Thursday 19 May 2016


Talking of Victorian Olympians, I was at Leighton House today. This sumptuous palazzo in Holland Park was the home, studio and personal art gallery of that giant of the high Victorian art world, Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton, President of the Royal Academy, etc. I was there partly to refresh my memory for a piece I'm writing elsewhere, and partly to take a look at an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite drawings (collected by Dennis Lanigan, a Canadian surgeon and collector, and bound for the National Gallery of Canada) that is soon coming to an end.
 To be frank, if it wasn't in such a glorious setting, this exhibition of 100 or so drawings, spread over several rooms of the house, wouldn't be much fun. Mostly studies, sketches, designs and preparatory drawings, the pictures on display cover the familiar range of Pre-Raphaelite fixations - to quote the headings from the handlist, Romantic Middle Ages, Biblical Times and Morality, Antiquity: A Dream of the Past, and Renaissance Men (themes from Italian art and literature). There's plenty of good draughtsmanship on display, as you'd expect - in those days artists could really draw - but the high-mindedness, archaism and artificiality get pretty wearing after a while.
Happily there are also a fair number of landscapes and portraits, and these are easier to enjoy. My eye was caught by an exquisite pencil drawing by Henry Wallis of Mary Ellen Meredith, wife (at the time) of the flame-haired poet and novelist George, who modelled for Wallis's most famous painting, The Death of Chatterton. Within months of that picture's sensational success, Mary Ellen - daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, who took a dim view of his son-in-law - had left George for Henry Wallis. They travelled together for a while, Mary Ellen bore him a son, and then, on their return to London, Wallis abandoned her and the child. Meredith promptly seized his son by Mary Ellen and refused to make any attempt at reconciliation, even as she became more and more ill. The poor woman died alone and wretched, just a few years after Wallis drew her so tenderly, and neither he nor Meredith nor even Peacock attended her funeral. A terrible - and terribly Victorian - story.

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