Letters and the Studio House

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After J. P. Mayall, Sir Frederic Leighton, 1883, Artists at Home, 1884. 

In his early letters, Leighton provides a glimpse into his life before his transition into the refined President of the Royal Academy, a period of his career otherwise left largely unexplored. These letters attest to the privilege of his youth, evident in a letter Leighton wrote to his mother when he was fifteen years old: “It is a great bore to have no money… My jacket is very shabby, and I cannot afford to put on my best whilst it goes to the tailor; my black trowsers [sic] are ruined, but I must wear them whilst my blue ones go to be lengthened” (1845) (1:43). Born to a high-status family, the son of a physician and grandson of the physician to the court of the tsars of Russia, Leighton realized, and in this letter conveyed with youthful honesty, the importance of appearances and financial status, acknowledgments that would serve him well as he crafted his distinguished social presence and negotiated his identity as a gentleman artist. Leighton’s correspondence with his mother reflect this unique social status. In 1854, Leighton’s mother wrote: “You are enjoying such unusual social advantages that it is a solace to me to know that you are capable of appreciating them” (1:139). Leighton’s portrait in Artists at Home, too, represents the conflation of artist and gentleman within the context of the studio-house. Although Leighton does not paint or sculpt in the photogravure, the display of framed female portraits behind him and the small figural sculpture he appears to touch confirm Leighton’s efficaciousness as the products of his hard work. At the same time, the large size of the studio, the full and neatly ordered bookshelf, and Leighton’s stoic facial expression reinforce his identity as a gentleman. 

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Frederic Leighton, Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna, 1853-5, The National Gallery, London. 

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John Everett Millais, The Rescue, 1855, National Gallery of Victoria. 

Leighton’s letters confirm the necessity of his identity as an amiable gentleman in achieving his remarkable success. While Leighton acknowledges that he is not always fond of social interactions--writing to his mother in 1859, “It is my particular object to go to no parties, in the which I have succeeded admirably” (2:38)-- he recognizes the importance of maintaining advantageous friendships, and notes in a letter to his master, Edward von Steinle, “I have made several acquaintances” including an “unexpected acquaintance in the Gladstones” (1:233). The need to appeal to the public as both a gentleman and an artist appears a continuing source of anxiety for Leighton. In the same 1855 letter to Steinle, he writes: “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?’” (1:233). Leighton’s career was not without its challenges; in 1861 he complains to his mother, “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” (2:61). Leighton not only struggled with the Royal Academy, over which he would eventually preside, but also grappled with “hateful comparisons” to his contemporaries, quoting St. Paul in an 1885 letter responding to the art critic John Ruskin’s claim that Millais’s Rescue was “greater” than Leighton’s Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna, “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” (1:234).

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Frederic Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877, Tate Britain.

With Leighton’s election as president of the Royal Academy in 1878, his letters become immensely business-like, reflecting the polished conduct of his professional affairs. Leighton writes in several letters of the high demands of his career; he wrote to H. T. Wells, a fellow member of the Royal Academy, “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” (2:253), in another letter he apologizes, “The usual stress of business has prevented me till now from thanking you for your note and valuable information” (1881) (2:252). In this context, one can consider Leighton’s portrait in Artists at Home as the portrait of a businessman. Indeed, Leighton appears distant from the act of artistic production, even looking away from the painter or photographer in most of his portraits. Leighton’s closest association with his craft, physically in the placement of his hand and mentally in the direction of his gaze, is the small figurine of An Athlete Wrestling with a Python that rests on the small table. Importantly, this is not the original work of art, but a commodified version, a smaller cast of the original bronze, equally likely to be found in the home of his middle-class supporters. Leighton seems to ponder not his artistic process, but an act of business, adding a third identity: Leighton as a businessman. 

 

 

While many objected to the commodification of art, Leighton was not entirely opposed to it. He promoted the idea of making art accessible to all, writing in 1881 to T. C. Horsfall, chief mover in establishing the Art Museum and Galleries in Manchester, “I desire nothing more deeply than to see 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” (2:274). This relates seamlessly with Artists at Home, a publication that brought the “private” studios of England’s most esteemed artists into “the masses of the people.” Artists at Home blurred the boundaries between the private and public spheres just as Leighton’s reproduction of An Athlete Wresting with a Python in the photogravure blurs the boundaries between artist, businessman, and gentleman.  Further, the very concept of a studio house blurs the distinction between “high art” and decoration; the public treated these studio-houses as works of art that reflected the personalities of the artists who inhabited them. This is evident in the frequently published articles on artists’ houses in magazines such as The Strand and The Century, and books including Wilfred Meynell’s The Modern School of Art, Maurice Adam’s Artists’ Homes, and Mary Eliza Haweis’s Beautiful Houses. For Leighton, the conflation of decoration and art was not problematic; he wrote a few years before his death that his pictures “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” (2:12).

-Jenifer Norwalk

Leighton's Letters
Letters and the Studio House