The Importance of Venice in the life and work of Frederic, Lord Leighton

Italy, and especially Venice, has always been a source of creativity for Frederic, Lord Leighton. He visited the city on a regular basis from the 1850’s until the year before he died, in 1895. The work, that he produced while on his visits there, shows a great admiration for the architecture, the history, and the atmosphere of the city. In particular, he spent long hours in the Accademia di Belle Arti, known as the Accademia, sketching and seeking inspiration.

Leighton’s frequent visits gave him the opportunity to explore Venice in depth and his sketches weave a trail around the city. It is unusual for him that some of these drawings, produced in Venice, do not lead to the realisation of a finished work but are standalone memories. The subject of one such drawing is identified here as the Palazzo Contarini Corfu. However, many Venice drawings are just extremely detailed studies to be used later, as is most of the time the case with Leighton, in the creation of an oil painting. This is the case of ‘Widow’s Prayer’, which we will explore later.

The architecture of Venice, so specific by its history, style and practicality, was very dear to Leighton. He incorporated the courtyard and decorative exterior of traditional Venetian palaces in the design of the interior of his house in Kensington, London. His love of the city was such that he campaigned actively for its protection and played a central role in preventing the rebuilding of the façade of the Basilica di San Marco.

It becomes quickly obvious, when studying Leighton’s work, that his main purpose for sketching was the preparation of major oil paintings. He usually focused his talent only on what was needed in this context. One can almost feel the tension in this very restricted way of drawing, where freedom is limited by the obsession of the finished work.

But as early as 1853, at 23, Leighton writes from Venice to his father: “Of course, I was obliged to conquer to a certain extent my diversion to anything but finished works, and accordingly I made a considerable number of sketches ‘proprement dits’”[1]. In these reassuring words to his father, maybe echoing a discussion they previously had, Leighton seems to express the fact that the city allows him to step back from his immediate goals and to draw freely.

Many of his drawings produced in Venice are, as he says, ‘proprement dits’, or standalone and not specifically directed to a finished work. Venice is incredibly rich in artworks and architectural details and, through his sketches, Leighton’s leads us on a ‘grand tour’ of some of the most popular and beautiful features of the city: for example, the Palazzo Rezzonico and the cloisters of San Greogorio in oil sketches or a Byzantine well-head in a court yard off Salizzada Samuele (private collection) and a view of Santa Maria della Salute (at Leighton House Museum, reference number (LHO/D/0921), probably from the Accademia bridge, in pencil sketches. He visited the Accademia itself often, to sketch from the Old Masters (see drawings at Leighton House Museum, reference numbers LHO/D/0930 and LHO/D/0931).

It also appears that Venice gave Leighton the chance to focus on drawing exterior views. Indeed, the city exudes an architecture that allows one to live an indoor life outdoors. This comes from the necessity of building on water

An intensive period of building took place in Venice in the 11th century as it was developing as a main centre of trade with distant countries. Houses had to be built with courtyards facing the canals, since these were the main communication networks. These functional areas became the main workplaces for the trade, the loading, unloading and storage of goods which led to the idea of including them in the living space.

In particular the palaces built along the Grand Canal were constructed around these working courtyards, with an atrium that would link the water-door, the land-door, and warehouses. A staircase would give direct access to a central room on the first floor, or piano nobile, which negated the need for the inhabitants, guests, or trade partners to enter the house by the servant's floor below. Residential accommodation was accessed off from this central room. The wall that delimited the building from the canal was built essentially as a façade because it didn’t have a real structural function.

Consequently these walls often became the showcases for the buildings. They were often built with recurring features such as a porch and water-door on the ground floor and a continuous balcony on the first floor. Large windows that were sometimes multiple heights were popular, decorative columns, elaborate cornices, marble decoration and frescoes were also common. It is surrounded by this architecture that Leighton, for example, writes to his father in 1864 from “a little mezzanino on the Grand Canal…[2].

The Palazzo Contarini Corfu located on the corner of the Grand Canal and Rio di San Trovaso, follows this traditional Venetian architecture. It is the subject of one of Leighton’s sketches: ‘proprement dits’. The drawing, belonging to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (reference number E3806-1910), offers a view of this “double palace” from behind, probably drawn from the back of the Russian Embassy on the other side of the secondary canal. The section that Leighton has drawn is typical of a 15th century palace. The ground floor has the segment-arch windows, while the first floor has the decorative multiple height windows already discussed. In 1610, Vincenzo Scamozzi was commissioned to build an extension that would enlarge the Palazzo Contarini Corfu. This new palazzo was named the Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni.

