THE PROPERTY OF A FAMILY TRUST
Golden Hours came at a critical juncture in Leighton’s career as he crossed the boundary from foreign-trained outsider to establishment figurehead. The pictures that the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864 secured his election as an associate of the institution, and paved the way to artistic and worldly success. It is no coincidence that the artist decided to build his own house in leafy Kensington on the back of his Academy triumph. His 1864 pictures mirror the different strands of his art: the historical, medievalizing character of Dante in Exile (Lloyd Webber collection); the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice (Leighton House, London), almost the first of his classical dramas; and the dreamy aestheticism of Golden Hours.
The late 1850s and early 1860s saw a shift in the landscape of British art just as momentous as the advent of Pre-Raphaelitism in the previous decade, with its mantra of ‘truth to nature’. New aesthetic impulses liberated art from the straitjacket of narrative and morality. A picture could be an object of beauty and emotion without any ostensible subject. A movement that has been tagged as ‘art for art’s sake’ included some of the brightest talents of the time, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Albert Moore, J.M. Whistler and Frederic Leighton. While they were not a group as such, they were closely in touch with one another, members of the Hogarth Club and the Artists’ Rifles and habituées of Mrs Prinsep’s cultivated salon at Little Holland House. They sparked ideas and images off one another and formed a loose community of like-minded spirits.
Golden Hours, a masterpiece of aesthetic art, is the culmination of a series of pictures of refined beauty including several works with musical themes, Lieder Ohne Worte (1860-61, Tate, London), Duett (1861, Royal Collection Trust) and Rustic Music (1861, Leighton House, London). It was the experience of Paris that led Leighton away from historical subjects and shaped his vision as an artist of abstract, poetic subjects. In Golden Hours a young man is playing what Gabriele Rossi Rognoni, curator of the Music Museum at the Royal College of Music, London, calls a ‘cottage piano’, a small upright instrument that became popular in Britain in the second decade of the 19th century. The banded decoration recalls the furniture designs of George Aitchison, the architect of Leighton House. Leaning over the instrument is a young woman, with her back to us, gazing at the musician. It is possible that Leighton had seen Vermeer’s painting of A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, also called The Music Lesson, where the woman similarly presents her back to the viewer (fig. 1). The picture, then as now, was in the Royal Collection, although Vermeer had only recently been rediscovered.
Golden Hours might be described as a love duet. The sexual charge between the couple is palpable, even though the man looks demurely down at the keyboard. The intent way the woman leans forward over the harpsichord suggests that, even if she is singing (unlikely), she is devouring him with her eyes. She is the active participant in the scene, he the passive object of desire. The duet of hands expresses the same idea, her fingers peeping out from under her sleeve point tautly upwards, his downwards. Rapacious women and passive men are not rare in Leighton’s art, witness Eurydice clasping a reluctant Orpheus (fig. 2). The fact that in Golden Hours the woman’s face is hidden adds a level of mystery and intensity to the subject. Her striped silk bodice, with its panel of pleated muslin and puffed sleeves, and her creamy-gold skirt, are vaguely suggestive of 16th century costume, but they could equally well have been worn by an aesthetic woman of the 1860s. The man on the other hand looks as if he had stepped out of a picture by Giorgione or Titian. One possible source for his image is the Portrait of a Poet by Palma Vecchio, acquired in 1860 by the National Gallery in London, which Leighton would certainly have known (fig. 3). The golden screen behind his head in Golden Hours, like the woman’s dress, evoke the light and colour and poetry of early 16th century Venetian art, a school much favoured by Leighton and his fellow aesthetes. The artist had visited Venice at this period, painting some delicious studies in St Mark’s with golden domes and mosaics lit up by the same palette (fig. 4). Leighton House, the artist’s studio residence was conceived in 1864. Leighton’s love of golden domes continued when he built the Arab Hall in 1877 (fig. 5).
A parallel work to Golden Hours is The Painter’s Honeymoon (fig. 6), also from 1864, a painting of a modern-day love duet devoted to art rather than music; interestingly, an early study for the picture showed the couple in Renaissance costume. The woman, in a swirling green dress, dominates the composition, poring possessively over her lover’s drawing while he recedes into the shadows of the background.
The figure of the pianist in Golden Hours was almost certainly painted from one of the circle of professional Italian models in London. Leighton employed him in other works, most notably for the figure of Christ in the great mural of The Wise and Foolish Virgins in St Michael’s, Lyndhurst, New Forest, as well as The Painter’s Honeymoon, and a powerful head study in oils at Leighton House (fig. 7). Contrary to some supposition, he is not the well-known model Angelo Colarossi. There is more than a touch of the ‘Christ-like’ about his features in Golden Hours, giving a spiritual dimension to the relationship between the two figures. This is further emphasized by the cropped picture on the back of the instrument, of an angel-like head with an aureole of light. Music is itself a spiritual medium, and it is music that binds together the two figures, a counterpoint to their human and sensual relationship, pushing it up the scale. 'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,' as Walter Pater memorably observed, and it is no surprise to find music running as a theme through aesthetic art, from Whistler’s At the Piano (1858-59, Taft Museum, Cincinnati) to Burne-Jones’ Chant d’Amour (fig. 8, Metropolitan Museum Art, New York), both roughly contemporary with Golden Hours. In the same way that Whistler sought to refine and harmonize tone and colour as a musician orchestrates sound, so Leighton’s subtle palette translates in colour the resonance of the music and the emotions to which it gives rise. He was himself a musical connoisseur, famous in later years for his music parties at which celebrated musicians performed, and a talented tenor.
