almost half a million pounds. It seems that his paintings are still in demand, if only by private collectors.
The Accolade (1901) apparently shows Henry VI the Good – of Poland, not the British Henry VI – being dubbed a knight. Every link in his chain mail has been crafted individually.
In The Trysting Place, from the same year, Leighton returns to ‘Regency’ tales, this time of a tryst of lovers at a weir. This was probably set on the River Waveney in Norfolk, where the artist leased a small cottage that he used in the summer.
Paintings of traditional travelling salesmen were a popular theme among genre painters in the nineteenth century. Leighton’s Ribbons and Laces for Very Pretty Faces from 1902 continues his ‘Regency’ theme with an amiable man in a tricorn hat offering the ladies of the household accessories for their clothing. Standing behind them is a stern clerical or legal figure in spectacles and a wig.
Leighton’s painting of one climax in the story of Tristan and Isolde, The End of The Song (1902), is perhaps his best narrative, and his strongest link with Pre-Raphaelite themes. Young Prince Tristan is sent to Ireland by his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, to bring back the fair maid Isolde for their marriage. Isolde and Tristan fall in love during their journey to the king, resulting in a doomed love triangle. This scene appears a popular extension to the prose account, in which Tristan plays a harp for Isolde, and King Mark (right) attacks him with an enchanted lance, dealing his rival a mortal wound.
Leighton exhibited The Dedication at the Royal Academy in 1908, where it sold to Captain Mendoza again. Here, a knight and his lady are kneeling before the altar of a country church seeking a blessing on the knight’s sword, presumably before battle. His squire stands outside, tending the knight’s charger.
The Shadow from about 1909 is a novel retelling of the ancient Greek myth of the invention of painting, by a Corinthian maid, either named Dibutades herself, or the daughter of a potter of that name. When her fiancé had to go to war, she drew the silhouette from the shadow his head cast on the wall. Leighton has set this on the battlements of a castle, which stretches the story a bit, but leads to an interesting composition with the woman’s gown and hair. He painted at least three versions, one of which was shown at the Royal Academy that year.
In his Stitching the Standard from 1911, a young princess sits in a cutout at the top of the castle wall, sewing the black and gold flag to be flown from the castle. She comes straight from Arthurian legend, or a fairy tale, and demonstrates how needlework was deemed an acceptable activity for women of all classes.
The background to The Hostage (1912) isn’t clear. It may represent Isolde waiting for the arrival of Tristan to take her away from Ireland to marry King Mark. The distant coastline is perhaps more typical of that of East Anglia.
Leighton painted Maternity in 1917, towards the end of the First World War. This appears to be set in a convent, with one of its nuns pausing to look at a distressed mother with her infant. Next to her is a bundle containing her worldly possessions. This too was shown at the Royal Academy that year, and was given by the artist to a friend.
Towards the end of the war, Leighton’s health deteriorated, but he continued to paint right up to his death on 1 September 1922, just three weeks short of his seventieth birthday, and exactly a century ago today. He left no diaries and few papers. Within a few years modernism had swept his art away, although unlike others his work has at least undergone a revival.
Art Renewal Centre account by Kara Lysandra Ross.