Leighton and Sambourne: artists and neighbours
What did they have in common and what separated them?
Frederic Leighton and Linley Sambourne lived just a few minutes’ walk apart for more than 20 years. While never close friends, they knew each other, had many mutual acquaintances and frequently attended the same social events. Sambourne records having dinner with Leighton at his home in 1891, describing the food only as ‘so-so’!
As the President of the Royal Academy, Leighton was at the summit of his profession, painting ambitious canvases in oils that sold for substantial sums. As a cartoonist and illustrator - a ‘black and white’ artist - Sambourne was at the lower end of the artistic hierarchy of the day. Nevertheless, both were in their own ways ‘celebrities’, widely known to their contemporaries. The extensive circulation and influence of the satirical magazine, Punch, brought Sambourne profile and recognition, furthered by his illustrations for The Water-Babies and other popular publications. Leighton, living in his ‘private palace of art’, became the great artistic figurehead of the period.
Despite the professional divide between the two artists, connections between their work can be found. Sambourne made a point of employing professional artists’ models for his photography, the same models that were employed by Leighton and other prominent artists. The Pettigrew sisters, for instance, were amongst the most successful of the period and certainly posed for both Leighton and Sambourne.
Sambourne also produced numerous Punch cartoons which related to Leighton. This was either through commentary on developments at the Royal Academy, or by adapting some of Leighton’s most recognisable paintings and sculpture to form the basis of a cartoon, such as Which Will Win?. Sambourne was also chosen by the Art Journal to illustrate their memorial issue for Leighton following his death in 1896.
Leighton House and Sambourne House are very close in date. Leighton’s home was under construction from 1864 and he moved in in 1866. The Sambournes’ house was constructed from 1868, with the family taking up residence from 1875. Whereas Leighton’s studio-house was designed and built to his specific requirements, Sambourne House was built as part of a speculative development on the Phillimore Estate: one was a bespoke creation, the other was an adaptation of a conventional late-Victorian terraced house. Leighton lived alone, while Sambourne House was a family home. Yet despite these differences, Leighton and Sambourne shared a similar ambition: to create homes that combined domestic space with studio space and which, in their decoration and contents, were unquestionably the home of an Artist.
Both searched widely for objects and artefacts which they could add to their collections. Both bought furnishings from Morris & Co. and other fashionable retailers of the day. Undoubtedly Leighton was clearly able to deploy greater resources. Where he could afford to collect paintings by old masters, Sambourne had to be satisfied almost exclusively with reproductions of pictures. With few exceptions, Sambourne could not compete with the quality of Leighton’s collections, but working within his financial constraints, he created his own remarkable version of the ‘house beautiful’.
Social status and contacts
Leighton, the son of a doctor, was 14 years older than Sambourne, the only child of a partner in a fur importing business. Leighton enjoyed an upper middle class cosmopolitan upbringing, travelling widely and determining to be an artist from the age of 16. Sambourne’s family fortunes collapsed in his late teens. He trained as an engineering draughtsman and had his first cartoon published in Punch at the age of 23.
While Leighton could devote himself entirely to his art and was stretching the boundaries of artistic fame, status and reputation to new heights, Sambourne was preoccupied with his weekly Punch deadlines, taking on freelance work to boost his income and juggling the familiar concerns of children, money and career.
The Sambournes were on the edge of the ‘Holland Park Circle’ of artists living close by. They were amongst the throngs who visited Leighton’s studio and those nearby on ‘Show Sunday’. Of the other artists living on the other side of Holland Park, the Sambournes were most friendly with Luke Fildes, Colin Hunter and Marcus Stone and their families in Melbury Road.
Leighton and Sambourne were members of the same clubs, although Sambourne was only made a member of the Athenaeum, which had been Leighton’s primary club, after Leighton had died. Leighton was knighted in 1878, became a baronet and was ennobled shortly before his death. Failure to receive a knighthood was a great disappointment to Sambourne until the end of his life.
The houses that these artists left behind tell us much about Leighton and Sambourne as individuals, but they also provide a unique insight into the Victorian art world, and how different kinds of artists lived and worked during this period.