Leighton and the ‘Kensington Life Academy’

On two March evenings in 1861, Frederic Leighton took his place next to the veteran artist William Mulready on the benches of the ‘Kensington Life Academy’. Before them, a male model reclined in a distinctive pose with his right elbow resting on a block, his other arm casually placed on his left thigh and his head turned to look over his shoulder. Mulready set about drawing the figure with his usual red and black chalks on cream paper, while Leighton worked in monochrome on a blue ground.[1] By the end of the two sittings, each artist had produced an accomplished study of the model from a very similar viewpoint, both choosing to focus on the undulating musculature of the man’s back and the dark shadows cast beneath it. Mulready, for his own records or perhaps with an eye on posterity, initialled, dated and inscribed his sheet with “KA” to indicate that it had been drawn at the Kensington Academy. Leighton left his sheet unsigned and both artists took their work back to their studios.[2]

This account is deduced from the comparison of two drawings that have never been considered together before. The studies that occupied Mulready and Leighton on the 4th and 22nd March 1861 have not been viewed side-by-side since the night they were drawn and the striking resemblance between them has gone unnoticed.

owever, identifying the close correspondence between these images enables us to pinpoint exactly where two major artists sat in relation to one another in a specific place and on a particular date. It might seem strange that Leighton was attending an ‘Academy’ as late as 1861 but, in spite of the grand name, the ‘Kensington Life Academy’ was not an art school but rather an informal life-drawing club attended by a small group of artists. William Holman Hunt recalled that the class was first established c.1856 and it seems to have run until the early 1860s, possibly fizzling out after the death of Mulready in 1863.

The remit of most life classes in London at this time was primarily pedagogic but the Kensington Academy offered evening sittings for professional artists who took it in turns to pose the model.[3] According to Holman Hunt, these occasions also provided ample opportunity for discussion and debate amongst the group. In terms of Leighton’s involvement, being able to place one of his studies within such a precise context sheds light on his drawing practice during an important period in his artistic development. It also offers insight into his efforts to establish himself within the London art world at this time.

None of Leighton’s drawings from the Kensington Life Academy have previously been identified, but Mulready’s helpful inscriptions and the remarkable similarity between the two studies mentioned above not only prove that Leighton attended the class, they also reveal the origins of two further drawings. While Mulready’s inscription suggests that he spent both evenings working on one life study, Leighton apparently made at least three in the same space of time.

At Leighton House, another black and white chalk drawing on blue paper shows the same model in exactly the same pose but viewed from the back and, among a group of Leighton’s drawings at the Royal Academy of Arts, is an unfinished study also drawn on the same night.[4]

In this case, the model and pose are identical but Leighton again chose a different viewpoint (showing the figure in profile) and also used a different medium, drawing in pencil on a greenish blue paper. Before the connection with the Kensington Life Academy had been established, the RA study was simply catalogued as an undated life drawing. However, the two Leighton House Museum drawings had been linked with the painting Samson and Delilah (c.1858; untraced; see a tracing for the composition at the Royal Academy, reference number 04/1184) because the model resembles the sitter depicted in a preparatory study for the figure of Samson.[5] The identification of the Kensington life class studies, however, demonstrates that they were produced about three years after the Samson drawing, therefore ruling out any direct link with this painting.

The revised dating of the Leighton House drawings raises some implications for their interpretation. In his catalogue essay for the 1996 Leighton centenary exhibition, Stephen Jones explored the diverse influences on the artist’s work during the late 1850s and early 60s.[6] He discussed the two drawings in connection with Leighton’s interest in French academic art. In particular, Jones argued that the drawings demonstrate experimentation with the type of ‘textbook’ academic draughtsmanship advocated by the Paris-based painter, Ary Scheffer. Describing the studies, Jones observed that the ‘correct’ nature of the drawing produces a ‘remarkably dull’ and ‘prosaic’ effect.[7] Both of the Leighton House studies include areas of carefully executed hatching which certainly display a laborious quality, resembling - as Jones puts it - the work of a diligent student hoping to ‘satisfy an exacting master’.

Given that the drawings were made in London in 1861, rather than in Paris several years earlier, Leighton’s decision to employ this style is significant. It suggests that he retained an interest in the work of artists like Scheffer after leaving France and is perhaps also indicative of his reaction to the drawing techniques of the other British artists in his new milieu.

