Leighton's Letters


Frankfurt A/M.,

Friday, June 26, 1845

To: Leighton’s mother

 Dear Mamma,--


David Wilkie Wynfield, Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton, 1860s, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Your letter, which I have just received, caused me the greatest pleasure, for I have been anxiously expecting it for three long days. I am very pleased to hear that Lina is getting stronger, though slowly, and hope that Hampstead will agree with her and you better than London. I am very sorry to hear that you are not very well. I hope that the country will refresh Papa after all his fatigues. I need not tell you that I was very unhappy when I heard what you said about my going to England; ever since I have been here, from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, I think of London; the other night, indeed, I went in my dream to see the new British Museum. However, if there is nothing to be done. . . From Hampstead you can see London, and there is the dear old common where I and the Coodes used to play, and the pretty little lake where I went to slide, and it’s such a pleasant walk to London and the galleries, and . . . is there no little hole left for poor Punch? On the 16th July all the schoolboys go on a three weeks’ journey, whose wing but yours can take care of me for so long a time? I will ask you for money to buy a clothes-brush, I have none; 2 fl. I spent on water-colours for the painting lesson, 5 fl. a splendid book, Percy Relics of Old English Poetry, 1 fl. sundries, my last florin I lent to Bob, but he was fetched away in a hurry before his money was given to him, however he said he would send it to me from Mayence, but I have not seen it since. It is a great bore to have no money; that 1 fl. would have lasted the second month very well as I only want it for sundries. I have dismissed Mottes, my new boots have already been resoled, and he made me wait three weeks for a pair of boots, which of course I did not take. I wish I had had turning clothes, my jacket is very shabby, and I cannot afford to put on my best whilst it goes to the tailor; my black trousers are ruined, but I must wear them whilst my blue ones go to be lengthened. Little Gussy looks very well, she is very well, and has sundry “zufrieden’s” and “très content’s.” On the advice of Pappe, the master of mathematics and nat. phil., I have got a “Meierhirsch’s Algebraische Aufgaben.” I want a Euchlid, mine is in England, how shall I get at it? I am quite well, but long to see you all and to have some win; pray write very soon. Give my best love to Papa and Lina, and believe me, dear Mamma, your affectionate and speckfle son,

F. Leighton[1]


August 13, 1854

From: Leighton’s mother

My Dearest Freddy,--

We are delighted to know you are out of Rome, for it is possible to have too much of a good thing; and much as you delight in “seeing the streets flooded with light and glittering under a metallic sky” (how beautiful it must be!), the scene will, I trust, make a new man of you. How long a holiday shall you take, and did you mean that you are staying with the Sartoris family as a visitor? Under all circumstances you will be a great deal with them, and as for the happiness you would so affectionately share with me, I would not, if I could, deprive you of a morsel of it; you are enjoying such unusual social advantage that it is a solace to me to know that you are capable of appreciating them. Thank God, you have no taste for what so many men of your age call pleasure, and that, in spite of your social disposition, you always show good taste in the choice of your companions. I wish we could have a little more of your society. The -------- are still familiar and dear friends, but their minds are so different, so conventional, that many sides of your sisters’ minds are closed, even to them. 

10 Maddox Street, Bond Street

London, 1855

To: Eduard von Steinle

My very dear friend,--

At last I am able to write to you again. When I sent off my last letter to you I was busily packing for my journey; now I have been already six weeks in England, and it seems a year since I left Rome. I scarcely need tell you, dearest Friend, that at first, in this London hurly-burly, I hardly knew whether I was standing on my head or my heels: I will not say that this condition has not had a certain charm. I have made several acquaintances, have been cordially received, and have had considerably more praise for my picture than it deserves. However, I have already set seriously to work again, and expect shortly to commence upon a new composition. It is a real grief to me, dear Master, to have to work without your guidance.

            My succès here in London, which, for a beginner, has been extraordinarily great, fills me with anxiety and apprehension; I am always thinking, “What can you exhibit next year that will fulfill the expectations of the public?” When I have settled anything definitively, I shall report to my master in Frankfurt.

            Now, however, as regards to photographs. Owing to unforeseen circumstances, Mrs. Sartoris (whom I introduced to you in my last letter) was obliged to alter the plans of her journey, and will not leave this for Germany until the middle of September. What now? Will you wait so long, or shall I seek an opportunity to send you your seven things?


To: Leighton’s mother

It is my particular object and study to go to no parties, in the which I have succeeded admirably. I go often to Cartwright’s in the evening, that don’t count; now and then to Browning, now and then to the play, see a goal deal of Lady Hoare; and that reminds me that Hoare sent you some game the other day, which, however, was returned, as you were not forthcoming. By-the-bye, when I say I have made no acquaintance of interest, that is not true; Odo Russell, son and brother of my friends, Lady William and Arthur Russell, and our diplomatic agent here, is a great friend of mine, and particularly sympathetic.


