Saturday, September 4, 2010

Edmund Blair Leighton - A Little Prince likely in Time to bless a Royal Throne

Price Realized £424,650

signed 'E.BLAIR LEIGHTON 1904.' (lower left), and further signed and inscribed '"A little Prince likely in time to bless a Royal throne" Shakespeare Henry VI. E.Blair Leighton' (on a label on the reverse)
oil on canvas
70 x 56¾ in. (177.8 x 144.2 cm.)

London, Royal Academy, 1904, no. 435 as 'Vox Populi'.

Blair Leighton's title derives from Henry VI, part II, the penultimate in Shakespeare's cycle of history plays, chronicling the struggle for power between the two warring dynasties of Lancaster and York. He puts visual shape to a prophetic reference to the young Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond:

This lad will prove our country's bliss
His looks are full of peaceful majesty
His head by nature framed to wear a crown
His hand to wield a sceptre, and himself
Likely in time to bless a regal throne.

The play ends with the accession of King Edward IV, following the murder of the just but weak Lancastrian monarch, King Henry VI, by Edward's younger brother, the future King Richard III. Shakespeare's characterisation of Richard in Richard III helped establish his reputation in popular mythology as a tyrannical monster who, upon Edward's death in 1485, was designated Protector to the young Edward V and his brother. The murder of the Princes in the Tower, and Richard's subsequent disposal of others thwarting his own path to kingship, simultaneously creates a momentum of power and lost allegiance for the hunchback king. The final act of Richard III documents his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485, at the hands of Henry Tudor. Henry became King Henry VII, and so inaugurated a period of prosperity and achievement for England, over which the Tudor dynasty presided.

If we view his choice of subject in its literary context, we can see how Blair Leighton gives visual form to a golden promise of future peace. He does justice to this brief. His picture is a spendid vision of royal power at its most diplomatic and munificent. Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort, holds her son aloft on a stone parapet. The little prince's hands hover, as if seeking something to grasp, but his stance is straight and sure. Armed guards raise a wall of pennants which divide the prince from the appreciative crowd, some of whom gather on balconies. Behind the royal group there are further armed guards, without helmets, who bear heavier standards.

The dynamic between these physical exemplars of strength, powerfully-limbed soldiers clad in plated armour, and the purely symbolic strength of the young prince, lends Blair-Leighton's picture especial poignancy. There are other dynamics which are resolved too; in the picture's colour scheme of red and white the colours of the House of York and House of Lancaster are made harmonious, in prescience of their subordination by the House of Tudor.

By 1904 Edmund Blair Leighton had established himself as an artist whose work bridged the commercial and critical divide; he had exhibited at the Royal Academy almost yearly since 1878, and his most popular pictures were reproduced in photogravure form. The son of artist Charles Blair Leighton, he was determined to succeed in his chosen vocation and joined the Royal Academy schools in 1821. His oeuvre encompasses three main types of historical genre: seventeenth and eighteenth-century scenes (often of a legal or domestic hue), subjects derived from Arthurian legend or literary sources, and those depicting incidents of national history.

A Little Prince, likely in Time to bless a Royal Throne mediates between the two latter categories. Towards the end of the 19th century, Blair Leighton had concentrated on Arthurian subjects, often interpreted through Tennyson's Idylls of the King. A significant group of these have recently been auctioned at Christie's; God Speed, sold in these Rooms on 14 June 2000 for £707,750 (including premium), establishing a new record for the artist. These poetic subjects partake in the Symbolist tradition, whilst more decisive evocations of history, such as The Boyhood of Alfred the Great (1913) and Crusaders (1918) absorbed Blair-Leighton's later years.

The present picture is resonant on both a literary and historical level. It succeeds in involving the viewer in its psychological tensions. This is more of a feat than might at first be supposed, given the daring composition, wherein we are placed behind the main subject. Blair Leighton's ability to involve the viewer was argued in an Art Journal monograph published in 1900. Recognising that Blair Leighton negated the burgeoning trend for abstract and cerebral subjects, Frederick Miller praised his work's narrative accessibility, and noted how, though decorative, it is not staged to the point of parody.

Perhaps Blair Leighton's technical skill saves his work from becoming parodic, even to modern eyes. Whilst he clothes his subjects in ornate period garb, the under-structure of the composition is often exceptionally well-judged. Blair Leighton had been awarded the £10 premium for drawing at the Royal Academy life school in 1878. This academic pedigree bequeathes an integral strength to even his most idealist conceptions of England's past.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog. I think you may have inadvertently put the wrong Leighton in the title of the post. As you no doubt know there were two Leightons in Victorian painting.

Hermes said...

Quite right, my fault. Thanks, I've changed it. Well spotted.