Wednesday, April 18, 2012

God Speed

signed and dated l.l.: E. BLAIR LEIGHTON. 1900.
oil on canvas
160 by 116cm., 63 by 45¾in.

In the protected courtyard of a medieval castle a young knight on a white charger takes leave of a beautiful maiden, who leans from a balustrade to tie an embroidered scarf around his arm as a token of her love for him and her belief that he will return to her. Pink rambler roses are clinging to the stonework but their petals are starting to fall, perhaps a  symbol that love is in danger. He is going to war and it is not clear whether he and his comrades will return to the
castle and he to her. Edmund Blair Leighton's romantic painting of honour, stoicism and valour was painted in 1900 at the time of the worst of the second Anglo Boer War and therefore the symbolism of the painting would have been clear to the visitors to the Royal Academy show. Blair Leighton's friends Frank Dicksee and Solomon Solomon exhibited very similar paintings
at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1900. Dicksee's The Two Crowns  depicts a valiant knight in golden armour parading through a medieval street, whilst Solomon's Laus Deo (private collection) depicts a knight crossing a ford and hearing the voices of angels. Leighton would have known both of these paintings, as they were both painted in Dicksee's St Johns Wood studio where Leighton and his family were often guests. However Blair Leighton had
already made subjects of Medieval romance and history his forte, with paintings such as How Lisa Loved the King of 1890, Lady Godiva of 1892 (Leeds City Art Gallery), The King and the Beggar Maid of 1898 (Christie's, London, 30 November 2000, lot 9), and Elaine of 1899. He painted the same blonde model again in The Accolade of 1901   and in the same year painted the same subject of a lover departing for war in Adieu (Manchester City Art Galleries), in which the drama is set in Napoleonic times and the girl appears less confident that her beloved
will make it back alive.

Blair Leighton painted a world of medieval romance that was to be a potent influence on early film-makers, as significant perhaps to the conception of the medieval world at the cinema as Lawrence Alma-Tadema was to that of the classical world. Blair Leighton's paintings met the need of those who wanted to immerse themselves in romance for a moment, as Yockney explained, 'We live in an age of unnatural haste and of wonderful scientific progress. The
main roads and rivers bear witness to the changes which are taking place, while by-paths and back-waters and the very air we breathe are penetrated by the vibrating inventions of mankind. There seems to be little repose and no room for sentiment. Yet in the midst of this material world there is everyday evidence that the chief animating principles of life are lacking in force unless associated with affection. The audience of one re mains the most potent 
inspiration, knight-errant survives, prisoners of love sue for deliverance, and journeys still end in lovers' meetings.'

(Alfred Yonckley, 'The Art of Edmund Blair Leighton', special Christmas edition of Art Annual, 1913, p.14) The same is still relevant and Blair Leighton's work retains the power to charm with the yearning romance of its beauty. Edmund Blair Leighton was born in London on 21 September 1852, the only son of Charles Blair Leighton and Catherine Boosey and no relation to Frederick Leighton, the painter. Charles Blair Leighton was an artist destined for
greatness as a portrait painter, tutored by the famous Benjamin Haydon, along with Landseer and Eastlake. At thetime of Edmund's birth, the Leightons lived at Red Lion Square, the former residence of Rossetti and Deverell, and four years later William Morris moved into the square. In this environment Edmund was raised surrounded by artists and men of position and undoubtedly would have trained in his own father's studio. Unfortunately, the early death of
his father, aged thirty-two, prevented this. Edmund was placed in a private boarding school in St. John's Wood and later went to the University College School. He was encouraged to put all hope of becoming an artist firmly behind him and look towards a mercantile career. Although he worked during the day in the City, in the evenings he attended classes at the South Kensington School of Art and at Heatherley's School of Painting where many artists founded their reputations. At the age of twenty-one Edmund Blair Leighton left his office job and launched himself into the art world with great resolve and self-belief and in 1874 he was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy Schools where he excelled. His first exhibit at the Royal Academy was entitled A Flaw in the Title of 1878 (Royal Holloway College) and
he continued to exhibit paintings with literary titles, usually with a highly romantic charge. His work can be divided in two, those pictures depicting Eighteenth Century trysts and those with a more dramatic subject of medieval heroines and heroes, from the Morte d'Arthur and Shakespeare. Most memorable among the medieval subjects are Abelard and Heloise, Elaine, How Lisa Loved the King, Lady Godiva, A King and a Beggar Maid, Dedication and Tristram and Isolde. The two qualities which can always be found in his work are beautifully meticulous studied detail and a sensitive capturing of humanity. As Yonckley wrote in 1913, 'Romance, poetry, and the drama of humanity appealed to him strongly from the beginning. He saw a world composed of vital situations awaiting interpretation, and it became
his desire to give expression to those emotions which are among the privileges of life at its ripest moments.' (ibid Yockney, p. 13)

We are grateful to Kara Lysandra Ross for her assistance with the provenance for this picture, which will be included in her forthcoming catalogue raisonne of the artist

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