Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 3 - Lord Leighton

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CHAPTER III

LORD LEIGHTON

(1895)

    SHORTLY after the opening of Parliament I received a letter from Sir Frederick, afterwards Lord Leighton, inviting me to take tea with him at Arab House in Holland Park road. He had just returned from the south of France where he had spent several months, resting and vainly hoping to recuperate his failing health.
    The annual dinner of the Royal Academy, at which he had always presided since his election as President, had been omitted that year, as there was none willing to serve as chairman in his absence. He was then in London, which was practically deserted at the end of the season, on his way to Bath to try the efficacy of the waters. I had a letter of introduction from Harriet Hosmer, a dear friend whom he had known in his student days in Rome, and it was to this that I was indebted for the visit, which was a memorable one.
    Although his illness was fatal - a fact not realized at that time by even his closest friends - there was nothing in his appearance or his manner to indicate that he was not in robust health. He impressed me as a man lighthearted and full of gaiety, charmingly at ease and with the faculty of placing his guests at ease. He was carefully dressed, his velvet coat and scarlet neckerchief being strikingly becoming to his picturesque figure. His hair and beard were of silvery whiteness, his fine eyes [-24-] were undimmed, and his regular features were hardly less classical than those which he had loved to paint.
    The time for my visit had been previously arranged, so that I was shown into the drawing room on the ground-floor, where he speedily joined me, extending his hand and greeting me cordially as the representative of his old friend. There was no other visitor present, so I had the great privilege of monopolizing his brilliant conversation. He first showed me over the house, painstakingly pointing out everything that he thought might prove of interest, all of which I recall with a sensation of regret, for even at that time he suffered continually. As is usual with most English houses, the drawing-room, dining-room and studio were in the rear, looking out into a deep, shady garden, in which he took great pride. There was a terrace and a fine lawn, with tall, branching trees, many of which, he told me, he had planted with his own hands.
    "My American visitors," he said, "are always much surprised to find such a garden as this in the heart of London."
    And well they might have been; the bare brick wall in front gave no hint of the waving boughs and velvet sward which it effectually concealed.
    In the drawing-room he pointed out two admirable examples of Corot's work, one full of misty foliage and cool, soft shadows, with the peculiar silvery greys in which the great French artist so excelled. They hung side by side, and the English master had evidently a strong affection for both the artist and the two cherished examples of his work. From the drawing-room he led the way into what resembled a Moorish court; the walls were of blue and white tiles, every one of which had been selected by the painter-a collection which, he told me, he was years in completing; there was a dripping fountain playing in a basin of black marble, and carved Moorish grilles before [-25-] the windows by which the light could be excluded, with cushioned divans beneath them; it was like a bit of Aladdin's palace, which some obliging genius might have set down in London and have forgotten.
    "When this was made," Lord Leighton explained, "I sent the builder to Spain to study Moorish designs and I impressed upon his mind that it was not intended for any especial purpose, but simply to be beautiful."
    And its purpose, from the inlaid floor to the fret-work of the arched ceiling and the gilded decorations of the door-way, had been faithfully carried out.
    On the main staircase above the landing was an unfinished portrait of Edmund Burke by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
    "There," said Lord Leighton, "that is most interesting, because it shows how Sir Joshua worked out his ideas. You see, the canvas is quite bare in places."
    And this was true of the face, of which the outlines only had been drawn, but these were so bold and strong that the effect was strikingly life-like.
    On the second floor - the first floor in English parlance - he conducted me to a small gallery, well lighted, in which hung a fine collection of pictures, every one a master-piece.
    "These," he explained, "were painted for this little gallery and given me by my friends - this was from Millais, that from Alma Tadema - this from Burne Jones - the latter a stately, strutting pea-cock - all admirable examples of the work of each donor."
    From the gallery we crossed the broad corridor to the studio-one with roof and walls of glass, its French window's opening upon a veranda. "There is my winter studio," Lord Leighton explained, "so that I may secure all the light possible from our dull skies."
    In this delightful winter studio was a bewildering array [-26-] of treasures, bronzes, marbles, rich fabrics and hangings, furniture of carved oak black as ebony, and plaques from India, China and Japan.
