The Art of Mr. E. Blair Leighton

Reproduced below is an illustrated article written by Rudolph De Cordova one hundred years ago about the art of the British painter Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922). To this day, very little has been published about Blair Leighton: there are no modern monographs dedicated to his work, he is seldom mentioned in books which discuss Victorian art, and yet some of his paintings (e.g. The Accolade, God Speed) number amongst the most recognizable of Victorian art to many people and have fetched large prices at auction in recent years. He is also one of the most popular artists featured on ArtMagick, along with John William Waterhouse and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Rudolph De Cordova's article was originally published in The Windsor Magazine (Volume XXI, December 1904 to May 1905, Ward, Lock & Co., Limited, London 1905). It is followed by some commentary by ArtMagick. The images shown below are displayed in the order in which they appeared in the article: they were originally reproduced in black and white, but if colour images are now available they are shown below rather than the original b/w images.

The Art of Mr. E. Blair Leighton

By Rudolph De Cordova

Those who believe in the hereditary transmission of talent have a brilliant case made to their hand in the person of Mr. Blair Leighton, who has painted some of the most popular pictures of our time. His father, Charles Blair Leighton, was an artist – a very talented artist – who exhibited several works during his short career, for he died when he was only thirty-two years of age.

Mr. Blair Leighton’s case is, therefore, uncomplicated by any question of environment or example, factors which have often served to obscure the real action of the hereditary principle by introducing important outside considerations, for everyone knows how often boys, either imbued with a desire to follow in their father’s footsteps, or because if they do so their path in life will be smoothed, will adopt the paternal profession and succeed in it.

Mr. Blair Leighton was only two when his father died, but at a very early age he gave unmistakable proof of his bias towards art. Recognising the terribly precarious nature of the calling, not only his mother but all his family was exceedingly averse to his making art his life-work. They decided on a mercantile career for him. Accordingly, when he was little more than fifteen, he was put into the office of a firm of tea merchants in the City. The artistic impulse in his heart and his brain, however, refused to be denied. He spent the whole of his spare time in drawing, and had made such progress that when he was seventeen he resolved to devote his evenings after business hours to the study of art. He therefore entered himself as a student in the evening class at South Kensington. Even thus early in his career he discovered for himself the fact he has often formulated in the words: “Drawing is the backbone of the whole thing.” After a term or two of drawing from the flat, he decided to try another school, where methods were less tedious, and accordingly joined Heatherley’s school in Newman Street 1, where he worked from the antique at first, and later from the life.

He had only been at the school a short time when he received his first lesson in the real spirit of art. The model was a very pretty little boy, and taken with the child’s face, Mr. Leighton resolved to finish that part of his study as well as he could. When the model was sitting for the last time, Mr. Heatherley went into the studio to criticise the students’ work. He looked over Mr. Leighton’s shoulder. “You’ve got that head too small,” he said.

“I am sorry,” Mr. Blair Leighton answered, “but I am afraid that I can’t alter it now.”

“Why?” asked Mr. Heatherley. “Have you no indiarubber?”

“Oh yes,” returned the student, “I have indiarubber, but I am afraid it is too late; the model will be going in another hour.”

Mr. Heatherley looked at him a moment. “In art it is never too late to alter your work if it is wrong,” he said quietly, and he moved on to the next easel.

On another occasion the model was a girl with charming colouring. The student tried hard to reproduce it on his canvas, but the difficulties were great, almost insurmountable for a beginner. “Ah!” said Mr. Heatherley, “don’t you wish you could squeeze it straight out of the tube?” Mr. Blair Leighton has often since wished that he could squeeze such colours “straight out of the tube.”