The Kensington Life Academy was almost certainly Leighton’s first encounter with life drawing in an English context and the other members of the class would have been well aware that Leighton had studied in Germany, France and Italy. At this time, there was much debate regarding the comparative merits of the different teaching systems in Britain and on the Continent.[8] While the latter was perceived to have certain flaws, it was generally conceded that European academies produced superior draughtsmen and Leighton may well have been attempting to live up to this high reputation. Furthermore, Leighton was evidently sitting very close to Mulready, a man who claimed to have drawn all his life as if ‘for a prize’ and whose life studies were so acclaimed that they had been exhibited in their own right in 1853.[9] This would surely have been a sobering experience for any artist, serving as an incentive to produce a ‘good’ drawing.

Comparing the works Mulready and Leighton produced that night it seems that, though different in colouring and technique, they are similar in general effect. Leighton’s three studies certainly appear laboured in parts, as Jones suggests, but in comparison with his earlier student figure drawings they also have a softer quality. The RA drawing, in particular, has a certain delicacy of handling that suggests greater sophistication on the part of Leighton. The connection with Mulready is also interesting in that, like Leighton, the older artist also engaged with both the British and Continental traditions, attempting to balance the naturalism of the former with the refinement and technical skill of the latter.[10]

However, it is quite possible that Leighton’s interest in attending the Kensington Life Academy was not exclusively related to drawing. The fact that he produced three drawings during two sittings could indicate that he was interested in studying the figure from different viewpoints but, as two of the drawings are unfinished, it could also suggest that he was simply restless. Equally, the ‘prosaic’ nature of some of the drawing, discussed above, could be interpreted as demonstrating a certain lack of interest in the exercise. As Jones points out, Leighton was ‘seldom dull with a chalk in his hand’ and his legacy of drawings, paintings and sculptures clearly testify to his talent for depicting the human figure.[11]

However, it should be noted that the great majority of Leighton’s figure studies were made in preparation for specific compositions and it is possible that his flair for drawing was best ignited by a clear purpose. Bearing this in mind, Leighton’s involvement with the Kensington Life Academy could, in fact, have been motivated by professional and social considerations.

Leighton was born in England and made regular visits to London but he did not settle in the capital until 1859. Although he enjoyed great success at the Royal Academy with his debut exhibit Cimabue’s Sacred Madonna carried in procession through the streets of Florence (1854-55; Royal Collection), Leighton was something of an outsider in the British art world until the early 1860s. As his biographer Mrs Barrington observed, ‘his rapid utterance, his picturesque gesture, his very appearance were not emphatically English…certain Englishmen who knew Leighton but slightly felt out of sympathy with him for this reason, experiencing a difficulty in recognising him as one of themselves’.[12] While Leighton moved in high social circles, he was regarded with suspicion by some of his peers and lacked a professional network of artist friends and acquaintances in London.

At the Kensington Life Academy, Leighton came into contact with an intriguing mixture of establishment figures and younger artists. In addition to Mulready and William Holman Hunt, other members included Augustus Leopold Egg, William Powell Frith, Val Prinsep, John Phillip, the engraver Thomas Oldham Barlow, Hunt’s pupil Robert Braithwaite Martineau and the genre-painter Arthur Rankley.[13] The classes almost certainly took place at the studio of the animal painter Richard Ansdell and most of the artists lived in the Campden Hill area of Kensington.[14]

Membership seems to have been drawn from several circles of like-minded friends, with the older generation centring around Ansdell himself who provided the link with Frith, Egg, Philip and Barlow. The younger artists were connected through Holman Hunt who probably invited his pupil and friend Martineau, as well as Leighton and Prinsep. At around the same time, the artists in this younger group were also connected through their membership of the short-lived Hogarth club.[15]

Interaction between these factions at the Kensington gatherings seems to have been lively, if not always entirely cordial. Hunt recalled ‘a good deal of “banter”’ taking place before and after each class, in particular between himself and an unnamed RA who ‘openly ridiculed the aims of our reform’. In his defence, Hunt pointed to a list worthy ‘outsiders’, citing Leighton alongside John Linnell, G. F. Watts, Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.[16]

