Academic artists ought to be patriots, especially if, like Leighton, they become president of the RA. Then we know where they belong and what they value. But this icy artist might have come from - well, Iceland. His classicism is so rootless. The most satisfactory of his middle-sized paintings are sentimental portraits of girls, obviously influenced by Millais. The little landscapes are often good, and are the revelation of this exhibition. But Leighton set store on grandes machines, and his big official canvases fail on almost every count. His technique is so technical as to be boring. The naked figures are boring too, and that's the worst thing that can be said about any nude. There's no emotion in these pictures, not even a sense that Leighton enjoyed doing them. Most of them feel like copies.
Although Leighton went to all sorts of classical sources for inspiration, his paintings were not thereby inspired. Perhaps he had too much education. Leighton had his first art lessons in Rome and Florence. Then we find him at the academies in Berlin and Florence, and subsequently at other art schools in Frankfurt and Paris. He was still abroad when the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were first making their mark at the RA; and when he first exhibited there, in 1855, he was largely unknown in Britain. The Pre-Raphaelites, though, realised immediately that they had a rival. Leighton was the RA's answer to their sudden ascendancy.
Leighton's famous debut painting, Cimabue's Madonna Carried in Procession was somewhat Pre-Raphaelite, especially in subject matter. None the less, it lacks the intimacy and sense of beauty we find in, say, Rossetti. Already Leighton sought marble grandeur (this show suggests that he might have been better as a sculptor who produced the occasional painting than a painter who made the occasional sculpture). And of course he differed from the realist Pre-Raphaelites, who had social feelings, thought about the condition of England and wanted vivid description of contemporary literature and events.
By contrast, Leighton sought antique values. He wished to be an aristocrat of classicism. I suspect that he envied those great princes of the brush, like Bouguereau, who he knew decorated European palaces before the political upheavals of 1848. He did not realise, or care, that advanced British painting had become middle class, or fervently poetic, or a mixture of these things. He really did hanker after a palace, as to this day we may see from his inhospitable London house. And so he was obsessed with mural painting, or with the production of canvases that belong to architectural features, lodged between pillars or calculated to dominate stairwells. His art is in a special sense architectural: not because of its internal design, but because one imagines its place in grand hallways and corridors.
Notice, for instance, how one is required to look upwards at so many paintings, as though it were in their nature to dominate the viewer. This is also the case with pictures devoted to femininity, A Roman Lady, Fatidica and Flaming June. If you're going to imitate Michelangelo you do need to give yourself plenty of room. Big though they are, I have the impression that a number of Leighton's canvases are still not big enough. This is especially so of the frieze-like pictures. Other paintings are complete in themselves, but seem like grand fragments from an overall design whose purpose we cannot quite grasp. Daedalus and Icarus, Nausicaa and The Countess Brownlow are all of this sort. They are painted to be impressive but appear strangely lost.
When Leighton next appears in public I hope it will be with a show of his landscape subjects. You would not know that these little pictures came from the same hand as the classical muralist. They are unaffected, their size is properly and modestly chosen, and Leighton allows his brush some painterly effects. I also like their colour. The greens and browns are perhaps more French than English. This returns us to the Leighton paradox: many of these landscapes might be of anywhere, and where does their artist belong?
Two other Leighton exhibitions are at the Victoria and Albert museum, where some recently restored frescos are on display, and at Leighton House, where a number of heritage-industry events have been devised. "Eavesdrop on a private dinner held by Leighton for his artist friends," says the brochure, "listen to the music played at one of Leighton's famous soirees; be transported to the bazaars of the Middle East in the bejewelled Arab hall ..." An actress will pretend to be the model for Flaming June. And if you pay more than the usual entrance fee, you'll be given a glass of champagne while observing these spectacles.
! 'Frederic Leighton 1830-96': Royal Academy, W1 (0171 494 5615), to 21 Apr. 'The Leighton Frescos': V&A, SW7 (0171 938 8500) to 8 Sept. 'At Home with Lord Leighton': Leighton House, W14 (0171 602 3316), to 21 Apr.Reuse content