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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Also known as Sir Frederic Leighton, Baronet, and Baron Leighton; Frederic Leighton was born on Dec 3, 1830 in Scarborough, Yorkshire in England.

Frederic Leighton was an academic painter of tremendous prestige during his time. He attended school in many European cities before going to Rome in 1852 where he won many famous friends. William Makepeace Thackeray was one of the people he became friends with while visiting Rome. He also became friends with a great novelist called George Sand and Robert Browning, the English poet.

Frederic Leighton's painting by the name of Cimabue's Madonna was displayed at Royal Academy's exhibition back in 1855 and was bought by Queen Victoria. It marked the entry of a new Cosmopolitan in England. It was an academic masterpiece in which classical Greek, High Renaissance extraction and grandeur scales were used to embrace the subject matter of a superficial and anecdotal nature. In 1858, Frederic Leighton came back to London to have a feel of this triumph, but he did not settle there until around 1860.

In 1869, Frederic Leighton was officially made one of the members of Royal Academy before being made its president in 1878. Things moved so fast, and in 1878 he became a knight. A decade later in 1886, he became a baronet. Today, he is remembered as the first English painter to receive so many honours. Because he never married, those titles that he accumulated became extinct by the time he died on January 25, 1896, in London.

About Frederic Leighton

Frederic Leighton is still remembered as one of the most renowned British artists of the nineteenth century. He is one of the few people who received many international and national awards and honours during his time. He had a good connection with the members of the royal family and with many other great artists who were following in his footsteps. He also became connected to politicians, writers, and diplomats. In 1830, Frederic Leighton was born into a medical family in Scarborough, Yorkshire. His father was a medical practitioner while his grandfather was the main medical expert for the Russian Royal family that was based in St. Petersburg, where he accumulated a large fortune.

Leighton's career was usually supported by this huge wealth that his grandfather has amassed. His father also paid him an allowance throughout his life. However, his parents were somewhat unhappy with his choice of career as depicted in a letter that he wrote in 1879. "My parents usually surrounded me with every facility to learn drawing, but, strongly discountenanced the idea of my being an artist unless I could be really good at art." Thankfully, Frederic Leighton managed to become really good at art. His prowess was seen when Queen Victoria bought his first painting in 1855. He hit the peak of his profession in 1878 when he was appointed to be the president of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Unfortunately, Frederic Leighton never got married, and when he died of heart failure, he was ennobled. With that, he became Frederic, Lord Leighton, Baron of Stretton. Today, he is remembered as the only British to be ever awarded this honour and was buried in St. Paul's cathedral. There is no clear information as to why Frederic Leighton never married, but it is clear that he gave his career so much priority. This might be the reason he never focused on finding someone to build a family with.

Construction of his Incredible Home

Leighton took his studies of arts seriously, and he never returned to London until 1859 when he was done with his program. He bought a plot of land in 1864 and started to put a lot of focus on building his house. The building was constructed in phases over a period of at least thirty years. Frederic Leighton was very keen on choosing the person in charge of this construction. George Aitchison (1825-1910) was the architect that was picked by Frederic Leighton to construct the house. Frederic Leighton met with George in Italy, and that is how their friendship started. He spent at least £4,000 to have the first phase of his house constructed. This was quite a lot of money at that time. Today, this would be around £300,000.

Frederic Leighton the Artist

Frederic Leighton had his own unique taste. He preferred arts that were focused on ancient Roman and Greek mythology. He could do anything to ensure that he made paintings that were visually attractive. His work, then and now, has a great reputation for luminous colours and well-drawn figures. It is easy to think that he was using some kind of modern technology and ideas to make his drawings. Frederic Leighton works feature French impressionists painters, including Renoir, Monet, and many other artists in both London and Paris, France.

Frederic said something about impressionists, that "Impressionism is more of a reaction from the ancient conventionalism. However, an impressionist must always remember that it is the fugitive impressions, and not the deep-sinking, which are the best." When he was a member and president of the Royal Academy, his role was to educate the young upcoming artist. He had great potential, and this was quite evident in one of his pupils, the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft, who wrote that "Frederic Leighton was the most energetic and underwent any type of pain to assist the learners; moreover he was quite an inspiring master."

Frederic Leighton the Traveller

From a tender age, travelling was part of Frederic Leighton life. Since his mother did not like the harsh and polluted environment of Britain, she insisted that the family had to spend most of the time in other European cities until things change. This made Frederic Leighton travel a lot around Europe, which is why he could speak, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. In 1857, when he was just 27, Frederic made his very first trip to Algeria in Africa. This marked the beginning of his early involvement with the Middle East and North Africa. This actually inspired the construction of his Arab Hall which was done in 1877. He took inspiration from the twelfth century Arab-Norman palace with the name of Palermo, Sicily.

Leighton the Outsider

Since Frederic Leighton spent most of his early life studying and travelling, and the fact that he was mostly out of London made many individuals doubt if he was really a British. According to his very first biographer, who wrote in 1906 "his rapid utterance, his very appearance, his physique were not emphatically English." To some extent, some Britishmen who knew Frederic Leighton quite well fell out of sympathy with him and had a huge problem recognising him as one of their own. His biographer goes ahead and mentions several instances of Victorian thinking by writing that George du Maurier, a famous cartoonist and nineteenth-century author was pretty much convinced that Frederic Leighton had some close relation with the Jewish, and that he was foreign. However, he was kind of unable to find facts and evidence to support his claims.

It could be seen that Frederic Leighton had a questionable attitude toward Christianity. This is evident in a letter that was drafted by his mother back in 1852. It stated that "I beseech you, do not suffer your disbelief in the dogmas of the Protestant Church to make weak, the belief I hope you entertain of the existence of a supreme being." Frederic Leighton sister also shared his humanism as manifested in a letter she wrote in 1856, that "I could never satisfy myself of the truth of Christianity... however, the bible would have no more impact upon me than if it was an old wife's fable!"

Though Frederic remained a bachelor for the rest of his life, there was a rumour that he had an illegitimate baby with one of his models. Also, there are some claims that he was a homosexual, and this is an ongoing debate even today. Leighton died without leaving behind any diaries, and this makes it hard to tell clearly the detailed encounters of his normal life. There is nothing to bring to light what Frederic built up around his personal life. It is worth noting that what is now called Leighton House Museum was once someone's home. It has domestic furnishings alongside a huge collection of ceramics, personal collectables, textiles and many other things from the Mediterranean, Far and the Middle East.

After his Death

After Frederic Leighton's death in 1896, the house and everything inside of it was left to his two sisters, Augusta and Alexandra. However, as per the financial instructions left in his brother's will, they were compelled to sell almost all his collections. This was a huge sale that runs for at least nine days, from 8 July to 16 July 1896. After the sale, the house officially became a museum to the memory of Frederic Leighton in 1898. Since that time, he is remembered as the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The things that are in the museum are the things that were owned by Frederic Leighton during his time.