Well, that and Leighton's acknowledged magnum opus Flaming June which was enjoying a short break from its usual home the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Quite an unusual place for such a European classicist work to end up. It turns out it's whereabouts was a mystery for many years before the Puerto Rican industrialist and philanthropist purchased it as a gift to his nation.
On the whole Frederic Leighton's work doesn't do a lot for me. I find it stuffy, academic, regressive even. Flaming June is a different matter. It may just be down to me being a randy old goat but there's no denying the sensuousness of that expanse of thigh or the hint of pert breast beneath the diaphanous orange gown. However, as much as I commend the rendering of the female form and the bold colours I must also remark upon the masterful depiction of the drapery and its folds. The shimmering Mediterranean sunlight, too, is an absolute marvel. How I'd love to be on that boat sipping a glass of Rioja and letting my hand dangle in the sun baked waters.
Flaming June (1894-1895)
I wasn't though. I was in London W14. In the Leighton House Museum. A Grade II listed building that was Leighton's home until his death in 1896. The restrained red brick classical exterior gives no clue to the wonders inside (that you're not allowed to take photographs of). Inspired by Sicilian, Turkish, and Syrian styles there's an Arab Hall, turquoise tiling galore, a stuffed peacock if that's your thing, whilst Leighton's works (and a few Old Masters) adorn almost every wall. There are fir cones placed on seats or cushions to prevent you sitting down but that didn't deter either The Stranglers or Spandau Ballet who filmed their videos to Golden Brown and Gold here. Plus I have it on reliable authority (my friend Jackie who is a treasure trove of information) that The Communards used it too.
Leighton, who 'never married', was born in Scarborough in 1830, educated at UCL in London, and in his younger life travelled in France, Germany, and Italy. In Frankfurt he painted the gloomy German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and in Paris he came into contact with leading French artists of the time such as Corot, Ingres, and Delacroix.
Back in the UK in the 1860s he was knocking about with, if never quite part of, the Pre-Raphaelites and, in the next decade, received a knighthood from Queen Victoria. This hobnobbing with the establishment and loose affiliation with the backward looking Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood don't endear me to him and in works like Candida and Maid with the Golden Hair you can see just how far Britain had slipped behind France at the time in terms of progressive art creation. It's not that they're bad (technically they're superb) but more so that they lack imagination. Proto-Stuckism.
It's hard to imagine now that in 1895 when Leighton sent these two paintings, along with Lachrymae, Twixt Hope and Fear, Flaming June, and one other oddly missing from the show off to the Royal Academy he hadn't marked out Flaming June as the best work. Like a band who'd recorded an entire album but couldn't tell which song to release as the single he was, perhaps, too close to the work to see what was apparent to any fresh pair of eyes.
Maid with the Golden Hair (1894-1895)
Twixt Hope and Fear (1894-1895)
The exhibition itself was tiny, there were studies and tracings for Flaming June and the other paintings and the paintings themselves but not a lot else, so I took in more of Leighton's work around the rest of the house. The nymph Clytie, abandoned by the sun god Apollo, was left unfinished at the time of Leighton's death (in 1896 of angina pectoris just one day after becoming the first painter to be given a peerage) and has been interpreted, perhaps fancifully, perhaps not, as Leighton's own raging at the dying of his light.
Summer Moon, painted a full two decades before Flaming June, suggests a similar balmy heat but its monochrome form denies us the bright colours that are so important to the later work. It's a similar story with 1894's Summer Slumber in which Leighton seems to be toying with various poses and settings that would later be perfected in Flaming June. It could almost be regarded as a preparatory sketch. I'd swipe left on Summer Slumber but right on Flaming June.
Summer Moon (1872)
Summer Slumber (1893-1894)
His Algerian courtyard scenes aren't shy of aping the exoticising Orientalism of Delacroix. Although it's hard to imagine it's anything other than a highly sanitised take on Algiers it is a small delight - and its a mystery why the curators of Leighton House Museum have half of it shaded by a curtain in an easily missable corner of the Silk Room!
This was a pleasant trip and a decent (if somewhat dry and academic) exhibition. It hasn't changed my mind about British 19c art and its stuffiness completely but it did open me up to the fact that somewhere within the highly formal, establishment friendly environment of the late Victorian age there were artists who were prepared, if only occasionally, to be brave, to look to Europe, and to look to the future. With this in mind it seems quite apt that Flaming June should've ended up in Puerto Rico. If anyone would like to pay for me to go over there and write about how if fits into that setting I'd be more than happy to do it. Ponce looks like it's flaming June every day in a way that even lovely Holland Park can't replicate.
Courtyard, Algiers (1895)