Last month I featured here a painting with the title February Fill Dyke, the work of one Benjamin Williams Leader (1831–1923), an artist whose name is probably unfamiliar. By coincidence, a century ago today, Leader died, and this article commemorates him and his art.
Leader was born as Benjamin Leader Williams, but later changed his name to Benjamin Williams Leader to distinguish himself from the contemporary Williams family of painters. His father was a notable civil engineer, an amateur painter, and friend of John Constable. His brother Edward went on to become another notable civil engineer who led construction of the Manchester Ship Canal. Leader started training at the Royal Academy Schools in London in 1854, but proved so successful at selling his paintings that he didn’t stay to complete that training.
He started travelling on painting campaigns in Britain’s more scenic areas, and in 1857 painted in Scotland for the first time. For the following decade he concentrated on his home territory in the Severn Valley, and Wales, particularly the area around Betws-y-Coed in its north.
A Welsh Cornfield from 1862 shows a cereal crop cut by hand into stooks ready for threshing, in the rolling countryside of Wales. One of the women is using a ladder stile to traverse the field’s dry stone wall. Leader demonstrates fine attention to detail, including appropriate native plants, in accordance with the principles of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting.
The old English proverb “February fill dyke, be it black or be it white” refers to the rain (black) or snow (white) that usually falls heavily during the month and fills all the ditches. Leader’s seasonal view of February Fill Dyke from 1881 shows typical English conditions well, at dusk in the country near his native Worcester. While still fundamentally Pre-Raphaelite in terms of attention to detail, he is exploring transient effects of light more.
A Bright Afternoon, North Wales (1885) is an idyllic view of more rugged hills and lush pasture alongside a broad river, probably in or near the Conwy Valley. Just right of centre is a couple and their dog sat on the bank under a tree.
By 1889, Leader had made sufficient money from his paintings to be able to move to a large mansion in the countryside near to Guildford in Surrey. He was also awarded a gold medal for one of his landscapes exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris that year.
The Excavation of the Manchester Ship Canal: Eastham Cutting with Mount Manisty in the distance (1891) is one of a series he painted showing the fruits of his brother Edward’s labours. This major canal was constructed between 1887 and 1893, and carries ocean-going ships from the estuary of the River Mersey near Liverpool 36 miles (58 km) into the heart of Manchester, in the industrial north of England. This view is set close to the seaward entrance, and shows steam diggers and railways being used to excavate and remove the spoil, some of which is building Mount Manisty to the left of centre. The canal remains in use, and is currently being further improved.
Leader also travelled a little in Europe, and at some time visited the Alps. This view of The Wetterhorn from above Rosenlaui (1889-98) shows a scene near Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps, with the main peak of the Wetterhorn, at 3,692 m (12,113 feet), just visible in the distance. A small flock of mountain goats is grazing at the foot of the trees.
In 1894, Leader painted this view of Worcester Cathedral backing onto the River Severn. This cathedral was built between 1084-1504 in an unusual mixture of styles from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic, and contains the tomb of King John in its chancel. Judging by the smoke rising from the chimneys, this was painted in the early autumn.
Although Leader painted studies for his finished works in front of the motif, and was an enthusiastic painter en plein air, those finished works were created entirely in his studio, and I can find few examples of his surviving studies.
A Gleam Before the Storm from 1901 shows a couple of thatched cottages with a flock of sheep, as a storm gathers to the left.
Leader’s In a Welsh Valley from 1909 looks towards one of the peaks in Snowdonia, North Wales, and there’s another couple with their dog on the far bank to the right.
The Conway Near Betws-y-Coed (1910) was painted not far from this village in the Conwy Valley in North Wales, in what’s now the Snowdonia National Park. This fine autumn view includes a single person and their dog.
On 22 March 1923, a century ago today, Benjamin Williams Leader died at his home near Guildford. Although you may not find him mentioned in many accounts of nineteenth century British landscape painting, his works still sell for respectable sums. While not as revolutionary as others of his time, I well understand why his paintings are still enjoyed.
Reh’s Galleries biography