    In the summer studio, which, unlike the other, looked down into the tree-tops, an unfinished picture stood upon the easel, the paint still wet, upon which Lord Leighton had been at work that morning. It was this unfinished picture which, a few months later, was placed at the head of his coffin in the drawing-room of Arab House.
    "I did this to-day," he said presently, showing me the beautiful face of a young girl done in sepia upon the fly leaf of a magnificently bound book.
    "It is a gift from the Princess of Wales to a friend, and she asked me to do it for her."
    He spoke very affectionately and admiringly of the Princess, who was a warm personal friend, and with a great deal of pride pointed out a chair whose carved frame and leather cushion had been the work of her own hands.
    "And now shall I give you some tea?" he asked, pouring it, with much grace, at a little table which had been daintily spread. The tea being dispensed, we sat down for a chat, which was not the least delightful part of the visit. The conversation then turned upon America and Americans, the munificence of its rich people who collected works of art and presented them to public galleries. He recalled with admiration the fact that the architect of the Chicago Public Library had been sent to Europe, with what he called "extraordinary liberality," to study the best models; he could recall but one parallel - the re-modelling and re-building of Paris under Napoleon III, which, however, had been the work of an Emperor with the wealth of an Empire at his disposal. He thought that the liberality displayed by Chicago was much more common in the United States than in England.
    I had visited the galleries, museums and libraries in and [-27-] about London and could hardly agree with him, and said that, from my superficial observation, it seemed to me that England was gathering to itself things of value, both in art and in the field of scientific study and research, from all the countries of the earth. He still insisted that this was true of the United States in a far greater degree than of England. People in his own country had felt the stress of hard times, and many wealthy and even noble families, unable to collect their rents, had been forced to sell pictures, manuscripts and their valuables, many of which had gone to America and were a great loss to his own country.
    He seemed reluctant to speak of his failing health, but said:
    "For the first time in sixteen years I was unable to preside at the annual dinner of the Royal Academy. I have been forced to decline all invitations and could see but few visitors, and these only in the most informal way."
    He gave me two interesting reminiscences: one his first recollection of Harriet Hosmer and the other concerning Lady Butler's "Roll Call."
    "Miss Hosmer," he said, "I first met in Rome. She was studying with Gibson, who took the greatest interest in his pupil. She was then a young girl, full of spirit and intelligence. It was at that time an unusual thing for a young woman to devote herself to the serious study of sculpture, but she had talent, immense energy and the faculty of making friends."
    Of Lady Butler's "Roll Call" he explained that all work sent to the hanging committee must be submitted anonymously.
    "Frequently," he said, "the artists are the sons and daughters or relatives of the committee, and such a course must be pursued that decisions may be made absolutely without bias. When the 'Roll Call' was presented there [-28-]  was the greatest excitement, and it was greeted with a burst of applause. The technique was entirely unfamiliar, nor was there in the picture anything that gave the slightest clue to the painter's identity. Up to that time Lady Butler, who was then Miss Thompson, had lived in comparative retirement and was not well known outside her own circle of friends and acquaintances. The picture made a wonderful furore at the exhibition that year; a railing had to be placed in front of it, and two policemen were required in constant attendance to prevent the crowds from halting too long as they passed in line before it."
    The conversation then turned upon the work of modern French painters, whose technique he praised warmly, qualifying his opinion, however, with the statement that within the last five years there had been a marked retrogression in France. He spoke in terms of highest commendation of the more recent work of Mrs. Alma Tadema and her daughter and other women painters, but gave the foremost place to Henrietta Raeburn, whom he considered one of the greatest of English figure painters and whose "Apollo and Daphne," in both coloring and drawing, he pronounced one of the best pictures in the Academy that year. He praised the zeal and industry of women painters in general, but thought their limitation lay in their lack of marked creative power, although he admitted that there had been some notable exceptions to the rule. He questioned the genius of one or two who had been renowned throughout the world, and thought that their fame was the result of their conspicuousness, in that they had essayed a line of study to which women rarely devoted themselves. He would not admit that men owed anything to the heredity of unhampered opportunity, of freedom from the trammels of convention and prejudice in the past, or to the monopoly of technical training from which [-29-] women until recently had been absolutely cut off. He politely concurred in the belief, which I could not refrain from stating, that a just estimate of their genius would hardly be possible for at least half a century; that they had hardly grown accustomed to their freedom, and were only beginning to settle down to systematic and serious work, as men were accustomed to work. He reminded me, however, that they had had a fair field in music and that there had been no great women composers, and laughed good-humoredly when I reminded him that where the endowments of a son or daughter were equal, as in the case of Mozart and his sister, of Mendelssohn and his sister, all the advantages were given the son, who did not scruple to claim whatever was of value in his sister's compositions.
