Anyone who visits the exhibition and gazes at Flaming June or The Bath of Psyche will understand the question. Leighton painted the human body in such a way that even in his lifetime speculation was rife as to the exact nature of his relationship with his models, both male and female.
Leighton never married and there has been, until now, no evidence that his relationship with his models was other than strictly professional. As Antony Thorncroft remarks in the Financial Times, "his moral reputation held". It seems he was the sole occupant of the single bed in the only bedroom (apart from the servants') in his orientalist palace of art in Holland Park, London.
However, like so many of his eminent Victorian contemporaries, it seems Leighton had at least one scandalous secret he was at pains to conceal. All the evidence - meticulous financial records at Coutts Bank, research carried out by the staff of Leighton House, wills, birth and marriage certificates - points to an intimate relationship with one of his models resulting in the birth of a son. The memorabilia and memories of the son's descendants confirm the story.
In 1872, when Leighton was 42, he paid two guineas, the going rate for modelling, to Lily Mason. Louisa Wilhelmina Mason was 27 years old and already had two daughters. Her husband was a commercial traveller. Her first son, Frederick James George Mason, was born in 1874. A few months after, Leighton made his first payment to the child of pounds 45. For the rest of his life he kept up quarterly payments, usually of between pounds 50 and pounds 90, and also sometimes took out large amounts of cash around Fred's birthday. In all, he gave him over pounds 7,000, perhaps pounds 250,000 in current values. Lily also received occasional smaller amounts. When Fred was 19 years old, Leighton paid for him to be educated in Germany, and after his death in 1896 his sisters continued to provide financial support for both Lily and Fred.
Leighton was generous to a fault. He helped both his models and fellow artists. And it was mistakenly assumed that his payments to Fred were connected with his support of the family of his friend, the landscape artist George Mason, with whom Fred was entirely unconnected.
"Godpapa" Leighton's true relationship to Lily and Fred remained a secret shared only by the family and Leighton's sisters. Augusta maintained a particularly close friendship with Fred and his family. They called her their "extra Grandmama". Fred became company secretary of a successful manufacturing firm, though when he died in 1953 the amount of money he left to his children surprised them all: it was far in excess of anything he could have earnt through his professional life. Ironically, one of his daughters married a baronet and became lady mayoress of a London borough but the peerage awarded to the "childless" Leighton died with him.
Stories about Leighton, Lily and Fred were passed down through the Mason family and their descendants. A few letters have been carefully preserved, a self-portrait sketched by Leighton on an envelope, a ring, some photographs. Fred could not change his appearance: he looked like Leighton. And, like the artist, Fred was a linguist and a gifted musician with a fine tenor voice.
Some of Leighton's tenderest paintings are of the young Connie Gilchrist, of mothers and children and sisters. He painted Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunammite Woman from the Dead when Fred was six years old, about the same age as the child model. Some of his most powerful paintings are of women caught up in terrible situations: the Captive Andromache, widow of Hector, taken prisoner by Achilles's son after the fall of Troy; Antigone, condemned to be walled up alive in her family's tomb after defying the king's orders and burning the body of her brother.
We can only speculate on the quality of Leighton's love for Lily, but we now know he was not quite the "cold fish" he was alleged to be. His paintings, "sensuous and even passionate" offer the best clue to his private character. The search for Lily (and Fred) among his many striking models has begun.
n Caroline Dakers is writing a book on the Holland Park circle of artists and patrons to be published by Yale UPReuse content