If you live in or near Bristol you currently have a chance to see an exhibition by the Victorian “history” painter Frederic, Lord Leighton at the City Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibition contains a broad selection of drawings from his career from early nature studies to the later chalk studies on tinted paper that were used as preparatory work for his paintings.  History paintings are large, often complex figurative works usually of historical or mythological subjects painted in a highly refined, detailed manner. The style is usually associated with French painters such as David, Ingres, Gerome and Bouguereau but as Lord Leighton had similar working methods and was friendly with William Bouguereau I think it’s a reasonable description to use in his case. The style died out around the time of the Impressionist painters for complex reasons. Partly there was a reaction against the lack of spontaneity in the work of these artists but also in France, I believe there was a gradual withdrawal of state support for what were often enormous paintings that could only really be exhibited in vast public buildings rather than the smaller houses of the emerging middle classes.

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 Study for  Flaming June  367 x 218 mm Black and White chalk on Brown paper  

The production of history paintings was a complicated business.  First of all the artist would rough out a composition, then he would assemble a series of life studies, detailed studies of body parts and draperies which would then be gridded up or traced back onto the canvas prior to painting. Everything would be worked out before paint would be applied. The exhibition does a fine job of showing this through the juxtaposition of the drawings with small reproductions of the relevant paintings. To pick only one example (see below)  there is a lovely series of studies of the figure of Elijah shown in various positions next to a reproduction of the finished painting. ( The original is in the Walker art gallery in Liverpool.)   

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The drawings of artists from this period were rarely seen. Apparently one of Leighton’s English contempories, the painter Alfred Stevens, would destroy his studies as soon as a  painting had been completed.  Leighton, however,  was very attached to his own drawings and would refer back to them years afterwards as source material for new pictures. 

Whenever I see Victorian drawings I am always struck by not only how detailed the pictures are but how small they seem. Even some of the “looser” later black and white chalk studies seem to me to be very tiny. I believe (I may be wrong) that artists who used chalk would  sharpen it to a point for fine detail but I’m open to correction here.

 The catalogue (a snip at £15) makes the point that Leighton’s working method may not have been totally as regimented as he liked to make out. There’s a nice quote from a friend of Leighton’s that the design for the Spirit of the Summit was “suggested by certain blots on the drop-scene at one of the theatres as he sat staring at it between the acts in enforced idleness”. 

The exhibition lasts until September 2nd. The website for the Leighton Drawings collection is www.rbkc.gov.uk/leightonhousemuseum/drawings