    He acknowledged, finally, that women had not had equal opportunity with men to study from the nude in London, a privilege that they did enjoy freely in Paris, which he pronounced emphatically the foundation of all excellence in drawing.
    When the subject was finally dropped, he suggested many things that I should see, the Turner collection in the National Gallery, a number of private collections, and Henrietta Raeburn's pictures, which were then on exhibition in Regent street. He wanted to know how much I had seen of England, and questioned me closely, urging me to visit Cornwall, for which he had a strong affection, and above all to visit Land's End. He showed me a number of studies which he had made of that wild, picturesque coast, and which were afterwards shown at one of the autumn exhibitions.
    He then returned to the discussion of American affairs, and the strong natural tie that existed between Americans and the English. He expressed a fear that, in the continual intermixture of Americans with other races in the United [-30-] States, the old Anglo-Saxon traits would be corrupted or lost; he also commented with admiration on our written constitution whose inflexibility he did not inveigh against, as Englishmen frequently do, but said that it was a remarkable summary of principles and that it had been a safe guide for the nation ever since its adoption. In their own lack of just such a document he thought that the time might come when its need would be seriously felt, and gave the crisis through which the country had just passed, and which he considered decidedly serious, as a proof of this possibility.
    "Fortunately," he said, "there had been no resistance to authority; but the situation was sufficiently grave, and a little mischievous agitation might easily have brought about a dangerous contest."
    Finally, when I rose to go, I expressed my gratification that the rumors of his illness had been exaggerated.
    "I am very ill," he said, his face clouding for an instant, "I know my own critical condition perfectly; I have to exercise constant care and avoid all unnecessary exertion. I cannot raise my hand to my head; I shall never recover."
    There was perfect calmness and a certain patient resignation in the manner in which he made this statement, an acceptance of fate that was most impressive. He asked me repeatedly in what way he could be of service to me, and as there was no favor which I felt justified in asking at that time, he said that he would keep me in mind when he returned in November. From many men this would have been, probably, a mere politeness, but I had learned that from people of his nationality such promises were fulfilled to the letter. The following morning there came a charming note, "written," he explained, "on the edge of my portmanteau," on the eve of his departure for Bath. He enclosed a letter to Alma Tadema, [-31-] whom he said I would find a charming man, and spoke again with admiration of his wife and daughter.
    Lord Leighton returned to London a few months later, having received very little benefit from the waters at Bath. Among the award of New Year's honors he was raised to the peerage, but lived only a few weeks after receiving this distinction. He was born at Scarborough December 3, 1830, and at the time of his death was still in the prime of life. He was a man of wonderful attainments and varied genius, a sculptor as well as a painter; he spoke almost every modern European language and was known in every European capital. His social qualities were of the highest order, and his tact and courtesy - the expression of a thoroughly kindly nature - were unfailing. His own brilliant success made him only the more sympathetic and helpful to those less distinguished than him self; he was a man with a multitude of friends and he had filled the high office of President of the Royal Academy, for which he had every qualification, with signal ability. His love for the Academy knew no bounds; he felt an intense pride in it and spared no effort to promote its influence, to increase its usefulness, and to make its approval an incentive, not only to English artists, but to foreign artists of every nationality, who had been most generously admitted to its privileges.
    The malady, angina pectoris, from which Lord Leighton had suffered so long, finally became most acute. During the last week of his life he endured the keenest anguish with heroic patience, opiates failing to relieve his sufferings; he welcomed the end as a release and passed quietly away on the morning of January 25, 1896. The funeral was held on Monday, February 8, and in its solemnity and magnificence was a fitting tribute to his exalted position. The body, after the preparation for burial, reposed in the drawing-room of his house, and was then pri-[-32-]vately removed to the central hall of the Academy. There it lay in state under the dome until the hour for the funeral, which was held in St. Paul's. During the week thousands called at Arab House, registering their names, in the visitors' book, and they were the names of men and women eminent in art and letters and politics, many of whom had been his warm personal friends.
