February 2012

 

Better Leighton than Never! (part 1)

MFTfeb12-3Today, I’d like to talk to you about a museum in London that’s a bit of a hidden treasure – and just the thing to gladden a romance writer’s heart. It’s Leighton House in Kensington, the home and studio of famous Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. Befitting a piece about an artist, you’ll notice LOTS of illustrations this month!

MFTfeb12-2Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) was the most famous English painter of the Victorian era, feted as a genius in his lifetime. He was the President of the Royal Academy, was knighted in 1878, given a baronetcy in in 1886 and made a baron in 1896 (the first painter to be elevated to the British peerage). He enjoyed his newfound aristocratic status for only one day before he died of heart failure.

MFTfeb12-6There’s actually an awful lot of beautiful Victorian art in Australia. Homesick Brits (or at least those with the money to indulge in art collecting) bought thousands of works by establishment English artists and a lot of that has ended up in our art galleries. The first time I became aware of Lord Leighton’s work was when the Art Gallery of New South Wales did a big exhibition about 19th century orientalism in European art. There were lots of beautiful paintings of girls in harems and Middle-Eastern scenes and among the most exquisite pieces in the show were a series of Leighton’s harem sketches. Beautiful little watercolors of the women of the seraglio going about their daily lives.

MFTfeb12-5Leighton traveled widely in the Middle East so it’s quite possible he’d witnessed the scenes he painted in real Turkish, Egyptian and Algerian harems. What strikes me about the pictures I’ve included in this column is how tenderly he portrays the women. Isn’t that painting of The Music Lesson just gorgeous?

MFTfeb12-1One of my favorite Leighton works is Cymon and Iphigenia (the one of the man watching the girl sleeping) which is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I didn’t live far from the AGNSW and got to know the collection pretty well. There’s a strange and very compelling atmosphere to the picture. You’re not quite sure whether Cymon is up to no good! Aren’t the colors beautiful? The painting has a similar lush sensuality to Flaming June. Clearly Leighton liked snoozing women.

MFTfeb12-4Leighton’s most famous work – and the piece that has since launched a million greeting cards – is Flaming June. Victorian art was deeply unfashionable after World War I and into quite late in the 20th century. In 1969, Flaming June was passed in at auction because it didn’t reach the reserve of $180. Doesn’t that blow your mind? I’d sure spend that much on it! After that, a Puerto Rican businessman bought it for an art museum in his home country which is where it still resides (Museum Ponce).

Best-laid plans have gone agley here as I’d really intended to talk about Frederic Leighton’s house, which is beautiful and exotic and well worth visiting. It’s like a piece of fantasy Arabia dropped bang smack in the middle of London suburbia. So I’ll get onto the museum in March’s My Favorite Things.

Please pop back next month for BETTER LEIGHTON THAN NEVER PART DEUX.