However, Leighton’s involvement with the Kensington Life Academy appears to have been part of a concerted effort to establish himself in London. Ironically, this was one of the first steps in a process that culminated nearly 20 years later in his election as President of the Royal Academy. Throughout his career Leighton nevertheless maintained contact with artists who chose to remain outside the RA. Within the Academy, he went on to collaborate with Ansdell, Frith, Barlow, Phillip and Prinsep. Leighton’s ability to keep a foot in both camps contributed greatly to his successful reign as ‘King’ of the Victorian art world.[17]


Annette Wickham


1. An account of the life drawing technique that Mulready developed from the 1840s onwards is provided in F. G. Stephens in Memorials of William Mulready, R.A, London 1890, p.101-2. Leighton developed a preference for drawing on blue paper, particularly after his move to London in 1859. back

2. Mulready’s drawing is now in the V&A Museum, Prints and Drawings Collection, reference number PD75A/6589, and is reproduced in Anne Rorimer, Drawings by William Mulready, V&A Museum, London 1972, cat. no. 28, p.28. Leighton’s drawing was part of his studio collection and was purchased for Leighton House Museum after his death (reference number LHO/D/0779).back

3. William Holman Hunt gives a brief description of the Kensington Life Academy in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, London 1905, Vol. II, p.137-139. A drawing by Mulready in the V&A collection (reference number 6624) is inscribed “KA” and dated “Dec. 1862” indicating that the class was still taking place at that date. Several drawings produced at the Kensington Academy feature inscriptions noting which artist had posed the model. Another Mulready study in the V&A (reference number 6586), for instance, records that “A.L. Egg placed the figure”. back

4. Reference numbers LH0/D/0768 (at Leighton House Museum) and 04/489 (at the Royal Academy) back

5. reference number LH0/D/0460, Leighton House Museum back

6. Stephen Jones, ‘Leighton the Academic’, in S. Jones, C. Newall et al, Frederic Leighton 1830 – 1896, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1996, p.55-68 back

7. Ibid., p.61-2 back

8. This debate is particularly evident in the commissioners’ questions and witness statements provided in the Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the present position of the Royal Academy…and the Minutes of Evidence, London, 1863.back

9. Ibid., p.173 , for Mulready’s statement on drawing. His life studies were exhibited at Gore House, London. back

10. For further discussion of this subject see Kathryn Moore Heleniak, William Mulready, New Haven and London, 1980, p.154-55. Mulready’s life studies were not universally appreciated; Ruskin denounced them as ‘degraded and bestial’ while Mulready’s comrade from the Kensington Life Academy, Holman Hunt, considered them too idealised and complained of their ‘Dresden China prettiness’, see Alison Smith ed., Exposed, The Victorian Nude, exhibition catalogue, Tate, London 2001, cat. No. 22, p.83. back

11. Op. cit., note 6, p.62 back

12. Mrs Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Baron Leighton of Stretton, London, 1906, Vol. 1, p.20 back

13. Most of the members are listed by Holman Hunt, op. cit. note 3 but Braithwaite Martineau’s involvement is noted in M. Postle and W. Vaughan, The Artists’ Model from Etty to Spencer, exhibition catalogue, London, 1999, cat. no. 11, p.27. Arthur Rankley’s attendance is known from a drawing by Mulready inscribed “A. Rankley placed the model”, published by Thomas Bodkin in ‘Two English Drawings’, Miscellanea Leo van Puyvelde, Brussels, 1949, p.250-253, p.251.back

14. In his diary entry for 11 November 1857, Richard Redgrave wrote: ‘Mulready…is not only attending as Visitor, and drawing at the Royal Academy, but he is one of a party who meet three times a week at Ansdell’s for studying from the life. This is quoted in Rorimer, op. cit., note 2, p.33. Ansdell lived at 7 Victoria Road, Kensington back

15. Leonée and Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton, New Haven and London, 1975, p.52. The club was founded in 1858 but was defunct by 1862. Martineau was treasurer of the Hogarth club.back

16. Holman Hunt, op. cit., note 3, p.139 back

17. Leonée Ormond in ‘Leighton and the Royal Academy’, S. Jones, C. Newall et al, Frederic Leighton 1830 – 1896, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1996, p.18 back

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