    At the Academy, the coffin, which was of polished oak covered with a pall of crimson velvet, rested upon a bier draped in deep purple; upon the lid of the coffin was placed a palm branch with the artist's palette set with the colors, just as he had used it a fortnight before, with the brushes and maulstick. At the foot of the bier, upon a cushion of crimson velvet, were arranged the medals and orders. that had been conferred upon him by foreign governments, while a bronze portrait bust stood upon its pedestal at the head of the catafalque, around the neck the gold chain and medal given the President of the Academy by George III, and worn by his successors. Flowers were heaped about the bier, almost concealing it-sheaves of lilies and roses, masses of violets, with ferns and palm branches. There were countless wreaths - from the Queen and Royal Family, from Academicians, painters and sculptors, from nobles and commons, and from his friends, great and humble, in many walks of life. The Queen sent a wreath of laurel and immortelles tied with satin ribbons, that bore a card upon which she had written:
    "A mark of regard from Victoria R. I."
    That of the Empress Frederick also bore an autograph inscription: "From Victoria, Empress Frederick," and one which had been sent by the Prince and Princess of Wales was of ferns with lilies of the valley and other fragrant white flowers; upon the card attached to this memento she had written these lines:
       [-33-] "Life's race well run
        Life's work well done
        Life's crown well won
        Now comes rest."
    A wreath of laurel tied with gold ribbons was from the Royal Academy as a body, and similar offerings were sent from other institutions throughout Great Britain.
    On Monday morning as the body was conveyed to St. Paul's the side-walks along the route of the procession were crowded with spectators, many of the shops having their shutters partially closed, while the blinds of private residences were drawn and signs of mourning were exhibited.
    As the bell of St. Paul's tolls only upon the death of a member of the Royal Family, it was silent, but as the cortege passed along the Strand, knells were rung from the bells of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and St. Clement Dane's.
    Sir W. Wilkin, the Lord Mayor, arrived a little after twelve o'clock, accompanied by the aldermen and the London County Council. As the coffin was removed from the hearse and borne into the cathedral, the guard, drawn up in line, presented arms. The Dean and the Archdeacon advanced from the chancel to meet the procession as the west doors were thrown open, the Lord Mayor and his suite being assigned seats in the choir. It had been arranged that the burial should take place in the crypt, and a stone had been removed from the pavement that the coffin might be lowered to its resting place below. As it was placed in position the choir chanted "I am the Resurrection and the Life ;" "Lord, Thou Hast Been our Refuge," was also chanted, and the proper lesson was read by the Dean. This was followed by Brahm's anthem, "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort," the Bishop of Stepney read the passage: "Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery;" after which earth from the Mount of Olives near the Garden of Gethsemane was cast into the grave.
    The two sisters of Lord Leighton, with his friend Mr. Val Prinsep, then approached the grave to look upon the place to which the body was to be committed for its final repose. As they turned away a brilliant burst of sunshine streamed through the windows, the morning having been dull and cloudy, and the choir broke forth with thrilling effect:
    "I heard a voice from Heaven saying unto me 'Write;' From henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord."
    At the conclusion of the service, as the notes of the Dead March in Saul pealed through the cathedral, Sir John Millais, shortly afterward chosen Lord Leighton's successor as President of the Academy and within the year to repose beside him, placed upon the coffin the wreath of the Royal Academy, while Count Hatzfeld, representing the Emperor of Germany, stepped forward and laid the Imperial offering beside it. The coffin was then lowered into the crypt, the grave itself being heaped and covered with wreaths.
    Near at hand were the ashes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, of Turner, Opie, Benjamin West, Landseer and others who had preceded him.
    A great artist, a courtier, man of letters, eminent in all, Lord Leighton was deeply and sincerely mourned. He possessed in a rare degree the faculty of making friends, and no one envied him the many and great honors which had been bestowed upon him throughout his brilliant career.