leighton and the midddle east

Letter from Frederic Leighton in

Letter from Frederic Leighton in Damascus to his father. Date 18 October 1873.

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18 Oct [1873]

Dear Papa
I find that I am not as completely cut off from the western world here as I have been lead to believe I was, and that boats leave Damascus for Alexandria weekly, and not fortnightly, as I told you in my hasty line of the other day; although, therefore, you are no longer uneasy about my health, I will not defer till the later boat thanking you for your welcome letter which reached me two or three days ago.

I am much shocked and concerned to hear of the death of my poor friend Benson, for which I was in no way prepared, the last accounts I had received before leaving England being of a decidedly hopeful nature. A kinder heart never beat than his, and I felt really attached to him; he is a great loss to me. [...]

And now to tell you about myself. Three tedious days on board a Russian boat which tossed and rolled like a cork over a sea on which a P and O would have been motionless, brought me to Beyrout; a cheery, picturesque, sunny port at the foot of Lebanon; gay and glad I was to land, and Andrea's cool, clean inn overlooking the sea was a delightful haven of rest, and my first meal at a steady table (or a real chair) was ambrosial.

Being in a hurry to get to the end of my journey, I did not stay more than half a day, but started by diligence for Damascus, a journey of some thirteen hours, first over Lebanon itself (which is fine, but by no means grand as I had hoped), then across the Valley of Coelesyria, and lastly over Antilebanon), at the foot of which the town lies. At the last relay I found waiting for me a horse and dragoman, for which and whom I had telegraphed in order that I might get the famous view of Damascus about which travellers have told wonders from time immemorial, and which is only to be seen from a bridle path over the hill above the suburb of Sala'aijeh; unfortunately the days are getting short, and I did not reach the proper spot till just after sunset; not too late, however, to enjoy the marvellous prospect before me, and to feel that it is worthy of all that has been said in its praise.

It is impossible to conceive anything more startling than the suddenness with which, emerging from a narrow and absolutely barren cleft in the rock, you see spread before your eyes and at your feet a dense mass of exuberant trees spreading for miles on to the plain which looks towards Palmyra, and, rising white in the midst of it, the Damascus of the thousand and one nights.

It is a great and rare thing for an old traveller not to be disappointed, and I am grateful that it has been so with me this time. About the town itself - as seen, I mean, from within - I have a mixed feeling. In some respects it equals all my hopes, or at least in one respect; in others it falls short of them.

I have remarked that to be prepared for disappointment never in the slightest degree deadens the blow, and, accordingly, although I have both read and been told to my heart's content that I should find the streets unpicturesque and without character, relatively of course (relatively say, to Cairo, not to Baker Street), I was, nevertheless, depressed and in a way surprised to find them so.

Of course, there are, as in every Eastern town, numberless delightful bits, and those ennobled as regularly as the day comes by a right royal sun and canopy of blue, yet in the main, Cairo and, in a very different way, Algiers, are far more brilliant, and by-the-bye although you see here an extraordinary variety of costumes from the remotest corners of the East (I have met Indians in the streets), a group of Algerine Bedouins in their stately white robes is worth a whole bazaar full of the peasants and pilgrims that throng Damascus.

Then in architecture, Damascus falls far behind Cairo, both for abundance and beauty of its specimens. Its background, too, Antilebanon, is unsatisfactory, humpy and without power of character or beauty of line, such as makes the Red Mountains on the skirt of the Cairene desert so delightful.

Here then are the shortcomings; but I have my compensation in the houses, the old houses of which some few are standing, though grey and perishing, and which are still lovely to enchantment. I can't hope to convey to you in writing any idea of this loveliness, and it is not within the scope of sketching (though I am doing one or two little corners), but I am having three or four photographs made (for there are none!) from which you will be able to gather something of their charm.

They cannot, however, give you the splendour of the light, and the fanciful delicacy of the colour in the open courts, or the intense and fantastic gorgeousness of the interior. Indeed I shall probably not attempt the latter, and though you will see lemon and myrtle trees rising tall and slim out of the marble floors and bending over tanks of running water, you will miss the vivid sparkling of the leaves, and you will not hear the unceasing song of the bubbling fountains.

I wish I could report that I am doing much work. I am doing some, and think I see my way to one or two pot-boilers (the fatal, inevitable pot-boilers!); but distances here are great, and so is the heat, and there is not much that is within the compass of sketching, though there is endless painting material.

I am doing a bit in the great mosque, which is very delightful to me, in colour, and, if I can render it, may strike others in the same way. I am having the spot photographed in case I try to make a picture of it. The second p.-b. would probably be some unambitious corner of a court with a figure or two, et voila. It is late and I am sleepy, so good-night and good-bye.

I wish you gave me a brighter account of Lina; give her too my best love. It was hardly worth while, by-the-bye, to have my letters forwarded. I shall only get them, if at all, just before leaving Damascus next week! I fear I can't get back to England till end of third week in November.

Your affectionate son

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