Over and over again during his career Mr. Blair Leighton has thought of the former remark, and, thinking, has acted on it. A notable instance occurred in the case of “God Speed!”, Mr. Leighton’s contribution of the Academy of 1900, one of his most notable and successful pictures. It was practically finished. In two hours more the van was to call for it to take it to Burlington House. As he went into the studio something in the picture dissatisfied him, and he thought he could improve it. “In art it is never too late to alter your work if it is wrong,” were the words that flashed through his mind. He got a sheet of glass, put it over the canvas, and rapidly painted in the alteration that had occurred to him. He stepped away from the canvas and considered the alteration. The next moment the sheet of the glass was removed, he had a razor in his hand, and was scraping out work which had taken him fully a week to do. Within two hours the required change was made, and in a perilously wet condition the painting was sent off to the Royal Academy.

At Heatherley’s, the sight of other men devoting not a part, but the whole, of their time and energy to the pursuit of the calling he loved best in all the world, fanned his desire to do likewise. Once again, he discussed the question in the family circle. Finally he yielded to the persuasion of an uncle to go on as he was going until he came of age, and if, then, he was still in the same mind, no further opposition would be made to the carrying out of his wishes. With such a prospect before him, Mr. Blair Leighton began to work with renewed ardour. He was soon sufficiently advanced to go into the painting class at Heatherley’s, and then he went out sketching on his own account. One of the partners in the firm with which he was associated was somewhat of an art patron himself. Not unnaturally, he became interested in the employé whose tastes ran in the same direction as his own. One day he asked young Blair Leighton to show him some of his work. Not only did he select a sketch and pay him liberally for it, but he advised the lad not to relax his efforts in his endeavour to be an artist. Such encouragement, coming from so unexpected a quarter, naturally produced an effect. On the day Mr. Leighton was twenty-one he announced his resolution to his family, gave a quarter’s notice to his employers, and made up his mind that, cost what it might, he would be a painter. To that end he had been saving all he could out of his salary, and managed to put by enough to give him a good year’s start. The first thing to do was clear. He resolved to get into the Royal Academy Schools. He therefore went to the British Museum, did the necessary drawings as examples of his skill, and was soon admitted as a student. There was a remarkably rich gathering of talent in the Academy School just then, for among Mr. Blair Leighton’s contemporaries were Mr. George Clausen, Mr. S. Melton Fisher, Mr. Stanhope Forbes, Mr. Arthur Hacker, Mr. La Thangue, Mr. A.S. Cope, Mr. W. Hatherell, and Mr. Solomon J. Solomon, all of whom have names to conjure with in the artistic movement of to-day.

Mr. Blair Leighton soon went through the antique school, and got into the preliminary life class, in which the students are allowed to draw from the nude, though they were not then allowed to paint from it until they reached the upper life class. In the “preliminary life,” Mr. Blair Leighton took the premium for the best life study done during the year. The achievement was more than ordinarily pleasant, for just then his funds were beginning to run short, and he was being confronted with the problem how to make money to continue his education. He accordingly took the drawing-room of a small house and resolved to earn what he could by black-and-white work. At once success attended him. He was engaged by Messrs. Cassell to work for their magazine, as well as their “Book of British Ballads,” which they were on the point of bringing out, and on other publications. 2 All the day was given to this employment, and all the evening to the life classes at the Academy. At first it was only the minor work which was entrusted to the young artist, but very soon the better class was given to him, and his illustrations were paid for at comparatively high prices. The reason for his rapid success was perhaps to be found in the fact that he treated each drawing as if it were a picture, not only paying models to sit to him, but even going to the expense of hiring the right costumes, just as he would to-day when engaged on important pictures. It was undoubtedly the right policy, for it gave experience which could probably not have been obtained in any other way.

