Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron
Leighton PRA (3 December 1830 – 25 January 1896), known as Sir
Frederic Leighton between 1878 and 1896, was an English painter and sculptor.
His works depicted historical, biblical, and classical subject matter.
Leighton was bearer of the shortest-lived peerage in history; after only one
day his hereditary peerage ended with his death.
Leighton was born in Scarborough to a family in the import and export business.
He was educated at University College School, London. He then received his artistic
training on the European continent, first from Eduard von Steinle and then from
Giovanni Costa. When he was 24 he was in Florence; he studied at the Accademia di
Belle Arti, and painted the procession of the Cimabue Madonna through the Borgo
Allegri. From 1855 to 1859 he lived in Paris, where he met Ingres, Delacroix, Corot
In 1860, he moved to London, where he associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. He
designed Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb for Robert Browning in the English
Cemetery, Florence in 1861. In 1864 he became an associate of the Royal Academy and
in 1878 he became its President (1878–96). His 1877 sculpture, Athlete Wrestling
with a Python, was considered at its time to inaugurate a renaissance in
contemporary British sculpture, referred to as the New Sculpture. American art
critic Earl Shinn claimed at the time that "Except Leighton, there is scare any one
capable of putting up a correct frescoed figure in the archway of the Kensington
Museum." His paintings represented Britain at the great 1900 Paris Exhibition.
Leighton was knighted at Windsor in 1878, and was created a baronet, of Holland
Park Road in the Parish of St Mary Abbots, Kensington, in the County of Middlesex,
eight years later. He was the first painter to be given a peerage, in the New Year
Honours List of 1896. The patent creating him Baron Leighton, of Stretton in the
County of Shropshire, was issued on 24 January 1896; Leighton died the next day of
Leighton remained a bachelor and rumours of his having an illegitimate child
with one of his models in addition to the supposition that Leighton may have been
homosexual continue to be debated today. He certainly enjoyed an intense and
romantically tinged relationship with the poet Henry William Greville whom he met
in Florence in 1856.
The older man showered Leighton in letters, but the romantic affection seems not
to have been reciprocated.
Enquiry is furthermore hindered by the fact that Leighton left no diaries and
his letters are telling in their lack of reference to his personal circumstances.
No definite primary evidence has yet come to light that effectively dispels the
secrecy that Leighton built up around himself, although it's clear that he did
court a circle of younger men around his artistic studio.
After his death his Barony was extinguished after existing for only a day; this
is a record in the Peerage. His house in Holland Park, London has been turned into
a museum, the Leighton House Museum. It contains many of his drawings and
paintings, as well as some of his former art collection including works by Old
Masters and his contemporaries such as a painting dedicated to Leighton by Sir John
Everett Millais. The house also features many of Leighton's inspirations, including
his collection of Iznik tiles. Its centrepiece is the magnificent Arab Hall. The
Hall is featured in issue ten of Cornucopia. A blue plaque commemorates Leighton at
Leighton House Museum.
Leighton was an enthusiastic volunteer soldier, enrolling with the first group
to join the 38th Middlesex (Artists) Rifle volunteers (later to be known as The
Artists Rifles) on 5 October 1860.
His qualities of leadership were immediately identified and he was promoted to
command A Company within a few months. On 6 January 1869 Captain Leighton was
elected to command The Artists Rifles by a general meeting of the Corps. In the
same year he was promoted to Major and in 1875 to Lieutenant Colonel. Leighton
resigned as Commanding Officer in 1883. The painter James Whistler famously
described the then, Sir Frederic Leighton, the Commanding Officer of The Artists
Rifles, as the: “Colonel of the Royal Academy and the President of the Artists
Rifles – aye, and he paints a little!" At his funeral, on 3 February 1896, his
coffin was carried into St Paul's Cathedral, past a guard of honour formed by The
1864 – Associate of the Royal Academy
1868 – Royal Academy Academician
1878 – President of the Royal Academy
1878 – Légion d'honneur Officer
1878 – Knight Bachelor
1886 – Created a baronet in the Baronetage of the United Kingdom
1889 – Associate member of the Institute of France
1896 – Created a baron in the Peerage of the United Kingdom