2 Orme Square

April 10, 1861

To: Leighton’s Mother


Frederic Leighton, Lieder ohne Worte, 1861, Tate Britain.

Dearest Mammy,--

 I have deferred writing until now that I might be able to tell you the result of my little “private view,” now over. I am happy to say I have a great success. The Vision pleased many people much, but was altogether, as I expected, the least popular; the subject, though very interesting, was less attractive to the many, and besides I have progressed in painting since the date of that picture. My little girl at the fountain, christened for me by one of my visitors, Leider ohne Worte, has perhaps had the greatest number of votes. The Francesca, on the other hand, has had, I think, the advantage in the quality of its admirers. Watts, for instance, and Mrs. Sartoris think it by far my best daub.

            By-the-bye, you will be particularly pleased to hear that Lina’s portrait has had an immense success, and indeed, on second thoughts, perhaps it was more admired than anything else. The Capri and the Aslett were also much liked. Mind, dear Mamma, this letter is “strictly confidential,” because although, of course, you want to know what people say of my pictures, anybody else seeing this letter would (or might) suppose I was devoured with vanity.

            I have just made an unexpected acquaintance in the Gladstones, who sent me, I don’t know why, a card for two parties. It was very polite of them, and of course I went. This is a very egotistical letter, dear Mamma, but I know that it is what you want.

May 1, 1861

To: Leighton’s mother

Dearest Mammy,--

Life being a pump handle, first up then down, you won’t be too surprised to hear that after the real success my pictures had on “private view” they are with one exception (the landscape) badly hung, The Vision over a door, the others above the line, which will make it impossible to see the finish or delicacy of execution which is an important feature in them. I have not seen them myself, but am told this by those who have. Don’t take on, dear Mammy, nor let Papa worry himself about it. Things come right in the end, and I know that many people will be much annoyed at this treatment of me. Millais, like a good fellow that he is, spoke up for me like a man, though he himself feels so differently on art from what I do. My good friend Aïdé is furious. After all perhaps, though badly hung, the pictures may still be seen well enough to be judged, that is all I really want, then perhaps maybe some of the papers will speak up for me. I am glad I let so many people see them at the studio, those at least know what the pictures are like. Of one thing be sure: if my works have real value, public opinion will in the long run force the Academy to hang me—but enough of this subject.


To: Leighton’s Mother

I have deferred answering your letter till now, that I might be able to inform you definitely of my fate as regards the Royal Academy. I have just been there; I must tell you at once the least pleasant part of my news – they have rejected the large Johnny and Lord Cowper. On the other hand, the other pictures are well hung; two (the Odalisque and the yellow woman), very well, being on the line in the East Room. The Michael Angelo, the E King, and the shell girl are just above the line and well seen—the small Johnny just below the line. I think the pictures all look well, though not so luminous as in the studio. I am confirmed in my option that the Academy Exhibition is a false test of colour; what looks sufficiently silvery there is a chalk out of it. The Odalisque looks best from general aspects. Lady Cowper wrote me a very nice note about the rejection of her son’s portrait, and said she was delighted to get it so soon. I am sorry about the large Johnny, because my chance of selling it is much diminished.


April 1871

To: Gussy Leighton, Leighton’s sister


Nelson & Marshall, (Michelle Ferdinande) Pauline Viardot, 1860s, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Dearest Gussy,--

You head, no doubt, that I gave a party the other day, and that it went off well. To me perhaps the most striking thing of the evening was Joachim’s playing of Bach’s Chacone up in my gallery. I was at the other end of the room, and the effect from the distance of the dark figure in the uncertain light up there, and barely relieved from the gold background and dark recess, stuck me as one of the most poetic and fascinating things that I remember. At the opposite end of the room in the apse was a blazing crimson rhododendron tree, which looked glorious where it reached up into the golden semi-dome. Madame Viardot sang the Divinités du Styx from the Alcestis, quite magnificently, and then, later in the evening, a composition of her own in which I delight—a Spanish-Arab ditty, with a sort of intermittent mandolin scraping accompaniment. It is the complaint of some forsaken woman, and wanders and quavers in a doleful sort of way that calls up to me in a startling manner visions and memories of Cadiz and Cordova, and sunny distant lands that smell of jasmine. A little Miss Brandes, a pupil of Madame Schumann, played too.