It was only about eighteen months after he had entered the Royal Academy Schools that Mr. Blair Leighton sent his first picture to the Royal Academy Exhibition. It was painted in the little studio in which he did his black-and-white work, and he called it “A Flaw in the Title.” It was hung in a good position on the line, and attracted a considerable amount of attention, not only from the public, but from the art critics as well. How unlike the work of an inexperienced hand it was may be judged from the fact that the critic of the Standard of that time expressed the hope that the artist would not be demoralised by being elected a Member of the Academy too soon, but would be kept waiting for a time till he had done some more good work. As those words were printed in 1877, it is evident that the jest, that when a man becomes an Academician he ceases to do good work, is, to-day, something of a “chestnut.” 3

Further to fill his cup with joy at that time, before the Academy closed “The Flaw in the Title” was sold for £200, a sum which has probably been seldom reached and not often exceeded by a first picture.

In the same year in which his first picture was exhibited, Mr. Blair Leighton tried for the gold medal of the Royal Academy, and lost it, it is said, by a single vote to Mr. La Thangue. He never tried again, for with the exhibition of his first picture his life-work had begun in real earnest.

From that time Mr. Blair Leighton formulated a scheme of activity, from which he has never departed. For about six months in the year he devotes himself to one important canvas for the Royal Academy, and the other months he spends on smaller subjects which, if less important artistically, are by no means less popular with the public or with the publishers, through whom the artist is now able to make his appeal to the picture-loving population of the world.

It was not long after he had begun exhibiting before Mr. Blair Leighton found that it was impossible for him to keep on black-and-white drawing, and to do all the painting he desired. One or other had to be neglected, and, although it meant giving up a practical certainty for an uncertainty, there was no hesitation in his resolve to choose the higher and more permanent form of art, for illustration, however well paid it may be, is of necessity ephemeral. True, the decision was not so risky as it might otherwise have been, for he had been selling his pictures to various buyers who saw them at the exhibitions in London, and he had also obtained commissions for others. Still, there was no steady demand for his work, which, even at that time, did not exceed five or six pictures a year. That limited output was further handicapped by the fact that his versatile mind refused to be bound down to one style, and he was constantly changing his class of subject, his manner, and from a certain point of view, his technique. Evidence of this was furnished by his second picture representing a young girl walking down the aisle of a country church and leaning on the arm of an elderly bridegroom. With mordant sarcasm, Blair Leighton had sent it into the Academy with the title “L.S.D.” 4 In deference, however, to the representations of certain older artists, he changed the name to “Till Death Us Do Part.” The picture has another interest, for it is the only canvas of modern life which Mr. Leighton has ever painted.

While working at this picture, Mr. Blair Leighton and some artist friends were out one evening. Returning home by tram, their conversation turned on their work, and it was conducted in an essentially “shoppy” way. One of his comrades, a great friend, now one of the most brilliant members of the Royal Academy, turned to him and said rather loudly: “Whom have you got for your bride?”

Mr. Blair Leighton mentioned the girl’s name. Instantly everyone in the tram became interested.

“Is she pretty?” asked the other.

“Beautiful!” replied Mr. Blair Leighton.

“Fair or dark?”

“Dark hair and fine eyes,” he replied.

“I wonder how she would do for me?” exclaimed his comrade, and there was consternation in that tram.

The modern subject was followed by “The Death of Copernicus,” and each year has seen other pictures added without a break in continuity to the list of his works which are recorded in the catalogues of the Royal Academy.

Of his earlier work, probably the most successful was “The Secret,” which remains, with “The Accolade,” and in some respects, “Launched in Life,” one of the pictures Mr. Leighton himself likes best. “The Secret” was painted some nineteen or twenty years ago, and it has a distinct personal interest for the artist. Just about the time he was getting ready to begin his picture for the next Academy, one of his uncles went to see him. Naturally he asked what the new picture was going to be. He was shown the rough sketch, and said he did not care for the subject. “Why don’t you paint the picture of the ‘Death-bed Confesssion,’ the sketch of which you showed me some time ago?” he asked.

“Because I can’t afford to run the risk of its not finding a purchaser just now, and this is more likely to sell,” replied Mr. Blair Leighton.

“Well, if I give you a commission, will you paint the ‘Confession’ for me?”

