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.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

When Sunbeam and Lady Brassey came to the Canary Island of Tenerife

     At the height of the British Empire, towards the end of the nineteenth century and when British influence and wealth was flaunted with considerable pride around the world, travel was still considered something of an adventure and often perilous. But it was also a period when women like Mary Henrietta Kingsley, Isabella Bird and Marianne North boldly journeyed far from the comforts and ties of a lady’s place. One of these was Lady Annie Brassey.

Lady Annie Brassey

     Although it is true to say that she travelled in certain style and comfort together with a husband, her children, friends and a full ship’s company, Annie was nevertheless equally courageous. Travel in the 19th century could never have been described as easy of course and she suffered from ill health throughout her journeys. But nothing would stop her. In fact Annie’s enthusiasm for adventure was contagious. Her letters to family in England so vividly described the first voyage aboard Sunbeam, her husband’s yacht, that she was urged to publish. Lady Brassey’s curiosity coupled with detailed accounts of ethnographic diversity, her evident sympathy for humankind and not a small amount of humour made her first journal an instant success.

     Annie lost her mother as a child and lived her first years with her grandfather in Clapham and her father in Berkley Square. Like so many young Victorian ladies she became interested in botany. At the age of twenty-one she married Lord Thomas Brassey, lawyer, historian, Member of Parliament, sailor, writer of naval books and later Governor of Victoria, Australia.

Thomas Brassey, Ist Earl Brassey

     Lord Thomas Brassey’s yacht was launched in 1874. She was a three-masted schooner with iron frame and teak skin. She had been designed for long distance voyages and although primarily a sailing yacht her bunkers carried eighty tons of coal and she could steam for three weeks if necessary. Accommodation for her owners and guests was luxurious, with cabins and staterooms furnished in elegant Victorian drawing-room style.

The Voyage in the Sunbeam, our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months

     Lady Brassey set foot on many more exotic and remote places than the Canary Islands but she wrote very fondly of Tenerife in The Voyage in the Sunbeam, our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months, which was published in 1878. Of course, Tenerife today is one of Europe’s favourite holiday destinations. It is dotted with modern marinas and her seas are saturated with pleasure craft and small and medium sized yachts but in the nineteenth century it was very rare to find ships of a private nature sailing the oceans. Sunbeam must have been a glorious sight as she approached from the northeast.

     “We all rose early and were full of excitement to catch the first glimpse of the famous Peak of Teneriffe” Lady Annie Brassey wrote on 21st July exactly 142 years ago, the morning  before they dropped anchor off the coast of Puerto de la Cruz.

Floating above the nebulous horizon - a first glimpse of Mount Teide 

     Always a lady of action and determination Lady Brassey volunteered with Captain Lecky, as soon as they could be rowed ashore, to visit Mr Goodall, the British Vice-Consul in Puerto. She planned to make arrangements for an expedition up Mount Teide immediately and in fact they set off at two o’clock the following morning after they had assembled twelve hired horses and guides. By half past seven they were already above the sea of clouds which Annie described as resembling “an enormous glacier, covered with fresh fallen snow, extending for miles and miles while the projecting tops of other Canary Islands appeared like great solitary rocks”.

"It was like the Great Sahara"

     She wrote of the oppressive heat as they rode through what local inhabitants call Las Cañadas del Teide. “It was like the Great Sahara” she exclaimed. She mentioned huge rocks of obsidian thrown from the mouth of the volcano and then the remarkable scene of bushes of yellow broom and the beautiful Retama in full white bloom “scenting the air with its delicious fragrance, and resembling huge tufts of feathers”.

Like tufts of feathers, Retama blossom with Mount Teide in the background

     When the expedition reached Altavista, a plateau where Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smythe had set up his telescopes in 1856 and where another Briton, George Graham Toler was to build the first climbers’ refuge,  Annie Brassey decide not to go any further. Lord Thomas Brassey and the men continued to the summit. Annie, who had found her splendid Victorian clothes unsuitable for such an adventure and her exhausted children found shelter from the sun under overhanging rocks. While the young ones slept, she took photographs. The guides who had not continued to the summit with her husband’s group returned with icy water from the cueva del hielo, the Ice Cave, a cavern in the volcano not far from Altavista.

The Ice Cave on Mount Teide

     They returned to the Sunbeam in the early hours of the following morning, twenty nine hours after setting out on their expedition and not without accidents, falls and becoming separated from her husband and part of the team during the night descent. “We were too tired to do anything but go straight on board the yacht, where, after some supper and champagne, we were glad indeed to retire to out berths”.

     Lord and Lady Brassey had given out invitations for people to visit the Sunbeam and there was a constant flow of visitors, now and then having to be reprimanded for being too curious. The seas off the north coast are notoriously rough but it was noted how a good many very attractive and distinguished señoritas came aboard accompanied by young men carrying bowls, presumably in case of sea sickness. Many local inhabitants brought gifts and the decks were adorned with baskets of fruit and flowers from the glorious gardens in the Orotava Valley, although in the stifling humidity they barely lasted a day.

