A Victorian Obsession @ Leighton House Museum

The Leighton House Museum is worth visiting at any time, but especially so when it is hosting an exhibition like this one – A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection at Leighton House Museum.

One of the paintings on display references Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words (SWW by John Melhuish Strudwick). Why not listen as you read?

1. Leighton House Museum

Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-96) was one of the most eminent artists of the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign, with a particular interest in classical subject matter. In his twenties his prodigious skill already had people speculating whether he would become President of the Royal Academy, an ambition he achieved in 1878, and Leighton is the only British artist to have been raised to the peerage.

Leighton acquired this plot of land in Holland Park, west London, in the 1860s and for the rest of his life collaborated with architects to build and extend and improve what became an artistic creation in its own right, ‘a showcase for artistic and aesthetic taste’. The house is lavishly decorated and ornamented throughout but the most famous part of it is the Arab Hall, built between 1877 and 1881.

Leighton House Arab Hall (1) -®Will Pryce

Leighton House Museum, London: The Arab Hall. Courtesy of Leighton House Museum and Will Pryce.

The hall was based on the reception room at the twelfth-century palace of La Zisa at Palermo in Sicily. It was built to showcase Leighton’s collection of 16th and 17th century Islamic tiles and every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling contribute to the wonderful ambience, with mosaic floors, a gold mosaic frieze designed by Walter Crane running round the walls, elaborate alcoves with views over the garden and, in the centre, a small floor-level fountain trickling into a yard-wide pool. There are chairs so you can sit and relax. It is an extraordinary thing to find in a Victorian house.

Next in impact is the large, north-facing studio Leighton had built at the top of the house, to contain his easels, works in progress and the huge collection of photographs, sketches and oils which he kept around him. I was struck that Leighton had commissioned someone to run a scale version of the Parthenon frieze along the top of the longest wall in the room, a living link between his work and the classical Greek image of bodily perfection (a notion currently displayed and discussed at the British Museum) and which he saw as the ultimate source and validator of his work.

2. A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection

The Pérez Simón collection is named after the man who collected it, a successful Mexican businessman with an eye for Victorian art and the money to acquire it: he owns the largest collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside Britain. This is a rare opportunity to see more than fifty paintings from the Leighton era gathered together in a house which beautifully preserves the ambience and feel of the time.

The staircase in the Leighton House Museum ©Todd White

The staircase in the Leighton House Museum, with paintings from the Pérez Simón collection © Todd White

The artists

The exhibition includes works by:

Timespan

The 60 or more paintings on show stretch from 1862 to 1916, from the heart of the Victorian era through the Edwardian high summer and on into the year of the Battle of the Somme.

Though they are not displayed in order, I think you can observe a development in interests and technique across the period. Very roughly the earlier paintings have a Pre-Raphaelite interest in the Middle Ages, an interest in Arthurian and other medieval legends and a soft-focus approach, a blurriness about the features which carries on in Burne-Jones’s work into the new century. This is a rare nude by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, using his most-painted model, Alexa Wilding.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Venus Verticordia 1867-1868 Oil on canvas The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Venus Verticordia (1867-1868) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

The later group of artists are sometimes referred to as the Olympians because they were interested in the life of ancient Greece and Rome (and Egypt) – not least because archaeological discoveries were publicising and popularising these cultures. Whereas the Pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti or Burne-Jones painted a fantasy of medieval life, the next generation of painters, like Poynter or Goodall, had travelled extensively in Italy, Greece and even Egypt and prided themselves on an almost photographic accuracy of setting, clothing and detail.

Tennyson’s influence

If you read biographies of the poet laureate of Victorian society, Alfred Lord Tennyson, you discover that he and his closest friends at Cambridge debated long into the night and wrote treatises and poems addressing what was for them the burning issue of the day: Should the artist write about the reality of daily life (and, by implication, of the technological, political and social turmoil of the times) or turn his back on society and describe only an Ideal Beauty?

We know what happened: with occasional sideways references to contemporary life (glimpsed in Maud, The Princess or In Memoriam), Tennyson ultimately developed into the poet of escape, epitomised by the Idylls of the King (1859-85) which retold the legends of King Arthur in a particularly drowsy, dreamlike style. The artists collected here followed his path and their tremendous technical proficiency is used to depict dreams of heroism and chivalry, like the chocolate box perfection of Millais’ The Crown of Love.