“With pleasure,” replied Mr. Blair Leighton. The terms were agreed upon. The picture was finished and sent to the Academy. It was well hung and well thought of. There were applications from would-be purchasers to the artist to know if it was for sale. Feeling that the letters showed the picture had a market value, he wrote to his uncle and told him about them.

The uncle entered into negotiations with one dealer and sold him the picture for exactly twice as much as he had paid for it. The transaction was completed two or three days before Mr. Blair Leighton’s wedding 5. Instead of keeping the difference between the price for which he had sold the picture and that for which he had bought it, the uncle handed over the whole amount to his nephew.

Few artists can, in the nature of things, have painted a wider range of subjects. The reason is that, as a rule, it is not only the story of incident of the picture with which Mr. Blair Leighton starts, but a scheme of colour or of light and shade, or, more rarely, a special arrangement of the figures, the grouping of which has interested him. In other words, the germ of his work is an artistic impulse, and the story a secondary consideration to make it appeal to the onlooker. Not that Mr. Blair Leighton despises stories; even to suggest such a thing would be to go to the antipodes of the truth, for he believes in incident in a picture, and considers that, the work being equal, it adds a further interest to a canvas, except in the case of those rare masterpieces which have the supreme gift of beauty in themselves.

Having decided on his arrangement, Mr. Blair Leighton’s next care is to choose some incident or theme which will demonstrate it. Often this is obtained by reading, and it has long been his habit to keep a notebook in which he enters ideas and incidents which come to him from reading or observation as lending themselves to pictorial treatment. Thus his well-known picture “The Accolade,” derived its inspiration from a French work on chivalry, which mentioned that even ladies occasionally conferred the order of knighthood on worthy men. “Elaine,” on the other hand, was the outcome of a desire to paint a brilliantly lighted group relieved by the grey masonry and sombre gloom of an old water-gate. “God Speed!” is an example of the picture which owes its origin to the wish to paint a certain arrangement of figures and background, and the artistic impulse which produced “1816” began merely with a group on a balcony in mid-air who had to be given something to be interested in, that something being forthcoming in the happy thought of the Scots Greys returning home the year after they had fought at Waterloo. Popular and universally admired as “Elaine” has been, it furnishes another instance of the often recorded fact that artists are rarely satisfied with their work when it is completed. Indeed, Mr. Blair Leighton is quite in accord with a brother artist who once sorrowfully remarked: “I spend my time in beginning beautiful pictures and finishing very bad ones.”

Although when he once starts work he never leaves the picture until it is finished, the idea of a subject may remain in his mind for several years before it is brought from the nebulous realm of the imagination into the work of actuality. Thus “Alain Chartier,” the picture by which he was represented in the Academy a couple of seasons ago, was actually sketched out the same year as “The Secret,” and would have been painted then but for the happy chance already mentioned which enabled him to carry out the more dramatic picture.

As soon as he has decided on his subject, Mr. Blair Leighton makes firstly some sketches of the design in black-and-white and then others in colour. These latter are very simple, and so slight that they do not take more than two or three hours to complete. These preliminaries over, work is begun on the canvas itself, and is carried through without any adventitious aid in the shape of the smaller canvas on which experiments of new groupings and arrangements may be tried. In this, Mr. Blair Leighton’s method resembles that of Mr. Orchardson. Over and over, young artists have gone for advice to the famous Academician.

“Don’t you think,” they have said, “if we were to alter the arrangement in this, that, or the other way, we should improve the picture?”