     Afternoon tea was a necessary and elegant ritual, either aboard the Sunbeam or in the gardens of aristocratic landowners like the Marquis de la Candia where they were shown coffee plantations. Conversation was considered a stylish and necessary art in those days and Lady Brassey gathered much of her knowledge at these comfortable meetings about local customs, of botanical aspects in Tenerife and indeed about the variable weather in the north of the island. She was most enthusiastic about the variety of flora in the Orotava Valley and wrote that the temperate climate contributed to the valley being a giant greenhouse where plants from all over the planet could flourish. Indeed the remarkable Botanical Gardens in Puerto de la Cruz, which were shown to the Brasseys by the curator, Herman Wildpret, were opened in 1788 specifically to acclimatise plants from the Spanish and other European colonies before introducing them to Europe. Of the garden of the Marquis of Sauzal Lady Brassey remarked on the remains of an enormous dragon tree, Dracaena draco and “hedges of myrtle, jasmine, clematis and flowers of every description in full bloom”.

The Botanic Garden - Courtesy of the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens, London

     She was told that many landowners had been virtually ruined by disease affecting the vine industry, although historians now admit that part of the problem was due to European wine merchants being tempted by markets elsewhere. “Most of the large landed proprietors have left their estates to take care of themselves and the peasants, for the last few years, have been emigrating by hundreds to Caracas in Venezuela“. But the cochineal dye industry had been a success and coffee and tobacco were becoming alternative sources of wealth. 

     Sunbeam sparkled in the sunlight of Tenerife for just four days and departed as suddenly and splendidly as she had arrived, in full sail along the northwest and under the majestic cliffs of Buenavista before disappearing southwest towards the Americas and Brazil.

The Sunbeam -  as painted by the Italian artist Luca Papaluca

     Sunbeam was the nickname of their daughter, Constantine Alberta, who had died aged five of scarlet fever. On her last voyage aboard the schooner, nine years after visiting Tenerife, Annie also died of a fever. It had been brought on by renewed attacks of malaria, a disease she fought with for many years. She was only 47 when she made her final entry into her journal. She died four days later and was buried at sea as Sunbeam circumnavigated Australia.  

(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.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Did artist William Turner sketch in the Canary Islands?

     The life of Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of England’s greatest Romanticist artists and master of watercolour landscape painting, has been well and truly investigated and analysed over the years.

J.M.W Turner (self-portrait circa 1799) Tate Gallery

     Nobody, however, except perhaps the American biographer John Anderson in The Unknown Turner of 1926, has ever mentioned that Turner may have visited the Canary Islands or even sketched one of the colourful and still unspoilt scenery in the islands of the 19th century. Consequently it is now only local historians, researching in depth about foreign and famous travellers to the Canary Islands, who find themselves tempted to clutch at any evidence that Turner actually came to the islands.

     William Turner was constantly on the move and spent his very early days wandering all over England in the footsteps of his friend and fellow painter Paul Sandby. He also travelled in Europe, first to France and Switzerland and then, in 1819, to Italy and Venice where sunlight began to have a magic effect in his works. He later visited the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and the Balearics. He also spent time in mainland Spain during the 1840s where he sketched the Roman aqueduct in Segovia and the castle in Madrid, both of which are kept at The Metropolitan Museum of New York. Wherever he travelled Turner sketched and took detailed notes which he would eventually use in his customary studio-bound painting. John Anderson accounted for over 40,000 oil paintings, watercolours and sketches although some art historians suggest Anderson was not precise enough and therefore prone to exaggerate. In 1845 he travelled to Algiers and Gibraltar as well as to Madeira and the Canary Islands.

     If he was indeed so prolific one would assume that, like so many British visitors and artists to the Canary Islands in the 19th century, Turner would have captured some of the islands’ unique landscapes. Unfortunately there is no apparent record of any work carried out here although one or two analysts believe there must be something hiding somewhere and that he did sketch a scene from out at sea looking across the bay towards Santa Cruz in Tenerife, perhaps with Mount Teide in the distance.

Santa Cruz de Tenerife with Mt. Teide in the background (Le Monde Illustré, 1860) - not Turner's

     The reason for his apparent inactivity during his travels to the Canary Islands or even that he might not even have stepped ashore, is perhaps because he came to the islands as an old man in declining health.

Sir James Clark (1788-1870) - unknown artist

     In fact it is believed he sailed to the Canary Islands precisely for health reasons, following the documented advice of famous physicians like Sir James Clark of Cullen in Banffshire who recommended the climate in Tenerife. In his 1829 work The Influence of Climate in the Prevention and Cure of Chronic Diseases, more particularly of the Chest and Digestive Organs, Clark was especially complementary of the Orotava Valley and Vilaflor, remarking upon their peacefulness and clean, healthy air.

Vilaflor in the 19th century (courtesy blog Octavio Rodriguez Delgado)

     Nevertheless, artistic imagination does tempt one to wish that William Turner might have at least dreamed of painting just one of Tenerife’s sunsets from the rocky, volcanic northern coast, perhaps in Puerto de la Cruz. John Whitford, who published The Canary Islands as a Winter Resort in 1890 certainly did. He compared the sundown colours of the Orotava Valley to the same marvellous golden colours found in William Turner’s paintings.

Marcos Baeza - private collection - Puerto de la Cruz

     Would Turner, had he set foot on Tenerife and set up his easel on the volcanic rocks to the east of the fishing port in Puerto de la Cruz, or beside the chapel of San Telmo as so many artists do today, have captured the same marvellous golden colours depicted by Tenerife artist, Marcos Baeza in 1890? Would he have equalled the same scene with the typically golden sunset lighting up the placid rock pools, the waves and the island of La Palma on the horizon? There would certainly have been mutual admiration, for both Turner and Tenerife’s Baeza were masters inspired by the subtleties of the sun’s fading light.

(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.