Certain people appear to have been unfairly endowed with all the talents. Such a one was Frederic Leighton, the only artist ever to have been honoured with a peerage.
Strikingly handsome, a wonderful musician, a brilliant orator, an amazing linguist and a charming host, he was a pillar of Victorian society. As a painter his technique was one of relentless perfection.
For eighteen years he was a distinguished and innovative President of the Royal Academy, and that institution is marking the centenary of his death with a vast, indulgent exhibition of his work.
Possibly it is the Academy's riposte to two spectacularly successful exhibitions showing now. Cezanne at the Tate Gallery has long lines daily round the block; as I write, the allocation of tickets for British visitors to see the Vermeers at the Hague is all exhausted. I doubt anyone will motor one thousand miles in a day to see the Leightons as some Americans did, anxious not to miss the Vermeers when they were in Washington.
No three artists could be more different. Leighton's whole career, cushioned by money and contacts, was a triumph. When he died he lay in state at the Academy and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. Vermeer, the Dutch Master, was totally forgotten until the end of the nineteenth century and left less than forty paintings. Cezanne, only nine years younger than Leighton, longed for recognition which only came late. A reclusive misanthrope, he was already fifty-six years old when the dealer, Vollard, gave him his first one-man show. Ten years later he was dead.
Yet few artists represent better than Leighton the fluctuations in artistic taste, particularly the taste for Victorian art. Outside the Academy as one approaches the present exhibition one cannot escape the two huge blow-ups on the facade. They are of Leighton's most beguiling painting, 'Flaming June'. It is of a beautiful young woman soundly asleep, draped in a revealing gown of a vibrant orange colour.
In 1962 it lay neglected in a Battersea junk shop. The painting could be bought for [pounds]60 - the frame for [pounds]65. The frame sold first and eventually, Colonel Freddie Beddington, an advertising executive and collector (and my one-time boss) bought it. Too large to fit into his flat, he sold it to a young dealer who in turn sold it for [pounds]2,000 to a Mr. Ferre, the Governor of Puerto Rico. Today, valued at several million, it is the most popular picture in their Museo de Arte de Ponce.
Christies only managed to obtain twenty-one guineas for 'The Bracelet', another large draped female, with its frame, in 1956. Thirty-six years later it made [pounds]418,000.
Immediately on entering the exhibition one sees the vast medieval tableau, 'Cimabue's Madonna Carded in Procession through the Streets of Florence' The fifty or more figures are dressed as if for a theatrical performance, the most unlikely being the central figure of Cimabue, immaculately attired in white tunic and matching tights, holding a slender young lad by the hand, supposedly his pupil, Giotto.
The work was the sensation of the 1855 Summer Exhibition. Both subject and technique reflected the teaching of Leighton's Nazarene teacher in Frankfurt. The fact that the Madonna in the painting was not the one painted by Cimabue in Florence, but by Duccio in Siena bothered no one. It was admired by the art ombudsman of the day, Ruskin, and even more by Albert, the Prince Consort. It was purchased for him by his adoring wife, Queen Victoria. This was Leighton's very first submission to the Royal Academy. He was twenty-five years old and he was on his glorious way.
Leighton was born in 1830 into a rich family. The money came from his grandfather, a fashionable physician in St. Petersburg with the Tsarina as his star patient. Leighton's father, also a doctor, was a rigorous intellectual and sometimes philosopher. He did not approve of the English …