• Coming home

    For one more week, five of the six paintings that made up the final submission to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition by the great Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton – including the iconic Flaming June – can be seen together again in the place that they were made. Reunited in Leighton’s exquisite home and studio, now a museum, for the first time since they were readied for that show 122 years ago, this represents a unique opportunity to see a remarkable body of work by one of the towering figures in British art.

    Leighton’s position as perhaps the most passionate, productive and important representative of his time and culture is virtually unarguable. Educated in Germany and Italy, creatively, financially and critically successful, tireless in his promotion and support of young artists and President of the Royal Academy for almost twenty years until his untimely death in January 1896, Leighton was the first and to date the only artist ever to be raised to the peerage.

    Each year he spent several months abroad, sketching and researching, before returning home to paint in the lavishly decorated home that he commissioned from architect George Aitchison and in which he lived for decades until his death, extending and altering it as needed.

    Though he never married, had no confirmed offspring and never had overnight guests (there is only a single bedroom in the house – his own), Leighton was immensely sociable and frequently welcomed visitors for soirees, to see his work and to talk. On ‘Show Sunday’, he previewed the works he was about to send to the Academy; on 7 April 1895, noted photographer Bedford Lemere recorded the six pieces that comprised his 1895 submissions. It is this that forms the starting point for Leighton House Museum’s superb show.

    On the left, two small paintings. The uppermost, A Study, is the only one of the six that could not be included – remarkably, its whereabouts have been unknown almost since it was painted. Safely present, though, is Candida below it, a generic bust (not a portrait) of a woman dressed in a diaphanous gown against a deep red velvet-like background. An essay in colour and form and carefully non-specific in terms of its setting (chronological as well and geographical), it falls under the Aesthetic Movement. Practically, it is typical of the kind of small, relatively easy work that Leighton produced for prompt sale. This picture was in fact withdrawn at the last minute for that reason.

    One of Leighton’s tall, narrow panel pieces is next. Named after the Latin for tears, Lachrymae captures a woman of antiquity in grief; the urn – captured, as was done by other similar artists, from actual archaeological evidence – contains the ashes of the departed. The dark palette reflects the subject matter, both offset and emphasised by the sparkling glitter of sunlight flickering through the trees in the background.

    With The Maid with the Golden Hair, Leighton turned to a lighter but not frivolous matter, namely a woman at her pastime. Here the colours harmonise with the theme once more but for a very different effect.

    The tone changes again with ‘Twixt Hope and Fear, a striking composition whose modern, even erotic pose startles as much today as it would have done in 1895. Once more the background is muted and plain, drawing attention to the figure. Its sharpness or focus (the terms are deliberate; Leighton and his contemporaries were well aware of the new science of photography and exploited it in several ways) is seen in the fingers of the woman’s right hand, outlined against the chair’s backrest and the looming paleness of her left arm. The texture of her fur is also notable.

    Finally, of course, there is Leighton’s Flaming June, the 'Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere' given its home for the last 50 years in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. This luminous image of a woman sleeping on a Mediterranean terrace has become one of the most famous of the Victorian era. Arranged around the house for this exhibition is a range of Leighton’s superb preparatory drawings, showing the origin and evolution of the work. The pose itself derives from sketches made for two other works, and appears – almost as a teaser – tucked away as a marble bas relief in the finished version of one. Also for the show, the painting is accompanied by a tiny, loose but richly-made colour oil sketch by Leighton, plus a rare full-colour souvenir print of the final picture, made available to the public for 10 shillings a year after its 1895 debut. Though not universally regarded at the time, this early example of marketing an artist’s image perhaps prefigures its near-universal popularity today.

    In front of the picture itself, the three hues of red stand out – a wine colour for the drape, a tawny orange for another and the bright citrus of the woman’s dress. The scintillating water in the background, though reduced to a thin strip, frames her beautifully, and the glowing, thickly-textured clump of flowers to the right adds a colour accent. For me her face is less resolved than it could be, especially compared to the recently-discovered sketch, but overall the work’s power cannot be denied.

    To bring all of these together again after so long – from public galleries in Central and North America and three private owners – is a real feat, their presentation, in the same arrangement as the Lemere image and alongside a keyed version of same – a coup de theatre. The latest in a long line of carefully-curated displays that continue to illuminate the skill and working methods of this formidably talented artist, and another excuse to visit his red brick home with its jewel box interiors, a last chance to see this show should not be missed.

    Flaming June: The Making of an Icon is on at Leighton House Museum until Sunday 2 April

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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