Grove Lodge

Palace Gardens Terrace, Kensington

December 14, 1874

From: George Boughton

Dear Mr. Leighton,--

I don’t know which to admire most—the “sketch” as you call it (it seems “heroic” in size even now), or your great kindness in sending it to me. Now that I may enjoy it at my leisure—and I take my leisure very often—it seems finer even than I thought it was. Not merely the spirit of the antique, but the antique itself, and the “antique” I mean is the everlasting, the best mortal may ever hope to make. That is, as far as my capacity for judging is worth, sincere. I know how perilous it is to say warmly what one feels, how it is put down as “gush” and “bad form”; but when in this very London fog of Art one sees a spark of pure light, there is some excuse for shouting with joy.

            I should reproach myself with taking up overmuch of your time in this matter, but I know that you are very good-natured; besides you might have taken my poor little bronze tribute in as few words as I sent it, and there it might have ended—though for myself I am glad you did not, and shall be ever selfishly thankful that you acted as kindly as you did.

            Pray don’t bother to reply to this, I am too much you debtor already.


July 13, 1876

From: R. F. Burton

arab hall .jpg

Arab Hall in Leighton's studio house, built with tiles referenced in Burton's letter.

My dear Leighton,--

One word to say that the tiles are packed, and will be sent by the first London steamer—opportunities are rare here. Some are perfect, many are broken; but they will make a bit of mosaic after a little trimming, and illustrated the difference between Syriac and Sindi. They are taken from the tomb (Moslem) of Sakhar, on the Indus. I can give you analysis of glaze if you want it; but I fancy you don’t care for analyses. The yellow colour is by far the rarest and least durable apparently. The blues are the favourites and the best. 



To: H. T. Wells

Dear Wells,--

The usual stress of business has prevented me till now from thanking you for your note and valuable information; I shall, with great interest, turn to the passages you allude to as soon as I get a good opportunity, and what I read will have the greatest weight with me when I vote again on the purchase. It would not, however, touch my point in regard to the General Assembly, which can only interfere with a past purchase if it can be shown to be illegal; this can, of course, only be established by legal authority, and I am, myself, sorry that your fist resolution does not run thus: That the President be requested to consult high legal authority as to whether such and such purchases are barred by the will of Sir. F. Ch. 

            Monday, February 1, 1881

To: H. T. Wells

Dear Wells,--

Since receiving your letter I have been so absolutely engrossed with business and work that I have not had time till now to answer it. I am sincerely glad you have asked for a little modification in the terms of the Lucy petition; meanwhile I have written to Gladstone, and my letter has been acknowledged with a promise to note its contents.

            In regard to your Chantrey resolution, I feel that, after the manner of very busy men, I have written in haste and not made myself quite clear.

February 17, 1881

To: Thomas Horsfall

Dear Sir, --

I have carefully read over the programme of your enterprise, and there is much in it with which I can warmly sympathize. I desire nothing more deeply than to see the love and knowledge of Art penetrate into the masses of the people in this country-- there is no end which I would more willingly serve; but there is in your programme a paragraph with which I cannot too emphatically repudiate—that, namely, which excludes from Art, as far as the public is concerned, that which is the root of the finest Art is Art, the human form, the noblest of visible things. That you should sternly and stringently exclude all work which reveals offensive aim or prurient mind is what I should be the first to claim, nut that you should lay down as corner-stone of your scheme an enactment which would exclude by implication more than half the loftiest work we owe to Art—nearly all Michael Angelo, much of Raphael’s best, Sebastiano del Piomba’s Raising of Lazarus, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus—this is indeed a measure from which I must most distinctly dissociate myself, and which makes it impossible for me to connect my name with an enterprise which would else command my sympathy.



To: Leighton’s mother 

I do wonder at the critics: will they never let “the cat die?” What Ruskin means by Millais’ painting being “greater” than mine, is that the joy of a mother over her rescued children is a higher order of emotion than any expressed in my picture. I wish people would remember St. Paul on the subject of hateful comparisons: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars, for one star differeth from another star in glory.” I spent last night an evening that Gussy would have envied me. We (I and the Sartoris and one or two others) were at Hallé’s, who is the most charming fellow in the world.


A few years before Leighton’s death

To: Marion Spielmann

In my pictures,-- where are above all decorations in the real sense of the word,-- the design is a pattern in which every line has its place and its proper relation to other lines, so that the disturbing of one of them, outside certain limits, would throw the whole out of gear. Having thus determined my picture in my mind’s eye, in the majority of cases I make a sketch in black and white chalk upon brown paper to fix it. In the first sketch the care with which the folds have been broadly arranged will be evident, and if it be compared with the finished picture, the very slight degree in which the general scheme has been departed from will convince the spectator of the almost scientific precision of my line and action.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all letters are from Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1906). 

[2] Editorial notes are placed in brackets.

Leighton's Letters