Illustrations by Lord Leighton

Coming Home, from Romola

Frederick, Lord Leighton made few book illustrations, but they are interesting because of their accessibility and because they show how the artist treated human-interest themes. One of the difficulties with Leighton's oil paintings is their coolness - he paints gods and goddesses and heroes acting with a heroic calm. His characters are too aloof, too noble to seem human. In his illustrations there are more down-to-earth people.

The First Kiss, from Romola

His largest number of wood engravings were for George Elliot's Romola, a total of 24 illustrations for the serialised story which appeared during the 1860s in a periodical called The Cornhill Magazine. Leighton also produced initial letters for each chapter. Also in The Cornhill were two one-off drawings by Leighton - An Evening in a French Country House, and The Great God Pan. Completely different in style are Leighton's nine drawings for Dalziel's Bible Gallery - much more epic and close to Leighton's style of oil painting. Finally, there is a study called A Contrast which was used as the frontispiece to a book of fairy stories.

Will his eyes open?

The Romola drawings at first sight do not appear to be obviously by Leighton. However, there are clues - most notably in the drapery, where Leighton retains the complex, elegant folds and flying cloaks found in his oil paintings. As well, in a few of the drawings there is an occasional statuesque figure typical of Leighton's oils. For example, in At the Well, the woman seems somewhat akin to the figure in his oil painting Clytemnestra.

At the Well

There is otherwise little to link the drawings and the paintings to the same hand. Certainly Leighton’s pencil studies for his paintings are in a completely different manner to the illustrations. But one could say that this simply shows that Leighton adapted his style as appropriate to the medium. Millais also adapted his style for woodcuts, and his crisply outlined illustrations are also very different in style from his paintings, though there is more of a ‘Millais type’ of character recognisable in both media. There is a great contrast with the work of, say, Rossetti, who made strenuous efforts to get a painterly effect from his woodcuts, and was never satisfied with the efforts of the engravers.

I will be guided

The quality of the engravings, and how well they reproduced the original designs of the artist, were always a source of debate. Forrest Reid, in his survey of British illustrators, felt that Swain and Linton did poorly with Leighton's Romola designs, but an early bio of Leighton described the engravings to be close to what the artist intended. By contrast, Joseph Pennell thought the woodcut of Samson for the Bible Gallery was a failure compared to a photogravure. He has a point - the photogravure seems more mysterious and thoughtful. Is such a design, on a large scale, really meant for illustration rather than as a work of art in its own right? Pictures by, say, Walter Crane or by illustrators of the Birmingham School explicitly aimed to use the contrast of the black and white lines of the woodcut to give a decorative effect. Leighton's illustrations, like those of Frederick Sandys, are instead aiming to be 'painterly', even when the style is adapted to the woodblock. The illustrator E. J. Sullivan rather disparaged Leighton's work because of the quality of the line, finding it unelastic and without emotional value. Walter Crane felt that pictures like those in the Bible Callery could be called book illustrations, but had no function as page decoration.

Escaped

It seems to me that a few of the Romola drawings, notably Drifting Away, are very good indeed, and can be included among the best work of the time.

Drifting Away

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Leighton’s studies of drapery were much admired, and often reproduced in the literature of the time.

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