John Everett Millais The Crown of Love (1875) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

John Everett Millais The Crown of Love (1875) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Tennysonian escapism

The art on display here is wholeheartedly escapist, awash with Arthurian stories or myths and legends from Greek, Roman or Biblical sources. There is none of the squalor and haste of Victorian life, let alone the innumerable small wars of Empire which Kipling was to write about from the late 1880s.

Instead, the viewer is transported back in time to the lazy lives of the leisured classes of long ago. Hardly any of the paintings depicts activity: a deep languor hangs over them, and the later in the period they are created, the lazier the lives depicted.

Are we to indict these artists for failing to depict the squalor and misery of their times, as if all art must always be about the most sordid subject matter the age can provide; or celebrate them for providing visual antidotes to it, for following the almost universal contemporary belief that art exists to create the inspiring and uplifting, the ‘beautiful’?

The female image

Woman as embodiment of virtue ‘A preoccupation at the heart of pictorial expression during this period is the representation of female beauty’ (the guide). Why? Women, constricted and constrained by Victorian laws and conventions were, paradoxically, turned into the embodiment of what men were fighting for, what men were working for, what needed to be protected. In the social realm, whether they wanted to or not, women had forced upon them the role of Embodiment of the Good, of Virtue.

Male pleasure In the realm of Art, pale, white, virginal, half-naked women were obviously pleasurable for male artists to paint and male critics to judge and male patrons to buy and stare at. Thousands of artists devoted their working lives to equating the category of beauty with the female face and body, an object to be coveted, fantasised and dreamed about.

Market forces A couple of times the commentary mentioned specific paintings being composed and created with an eye on the market. An artist has to earn a living. If images of scantily-clad young women sold, then the artists would produce every variation on the theme, placing scantily-clad young women in settings as diverse as imagination allowed, from Arthurian myth, to the legends of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Model power That said, art then – as maybe fashion or pop music today – offered an escape route from lives of poverty and low expectations, for the artists (some of whom came from very humble backgrounds) and also for their models, often illiterate girls plucked from the street.

Dorothy Dene

One such was Dorothy Dene, born Ada Pullen, the daughter of an impoverished engineer from Clapham. She became Leighton’s favourite model and muse for the rest of his career; she changed her name to Dorothy Dene and Leighton helped her start quite a successful stage career, paying for acting lessons and pulling strings to get her roles.

It is pleasing to read that Dene was one of the last people invited to visit Leighton on his deathbed in 1896 and that he left her the vast sum of £5,000, more than any other beneficiary of his will.

Crenaia

The vertical shape of the painting below reflects the waterfall in the background, a realistic depiction of the highest waterfall in Ireland, part of the river Dargle, which ran across the estate of Lord Powerscourt,  the painting’s first owner. Like so much art, it is about power and money and control – control of a foreign land which no doubt came with serfs and vassals, a fine house full of willing servants, and the leisure to stare at the white, elongated body of a beautiful young woman with her clothes just gently falling off her.

Frederic, Lord Leighton Crenaia, the nymph of the Dargle (1880) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederic, Lord Leighton Crenaia, the nymph of the Dargle (1880) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Is Crenaia pornographic? Not really, not as our age knows pornography. Is it a form of soft porn or titillation? Probably, yes. I think it must have pandered to its patron’s sense of seigneurship and that it flatters any man who looks at it with a momentary sense of ownership of a woman of such soft pink perfection. But it is a very deliberate work of art and so, at a level above that, it flatters the owner’s connoisseurship: because, putting the sexuality of the figure to one side, it is a striking composition, so tall and thin, depicting a body elongated to echo the falling waterfall, and the whiteness of the gown and the white pinkness of the flesh stand out as if spotlit against the deep darkness of the background. The gown to the left is mirrored by the waterfall to the right and both could be mistaken for wings; it is almost one of the fairy paintings which were such a feature of Victorian art. So, multiple layers of visual and psychological pleasure.

Aestheticism

It’s hard to understand that these swooning beauties represented something of a rebellion against the art establishment. In the 1870s and 80s the movement which was known variously as Aestheticism or Art For Art’s Sake rebelled against the heavy hand of Victorian moralising. A great deal of Victorian art is anecdotal, telling a story, all too often one which thumps out a great moral lesson, quite often about the perils of infidelity. Although he never went as far as the polemical aestheticism of a painter like Whistler, Leighton created a number of marvellous canvases which are quite obviously more interested in form and design, in the harmonious arrangement of colours and fabrics, than in any particular myth or legend. Probably the most famous is Flaming June (1895), but on show here was the equally stylised and striking Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea, a much earlier work from 1871.

