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Leighton House

Recreating Leighton’s Athlete Wrestling with a Python

A new commission for the new Leighton House

Frederic Leighton, Athlete Wrestling with a Python, Leighton House

Frederic Leighton’s dynamic Athlete Wrestling with a Python marked his first foray into sculpture, with the original life-size bronze first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877.

In 2021, a new cast of this dynamic work was commissioned by Leighton House for display in the new helical staircase, which marks a new era for the museum. Here, we explore the recreation of this new sculpture, as well as the history and legacy of Leighton’s original.  

A new sculpture for the new Leighton House

As part of the Hidden Gem to National Treasure transformation, a new helical staircase connecting all the principal floors of the museum has been built, providing an excellent opportunity to incorporate new artworks and creating a strong visual link with Leighton and the historic house.

With the backdrop of Shahrzad Ghaffari’s contemporary Oneness mural in mind, the museum also wished to celebrate and give new prominence to Leighton’s work as a sculptor, commissioning a 1-metre-high cast of his iconic Athlete Wrestling with a Python for display at the base of the staircase. Recreated using the lost-wax process, the bronze cast was finished in white, to create a dramatic contrast with the dark backdrop.

New Athlete Wrestling with a Python cast against Shahrzad Ghaffari's Oneness mural

In this location Leighton’s sculptural masterpiece, considered by Gosse as the keynote work of the New Sculpture movement, will be seen from a completely fresh perspective. Echoing its architectural surroundings, it will be in dialogue with a contemporary artwork that speaks of the unique legacy of Leighton’s home.

The sculpture finds a perfect setting in this location, interacting with the newly commissioned contemporary mural Oneness and the dramatic lighting and architecture of the space – the helical form of the staircase echoing the snake as it wraps around the figure.
Daniel Robbins

This project, kindly supported by the Henry Moore Foundation and The Friends, has been completed in memory of John Schaeffer AO, who was a long-term friend and supporter of Leighton House and a great admirer and collector of Leighton’s sculpture. To guarantee maximum fidelity to the original, Pangolin Editions used an existing mould taken from an original cast in a private collection.

Creation of the new Athlete Wrestling with a Python using the lost-wax process

Leighton’s first foray into sculpture

Prior to his creation of Athlete Wrestling with a Python, Leighton had produced several small models as preparatory works for composing his paintings, but he had never sculpted anything on this scale. To assist him, Leighton consulted with and created the work in the studio of his friend, the sculptor Thomas Brock (1847-1922).

The idea for this dynamic form allegedly came to Leighton whilst working on the sculptural modellos for his painting, Daphnephoria (1874-76). The subject was likely inspired by the Laocoon Group (49 BC), a celebrated ancient marble sculpture in the Vatican Museum which Leighton is likely to have seen during his travels and time spent living in Rome. The ancient work depicts a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons are attacked by sea serpents. In Athlete Wrestling with a Python, Leighton has removed the narrative context and focuses on the struggle of a single figure.

Using bronze, as opposed to marble, Leighton was able to create a dramatic, expansive sculpture, which encourages viewers to walk around and experience it from all angles.   

Birth of the New Sculpture movement

Critics wondered at Leighton’s mastery of a medium that was completely new to him. In this work we can see the traditional references to classical forms, such as the iconic Laocoon Group, and yet it was also profoundly innovative in its modern sense of realism. The refined surface details like the visible vein on the athlete’s foot and the python’s scales were particularly admired.

Described as ‘one of the first stirrings of modern sculpture in Britain’, it was, in Henry James’ words:

‘a representation of the naked human body, the whole story of which begins and ends with the beautiful play of its muscles and limbs’.  

The realism of the work had a profound influence upon British art and inspired the so-called ‘New Sculpture’ movement, championed by sculptors including Hamo Thornycroft and Alfred Gilbert, who drew upon the realism and dynamism of Leighton’s sculpture in their own work.  

Hamo Thornycroft, Putting the Stone (1880) in the Library at Leighton House

Bronze casts and marble commissions

Following the success of the sculptures critical acclaim, the original life-size bronze was purchased as part of the Chantrey bequest and is now in the Tate collection. Several other editions were created, including a full-size marble version and a number of smaller bronze casts.

Leighton House owns several versions, including Leighton’s early plaster model and a reduced scale bronze cast.

Leighton's original plaster model on display in the Studio, and reduced scale bronze cast in the Leighton House reception display case

In 1887, Carl Jacobsen (1842–1914), owner of the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen, commissioned a marble replica from Leighton for the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, a museum he founded in 1882. Passing into private collections from 1974, the marble sculpture was donated in 2017 by collector and philanthropist, John Schaeffer AO (1941 - 14 July 2020) to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia.