Monday, October 31, 2016

Sir Frederick Leighton, an English classical artist in the Canary Islands

When Frederick Leighton’s Flaming June went to the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1895, the artist was too ill to attend. In fact he was dying of angina pectoris. Like so many of his works, that exquisite and sensual painting, his most famous work of art, was just too meticulous for an era when Impressionism, with its carefree brushwork, was all the rage. Flaming June, which would now fetch a fortune, hung almost insignificantly at the Maas Gallery in London until it was eventually purchased by chance at a bargain price of ₤2,000 in 1963 for the Museo de Arte de Ponce in the Caribbean island state of Puerto Rico.

Flaming June (Museo del Arte de Ponce), Puerto Rico

It is interesting to note that one of Frederick Leighton’s least known and perhaps forgotten works of art hangs in another Puerto, right here in the Canary Islands.

As a mere passer-by I cannot assume it is worth the fortunes other works of Sir Frederick have fetched at Christies in recent years. Nevertheless, the artist’s history certainly stirs my imagination.

Born into a wealthy and cultured family in Scarborough in 1820, Leighton was able to travel from an early age. Thus he not only learnt several languages but was also introduced to art and architecture in EuropeHis father, Frederick Septimus, was a doctor. His grandfather, Jacob Leighton, had been friend and personal physician to the Russian Emperors Alexander I and Nicholas I. Like so many others who could permit themselves the luxury of leaving the damp and smoggy England, they sought to find a better climate for his mother Augusta’s ailing health.

Frederick, Lord Leighton (Aberdeen Art Gallery)

With such a background young Frederick had also been expected to become a doctor. His father taught him, in great detail, about human anatomy and this may well have influenced his meticulous artistic style. Nevertheless, recognising his immense talent, his father presented Leighton with a set of paints and by the time he was ten he was receiving his first master classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. But later, when he lived in Frankfurt, he enrolled at the State Institute of Art. There he was influenced by other painters like Johann Friedrich Overbeck and Eduard von Steinle of the German Nazarene movement, whose religious and spiritual overtones also influenced the British Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1855 he exhibited his work at the Royal Academy and when Queen Victoria bought one of his paintings he instantly became a member of Society circles in London. Leighton also lived in Rome and Paris, meeting other European painters and training in their studios before he returned in England in 1859.

But his purely classical style toiled against the Impressionists, who were in vogue, and was often criticised for lacking temperament and individuality. Apparently his stiff technique lacked expression and suggested laborious work and methodical use of colour rather than natural flair. Consequently critics said his paintings lost a certain charm. Nevertheless his art was regarded as being very refined and some of his finest paintings, often betraying his idealistic attraction to Greek and Roman mythology, suggest his own sensuality and passion. This became more evident after becoming less inclined to subjugate his own talent and self-esteem to other masters, especially after he met nineteen year old lass, Ada Pullan, in 1879.

Frederic Leighton was nearly fifty and fell captive to her beauty and headful of curls. She became his favorite model and muse. Although some have tried to suggest Frederick Leighton may have dabbled in homosexuality, possibly in earlier years, this has never been certain, especially as he kept his private life very much to himself. It is more likely that he enjoyed a very secret and passionate love affair with his model. It is thought he used her nude to paint Flaming June before adding her light, flaming orange robe to entice and awaken the senses.

Ada posed for Crenaia, The Nymph of the Dargle (Pérez Simon Collection, Mexico)

He persuaded Ada to change her name to Dorothy Dene, he educated her, he introduced her to fashionable circles and he helped her obtain a certain amount of success as an actress. It is believed George Bernard Shaw used her extraordinary relationship with Frederick Leighton to conjure up Pygmalion, which then reached such fame as the musical My Fair Lady. Leighton was considered most generous and helped younger painters and sculptors and was a pioneer in assisting women artists. After becoming President of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1878 he pushed a case for women artists to have the same privileges as their male colleagues.

Sir Frederick Leighton was a cultured and handsome man. He spent time at Cambridge, Oxford, Dublin, Edinburgh and Durham Universities. His talent earned him the Prussian Pour la Mérite distinction and the Medal of Honour as sculptor at the Universal Exposition of Paris in 1889. His last house in Holland Park is known as Leighton’s Art gallery. Many of his works are on display there, as well as treasures collected during his travels throughout the world. The mansion is regarded as a work of art in itself because it is filled with the tastes and fantasies of a man who lived for his art but who was also an enthusiastic volunteer soldier and commanding officer of what was known as the Artists Rifles.

Frederick Leighton visited Tenerife and Gran Canaria in 1887, spending most of his time in the Orotava Valley. The light and tones of the coast, especially in the colourful port of Puerto de la Cruz with its volcanic rock pools and Mount Teide in the nebulous distance, caught his imagination. Consequently one of his landscapes hangs proudly, albeit almost as discretely as his own private life, in the Mayor’s office at the Town Hall.

Frederick Leighton's painting in the Canary Islands
(Courtesy The Town Council, Puerto de la Cruz)

It is nothing like the colourful tourist resort we know today. In fact Frederick Leighton plays with the exact positioning of Mount Teide and the houses have a more Mediterranean look. But it is supposed to be a view of Puerto and the old harbour wall, possibly sketched from close to the San Telmo chapel.

Felipe Machado del Hoyo Solórzano

How Frederick Leighton’s painting should be there, as unaware of its artist’s prestige as it is of itself, is quite simple. We can thank another cultured gentleman and soldier, the late Felipe Machado del Hoyo Solórzano who inherited the title of Count de Las Siete Fuentes, one of the oldest hereditary titles in the Canary Islands. He was Mayor in Puerto de la Cruz in the 1970s when he spotted and purchased the painting for the Town Hall at an auction in Madrid in 1973.

(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales, a collection of short stories set in Tenerife.