Frederic, Lord Leighton Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea (1871) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederic, Lord Leighton Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea (1871) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

The Roses of Heliogabulus

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, OM, RA, is the most famous painter of the classic Olympian scene, set on an airy terrace overlooking the sea. This painting, The Roses of Heliogabulus (1888) was given a room to itself, complete with various preparatory studies and some joss sticks filling the room with the aroma of roses. It depicts the (rather improbable) story from an account of the 3rd century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (203-222) who, among other corrupt and vicious behaviour, was said to have smothered guests at a feast with flower petals.

The striking thing about Alma-Tadema’s masterpiece is, of course, the complete lack of fear or violence; it looks like a lazy fin-de-siècle joke, all decadent music and fluttering rose petals. Far more noticeable than the nominal subject matter is Tadema’s characteristic attention to the detail of the surfaces, to the patterns in the marble pillars, the shimmer of the silk pillows.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus(1888) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Women on the terrace of a villa maritima

I am grateful to this exhibition for giving me the words to characterise these Olympian paintings, so many of which feature, as the guide puts it, ‘women on the terrace of a villa maritima‘; the image of women in togas looking over a marble parapet out across the blue Mediterranean is a stock image of the period, the speciality of Alma-Tadema in particular: charming anecdotes from antiquity.

Some highlights

  • Andromeda (1869) by Edward John Poynter – apparently, the first depiction of pubic hair anywhere in British art. As usual, the graphic nude is permissible because it is disguised as an uplifting and authorised Greek myth.
  • Passing Days (1875) by John Melhuish Strudwick – an allegory of life as figures pass from youth to age to death. Very Pre-Raphaelite in the samey vacancy of the faces. I liked the medieval attention to the detail of the background.
  • The Finding of Moses (1885) by Frederick Goodall – Goodall visited Egypt in 1858 and 1870, both times travelling and camping with Bedouin tribesmen, bringing back sundry artefacts and remaining fascinated by its legends and architecture. The very white pharoah’s daughter and Moses contrast with the dark serving girls. White is power, purity and, in this Biblical story, godliness. Note the detail of the carpet, and the frieze of hieroglyphics on the low wall behind her, and the Egyptian figures on the temple wall and the chevron of white birds rising from the trees. And I love the muddy realism of the water, giving the bottom quarter of the image a mirror-like depth.
Frederick Goodall The Finding of Moses (1885) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederick Goodall The Finding of Moses (1885) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

  • A Bathing Place (1890) by Albert Moore – the pose and the outdoor setting give this a surprising freshness. And it’s just a stunningly harmonious depiction of a perfect body.
  • The Crystal Ball (1902) by John William Waterhouse – lush velvet dress reminiscent of Millais at his best. Apparently there was a ‘Waterhouse profile’, a specific outline of the female face.
  • The Saz Player (1903) by William Clarke Wontner – what’s interesting is how this woman is so obviously English of the Edwardian, Downton Abbey type, and yet the drapery is very revealing. In its last years this genre became more shameless.
  • A Song of Springtime (1913) by John William Waterhouse – significantly different from the Crystal Ball, the roughness of the brushstrokes, and overlayering of paint creating a looser more spontaneous and open air feel. Although not ‘modern’ art, it has emerged from the Victorian syrup to become something more sturdy and independent.
  • A Passing Cloud (1895-1908) by Arthur Hughes – I think this is interesting because it shows the fag end of this tradition: a subject, a composition and a technique which have become hollow and superficial. The finish of the dress and the Delft tiles in the fireplace and especially the coat of the dog are little short of wondrous. But the whole painting is empty, it bespeaks an art which has migrated to the chocolate box and then been consigned to the attic. Leighton was long dead and the last survivors of his generation and his way of seeing things would die out on the eve of the Great War, which would sweep away their world, their fantasies, their ideas of Beauty, their visual imprisonment of women, and give rise to whole new ways of being and seeing.

My favourite

  • Greek wine (1873) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema – hidden next to a pillar was the highlight of the show. I liked it because of the vividness of the frieze copied from Greek pots at the back, because of the postures of the old man leaning up on his elbow and of the youth with his back to us pouring the wine, and because of the tremendous realism of the ageing, mottled flesh of the old man. An amazing depiction of the human body – and, as it happens, one of the few paintings with no women in it.

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