Of studies for Golden Hours only two are recorded: a compositional sketch in chalks on a sheet that also includes studies for Orpheus and Eurydice and Dalziel’s Bible Gallery (Leighton House); and a colour sketch (private collection c/o Lawrence of Crewkerne). The first shows some variation in the costumes of the figures, while the second, known only today in a black and white reproduction, is close to the appearance of the finished work. Both studies indicate the processes by which Leighton developed and refined his initial concept of the subject and its colour values.
Golden Hours was a hit with the public at the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1864. Writing in February 1864, a critic in The Athenaeum had noted that Leighton was working on a painting of a ‘Venetian musical subject’ (1864, p. 270), and the reviewer in a later number of the same journal described the picture as a ‘luxury of colour’ (1864, p. 616). The Saturday Review commented that ‘Mr Leighton has thrown such an atmosphere of music over his picture, that it “vibrates in the memory” ‘like Shelley’s stanzas’ (Minneapolis Catalogue, p. 105). Leighton himself told his father that ‘En Somme I think my “Golden Hours” is the most successful of my pictures (perhaps more than anything since “Cimabue”)’ (Barrington, II, p. 114).
The picture was acquired, probably at the time of the RA exhibition, by Ernest Leopold Benzon (d.1873) and his wife Elizabeth (d. 1878). He was a steel magnate, and a noted liberal, philanthropist and art collector, originally from Germany, and she was a member of the Lehmann family, also Germanic in origin. Two of her brothers were successful painters, Henri in France, Rudolph in England. Leighton had first met Rudolph in Rome in the 1850s, and he became close to several members of the Lehmann clan. Ernest and Elizabeth were a cultivated couple, good friends of George Eliot and Robert Browning, and of other writers and artists. Their eldest son, known as the ‘jubilee plunger’, gambled away their fortune in less than two years. The sale following Elizabeth’s death included a second painting by Leighton, Cleobolus Instructing his Daughter Cleoboline (circa 1871, private collection), and works by Giovanni Costa, George Mason (both close friends of Leighton), the two Lehmann brothers and Sir J.E. Millais, as well as a group of old masters (fifty-eight lots in all).
We are grateful to Richard Ormond, C.B.E. and Professor Leonée Ormond for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.
THE PROPERTY OF A FAMILY TRUST
Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. (1830-1896)
London, Royal Academy, 1864, no. 293.
London, County Borough of West Ham, Second Annual Loan Picture Exhibition, Easter 1896.
London Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1897, no. 40, lent by Lord Davey.
Liverpool, 1915, no. 1215.
Manchester, City Art Gallery; Minneapolis, Institute of Arts; and Brooklyn Museum, The Victorian High Renaissance, September 1978 - April 1979, no. 44, lent by George Christie.
Munich, Neue Pinakothek; and Madrid, Prado, Victorian Painting, British Council Exhibition, February - June 1993.
London, Royal Academy, Frederic, Lord Leighton, February - April 1996, no. 31, lent by Sir George and Lady Christie.
‘The Royal Academy Exhibition’, Art Journal, 1864, p. 158.
‘The Royal Academy’, Athenaeum, no. 1905, 30 April 1864, p. 616.
‘The Royal Academy of 1864’. Saturday Review, 17, 14 May 1864, p. 593.
‘Exhibition of the Royal Academy’, Times, 30 April 1864. p. 14.
J. Beavington Atkinson, ‘English Painters of the Present Day’, XVI, Portfolio, 1870, pp. 161-6.
E.F.S. Pattison, Sir Frederic Leighton, London, 1882, p. 14.
The Magazine of Art, vol. 4, 1881, p. 52.
Art Journal, vol. 57, 1895, illustrated p. 375.
E. Rhys, Frederic Lord Leighton, London, 1895, pp. 12-13, 67; second, revised edition, 1898, pp. 17-18, 85.
A. Corkran, Frederic Leighton, London, 1904, p. 57, 193, 201.
Mrs Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, London, 1906, II, pp. 9, 112, 114, 119, 123-4.
E. Staley, Lord Leighton of Stretton, P.R.A., London, 1906, pp. 66-67, 234.
R. and L. Ormond, Lord Leighton. Yale, 1975, pp. 61, 119, 155, no. 103, pl. 88, colour sketch, p. 155, no. 104.
R. Ormond, ‘Leighton’s Frescoes in the Victoria and Albert Museum’, Brochure 6, London, 1975, p. 35.
G. Hedberg, A. Staley, L. Ormond, R. Ormond, Richard Dorment, Victorian High Renaissance, London, 1978, pp. 105-6 (exhibition catalogue).
C. Newall, The Art of Lord Leighton, London, 1990, pp. 48-50.
R. Ormond, L. Ormond, C. Newall, S. Jones and B. Read, Frederic, Lord Leighton: Eminent Victorian Artist, Harry N. Abrams with the Royal Academy of Arts, 1996, pp. 15, 136-7 (exhibition catalogue).
T. Barringer and E. Prettejohn (eds.), Frederic Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance, Modernity, New Haven and London, Yale, 1999, p. 232.
C. Dakers, The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society, London, 1999, p. 133, fig. 30.
E. Prettejohn, Art for Art's Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting, New Haven, 2007, p. 79.
Ernest Leopold and Elizabeth Benson.
Mrs Elizabeth Benzon (†); Christie's, London, 1 May 1880, lot 55 (1100 gns to Vokins).
The Rt Hon. Lord Revelstoke; Christie's, London, 3 June 1893, lot 38 (370 gns to Agnew).
with Agnew's, London.
The Rt Hon. Lord Davey (†); Christie's, London, 20 April 1907, lot 77 (250 gns to Wallis).
Henry Mungall (†); Christie's, London, 13 February 1914, lot 20 (220 gns to Paris).
Anonymous sale [J.A. Orillac]; Christie's, London, 15 December 1916, lot 140 (260 gns to Huggins).
Lady Rosamund Christie, and by descent to the present owner.