Victorian vices

The Leighton blockbuster at the Royal Academy presents one view of an eminent painter loved by the establishment in his time. But does his work really merit this adulation?
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The Independent Culture
Frederic, Lord Leighton, the only British artist ever to have been elevated to the peerage, always did have a weakness for the high- and-mighty title. The first painting he ever exhibited in London was a vision of the past to which young Fred (taking a deep breath) attached the following impressive-sounding mouthful: Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence; in front of the Madonna, and crowned with laurels, walks Cimabue himself, with his pupil Giotto; behind it Arnolfo di Lapo, Gaddo Gaddi, Andrea Tafi, Niccolo Pisano, Buffalmaco, and Simeone Memmi; in the corner Dante. Whatever his other talents, it was clear from the outset that conciseness was not one of them.

Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession, etcetera is as list-like and as listless a painting as its title suggests: an inordinately industrious High Victorian exercise in painstakingly inaccurate historical reconstruction. The celebrated Florentine painting that Leighton's painting celebrates was not, in fact, painted by Cimabue in Florence but by Duccio in Siena. Luckily, no one noticed at the time. In fact, nothing could matter lessbecause getting it right was not really Leighton's aim, and criticising him for inaccuracy would be like criticising Liberace for vulgarity. Leighton spent his life purveying soothing inaccuracies to the type of Victorian patron who liked nothing better than an art that extolled the joys of living somewhere, anywhere, but in the present. In Leighton's imaginary Florence, there is a great poet on every street corner, all are immaculately well dressed and everyone, from the oldest pontiff to the tiniest baby, is forever falling into poses of wondrously picturesque Old Masterly elegance. The successful painter gets to wear laurel leaves and a dashing white tunic to match his white tights; and no one minds if he holds his young but perfectly formed boyfriend ("his pupil, Giotto") by the hand in public.

The young Leighton's effeteness, pomposity and appalling thoroughness were deeply impressive, to some. Prince Albert adored what he took to be the Germanic rigour of Leighton's art. He approved wholeheartedly of its this-one-took-ages-to-paint minuteness of detail. Its conscientious dullness, so reminiscent of the conscientious dullness of Albert's fellow countrymen, the Nazarene painters, reminded him of home. Blinded by affection, Queen Victoria bought Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna, etcetera for her husband. Leighton never looked back, if it is possible to say such a thing of a man who, like all academic late 19th-century painters of his ilk, spent most of his life doing little else but looking back.

Thackeray met Leighton in Rome in 1854 and said presciently: "If I'm not mistaken, that young gentleman will one day be President of the Royal Academy.'' He was to be proved right. Leighton turned out to be one of the more liberal of 19th-century presidents, but the Royal Academy's full- scale retrospective of his work, marking the centenary of his death, goes above and beyond the call of duty. The type of cigar-smoking, monocle- wearing, reactionary old buffer who could once be counted upon to prefer Leighton to chaps like that slapdash dauber Cezanne is in rather short supply in the late 20th century. Visitors to this exhibition need not expect to queue, nor to jostle.

Leighton, in fact, was Cezanne's near-exact contemporary, although all they may really be said to have had in common was a huge ambition to match the Old Masters (the young Cezanne, like the young Leighton, painted some curious apotheoses of illustrious dead painters). In Leighton's case, because the ambition was backed up by so little in the way of emotional or intellectual compulsion, the result was an art large in scale but minute in feeling and conception.

Leighton painted many types of dreadful picture. He did a momentarily amusing line in ham Victorian melodrama dressed up as High Biblical Art, of which Jezebel and Ahab, having caused Naboth to be put to death, go down to take possession of his vineyard; they are met at the entrance by Elijah the Tishbite "Hast thou killed, and also taken possession?" (phew) is the most entertaining - a picture made entirely from grimaces and spectacularly raised eyebrows. He churned out literally dozens of sub-Ingrean paintings of unpleasantly marmoreal nymphs, to satisfy that Victorian market for soft porn in oils, which was catered for with so much more vigour by his contemporary Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. He experimented briefly with a line that might have appealed to the paedophile section of the same market but gave up after Lieder ohne Worte, one of the most odious Victorian paintings in the world, met with a lukewarm response at the Academy. The Hanging Committee, showing some taste for once, hung it as near the ceiling and in as dark a corner as possible.

Reluctant, despite all the evidence against him, to abandon the notion that he might one day attain greatness, Leighton also continued to turn out large history paintings on impeccably academic principles. Throughout his life he returned to the motif of the lifeless frieze, first attempted in Cimabue's, etcetera, taken up again in Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis, a work chiefly notable for the astonishingly overwrought buttocks of its hero, and finally perfected, in all its resplendent moral and emotional vacuity, in Captive Andromache, completed in 1888, a picture from which visitors to Manchester City Art Galleries have been turning with faint boredom for over a century.

Lord Mellifont, a Henry James creation, is said to have been modelled on Leighton. A social lion, a much-admired and successful man, he simply ceases to exist when he is by himself. That seems to be about right. Leighton was an eminent Victorian, but how grey and depressing the eminence he finally achieved. The rehabilitation of certain types of Victorian painting can only be taken so far.

n 'Frederic Leighton 1830-1896' is at the Royal Acadamy, London W1 to 21 Apr (0171-439 7438); John Sessions's performance 'Paint, Said Fred! Leighton Live' at the RA to 31 Mar; 'The Lord Leighton Centenary Celebration' concerts and lectures at Leighton House Museum, London W14 (0171-602 3316) from today to 17 Apr