“You may or you may not,” has been his invariable reply, “but you won’t be painting the same picture you are now,” and he has always ended by advising that the original design should be finished, and the new one painted later, if necessary. Firm in this belief, Mr. Blair Leighton has, nevertheless, never hesitated to scrape out weeks of work if he has thought that by doing so he could improve the painting. One sufficiently explanatory reason for this is to be found in the fact that quality of painting is one of the factors in technique which most fascinates and pleases the artist. It is, no doubt, this which has caused certain charges of undue or over-elaboration to be brought against Mr. Blair Leighton’s work. Perhaps a physical cause is at the bottom of this elaboration. Mr. Leighton’s sight is very good, and his endeavour has always been to represent Nature faithfully and thoroughly as he sees it. “If I saw things as some people paint them,” he has been heard to say more than once, “I should go at once and have my eyes tested.” Many men, in his opinion, cease working long before they have completed their pictures, for to finish and subordinate parts in relation to the whole is one of the most difficult things in painting. It is a sore tax to the patience, for it means that the conscientious painter has to spend a great deal of his time in the elaboration of details which many people do not even notice at all, although these details produce that delightful sense of completeness which appeals forcibly to those who have an appreciation of thoroughness – a perception, by the way, which artists are apt to deny to many so-called critics who write glibly enough about works of art, and mete out blame with a lavish hand, ignoring the high qualities which many seriously executed pictures undoubtedly possess.

The conscientiousness of Mr. Blair Leighton’s drawing has been universally acknowledged, even by those who assert it stops short at conscientiousness, and does not challenge comparison with the great names in art. Mr. Blair Leighton has, by his own admission, both jeopardised his success and at times defeated his ends by too great an anxiety for achieving completeness and thoroughness of detail, for art is an eternal discard, and to know what to omit is as important as to know what to put in. In his brush work, too, his method is often at variance with that of many who are now fashionable, who paint the whole of a picture au premier coup. Brilliant as is the result obtained by this means, there is a danger of monotony of execution, and a careful consideration of any of Mr. Blair Leighton’s later works will show that he aims at getting as much variety of texture as possible on his canvas by different handling of the colours. This inevitably means a certain loss of spontaneity; but to gain one quality another must be sacrificed, and the painter has to make up his mind which is, to him, the most desirable to obtain. It is this fact which tends to make criticism, real criticism, very difficult, for the critic should see what is in the painter’s mind, what are his exact aims, and should sympathetically view the whole subject from his standpoint, before it is possible for him to say whether the artist has succeeded or failed in producing a given result; for in art there are many standpoints, and who is to say which is the true, right, and lasting one?


Commentary by ArtMagick

1 Heatherley's School of Fine Art was founded in 1845. Henrietta Rae was a student at the same time as Blair Leighton. "The School was forward-looking, particularly in admitting male and female students to life classes, and was known for its relaxed teaching and high student morale." Quote from the website of the Museum of London
2 Another example of a book illustrated by Blair Leighton is the historical novel Under Bayard's Banner: A Story of the Days of Chivalry (1886).
3 Blair Leighton was not to receive any recognition from the Royal Academy. He was not even elected an Associate member.
4 Before the age of Timothy Leary "LSD" was used in common parlance as a reference to money. LSD was the abbreviation for the old British currency pounds, shillings, and pence, from the Latin librae, solidi, and denarii, prior to decimalisation.
5 Blair Leighton married Katharine Nash in 1885. They lived at Bedford Park, London.
6 The writing at the lower right reads: "Margaret, Dauphine of France, finding the poet Alain Chartier asleep, kissed his lips for the sake of the beautiful things they had said."
7 Blair Leighton in his studio standing in front of A Foundling (1905).

« Visit the Edmund Blair Leighton section at ArtMagick.


'A little prince likely in time to bless a royal throne ' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'The End of the Song' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'Faded Laurels' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'The Accolade' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'God Speed' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'A Wet Sunday Morning' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'The Question' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'Elaine' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'Fugitives' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'A Favour' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'An Appointment' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'The Secret' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'Lady Godiva' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'Ribbons and Lace' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'A Flaw in the Title' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'Waiting for the Coach' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'The Heiress' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'Market Day' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'1816' by Edmund Blair Leighton


'Alain Chartier' by Edmund Blair Leighton


Edmund Blair Leighton in his studio

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