It is interesting to note that almost the exact same view was also drawn by Andrew Fisher Bunner (1841-1897), an American artist contemporary to Leighton. The ink and graphite drawing produced in 1885 is located in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This drawing is titled ‘Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni’ which highlights the confusion between the names of the ‘double palace’.

What brought both artists to the Palazzo Contarini Corfu was perhaps the fact that, from 1855 to 1887, this palace was the English church in Venice. It was established by John Davies Mereweather, an English chaplain originally from Bristol, who lived there until his retirement in 1887. For this entire period, as there was no dedicated building for an English church in the city, Mereweather held services in this palace that he called home. The thought of an English church established in a decorative palazzo on the Grand Canal of Venice might have appealed to the curiosity of visitors, whether religious or not.

This palazzo architecture also influenced Leighton when he came to build his own home in Kensington, London. Indeed, as discussed in the Leighton House Museum guidebook,[3] he adapted the Venice palace courtyard structure to the staircase hall in his house. The design, that incorporates the typical internal courtyard, staircase to the first floor, and even a copper urn to symbolise the well head, is deeply inspired by the design of both the Palazzo Centani and the Palazzo Soranzo van Axel. But it is also the functionality, and not only the architecture, that presents a striking resemblance. Leighton would use this large open space to welcome his friends as well as receive the invited public on Sundays during his “At Home” afternoons. Guests could sometimes be invited to the first floor, which included the large studio and private quarters, for a visit of the studio or, for example, a private musical soiree.

In 1864, Leighton wrote to his father that he had made “a few sketches in St. Mark’s, which I think promise well[4]. The sketches, as suggested by the “promise well” of the letter, would become studies for a finished work, ‘Widow’s Prayer[5], which was painted in 1864-65. (Studies for the painting are now at the Ashmolean Museum and the Royal Academy, reference numbers WA1935.140, WA1935.141, 04/1124.) The small child is sitting on the steps that lead to the left hand side of the Byzantine alter piece, which is the famous Pala D’Oro, and the woman rests on a set of steps that lead to below the building.

Leighton has taken the two staircases, moved the handrail to the left and added one set of the distinctive geometric diamond patterns supporting the columns, thus adapting slightly the architecture of the basilica to fit his composition. It is interesting to see how, ten years after having reassured his father that he was doing ‘stand alone’ sketches, he is now focused on drawing with a finished work already in mind. Through this emotional painting, one can feel that the basilica seems to have captured the imagination of Leighton greatly.

Such was Leighton’s depth of feeling towards Venice in that 1879 he collaborated with William Morris and The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The society was created by Morris and Philip Webb to campaign against the unsympathetic restoration of traditional architecture in Britain. Their argument was that buildings should be preserved thus maintaining their history, rather than trying to recreate an idealistic vision of what the buildings would have looked like in the past. Although the society concentrated on historic buildings in Britain it applied its vision to Venice when the façade of the Basilica di San Marco was to be pulled down and reconstructed. When Leighton heard about this he joined forces with Morris in a successful campaign to prevent this from happening.

Leighton was a great traveller and visited or lived in many cities in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, North Africa and the Middle East to name a few. But Venice seemed to have particularly captured his imagination. The city, rich in art, history, decoration and architectural flourishes proved an inspiration to Leighton, which allowed him to concentrate on sketching when he first visited it as a young man. It is as if the charm of the city allowed him to step back from paternal and social pressure. Later, Venice became the subject of the emotional ‘Widow’s Prayer’, set in San Marco Basilica, for which he campaigned with William Morris. Even the palazzo of the city inspired him for the architecture and the organisation of the internal space of his Kensington home. Venice influenced Leighton’s drawings, paintings and design of home throughout his life.

Author

Rebecca Whamond

Notes

1. Barrington, E, ‘Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton’, G. Allen, 1906, Vol. I, p.113 back

2. Barrington, E, ‘Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton’, G. Allen, 1906, Vol. I, p.117 back

3. Robbins, Daniel and Suleman, Reena, ‘Leighton House Museum’, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, 2005, p.38 back

4. Barrington, E, ‘Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton’, G. Allen, 1906, Vol. I, p.117 back

5. Part of The Cecil French Bequest to Hammersmith and Fulham Council back

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