Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Beautiful Art of Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922)

Since it’s Medieval Romance month on my blog, it seemed only fitting that I should tell you more about Edmund Blair Leighton, a gifted Victorian artist who gave us such beautiful renderings of medieval love to the world.

To this day, very little has been published about Blair Leighton. There are no modern monographs dedicated to his work, and he is seldom mentioned in books, which discuss Victorian art, and yet his paintings are among the most recognizable of Victorian art and have garnered large prices at auction. His works of Godspeed (1900) and The Accolade (1901)--pictured below--can be seen in almost every poster shop around the world and are used as the epitome of medieval iconography.

If one looks at the visual elements in Godspeed, for example, it is clear that that very few paintings so well capture the essence of this subgenre of historical romance.

The beautiful maiden on the steps of a stone castle, the knight in shining armor, the white steed, and the sense of immediate peril, which threatens the subjects’ contentment almost define our modern day conception of Medieval legend and romantic sentiment.

The Accolade derived its inspiration from a French work on chivalry, which mentioned that even ladies occasionally conferred the order of knighthood on worthy men.

You could say Leighton inherited his gift from his father, Charles Blair Leighton, who was a very talented artist, and exhibited several works during his short career (he died when he was only thirty-two years of age.)

Though Blair Leighton was forced by his family into a mercantile career, the artistic impulse in his heart refused to be denied. He spent all of his spare time in drawing, and made such progress that when he was seventeen he decided to devote his evenings after business hours to the study of art. When he turned twenty-one, he announced to his family that, cost what it might, he would be a painter. To that end he had been saving all he could out of his salary, and managed to put by enough to provide a good year’s start. He resolved first to get into the Royal Academy Schools. So, he went to the British Museum, did the necessary drawings as examples of his skill, and was soon admitted as a student.

To meet his expenses, he began to sell his illustrations, which drew comparatively high prices. The reason for his rapid success was perhaps to be found in the fact that he treated each drawing as if it were a picture, not only paying models to sit for him, but even going to the expense of hiring the right costumes. About eighteen months after he had entered the Royal Academy Schools, he sent his first picture to the Royal Academy Exhibition. The critic of the Standard at that time (1877) expressed the hope that the artist would not be demoralized by being elected a Member of the Academy too soon, but would be kept waiting for a time till he had done some more good work.

In 1885, he married Katherine Nash, with whom he had two children, Eric James Blair Leighton, who also attended the Royal Academy School of Art, and Sophie Blair Leighton, who married the famous British civil engineer Sir Harold John Boyer Harding.

Although Blair Leighton was elected to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in 1887, he was never voted in as an associate of the Royal Academy. His career hit its peak in and around 1900 with his most famous works of Godspeed being in 1900, The Accolade, 1901, The End of the Song (pictured on left), 1902, Alian Chartier, 1903, and Vox Populi, 1904. He continued to paint other great masterpieces for many years, with less and less large-scale works as he neared the end of his life.

He died on September 1st 1922, but we can still enjoy his legacy of beautiful, romantic paintings.


The Art of Mr. E. Blair Leighton by Rudolph De Cordova
E. Blair Leighton: The Prominent Outsider by Kara Ross
Edmund Blair Leighton, English Pre-Raphaelite (2nd Wave) Painter

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