See the bibliography for details of the exhibition catalogue, the cover of which is shown below right. All the other images are of paintings in the Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico. © Studio Sébert Photographes. They are reproduced here by kind permission of the Leighton House Museum. Click on all the images to enlarge them.
Entitled "A Victorian Obsession," this latest exhibition at Leighton House Museum in Kensington, London, features paintings from the Peréz Simón Collection. On one level it is the happy result of the collector's own obsession: his art collection, focussing on the nineteenth-century, is one of the largest in his home-country of Mexico. On another level, however, the title indicates the period's and the artists' obsession. This is harder to define, especially over such a range of paintings. It is partly a timeless one, to do with the female form: only a mere handful of the sixty or so works on display take other subjects, and many focus on a single figure.
The Finding of Moses by Frederick Goodall (1885). Oil on canvas. 152.4 x 114.2.
Even in a Biblical painting like Frederick Goodall's The Finding of Moses, shown left, where great attention has been paid to the setting, the eye is drawn first to Pharoah's daughter, exotic and radiant in her pale semi-nude beauty, rather than to the future prophet and lawgiver. But the obsession also has to do with the blossoming of late-Victorian Aestheticism and Decadence, and, even though the exhibition itself is not arranged by decade, the movement away from the ideal beauty of the neoclassicists towards the shading of beauty with danger, cruelty and death — towards Art for Art's Sake, and beauty stripped of moral meaning. It is not at all a conventional collection, and one well worth seeing.
There could hardly be a better venue for the exhibition. Leighton House provides the visitor with a total immersion experience: although the present display replaces the permanent collection for the duration of the exhibition, visitors see the paintings (which include some of Frederic Leighton's own paintings, returning after many years) as Leighton's own guests would have seen them. That is, they are hung without numbers or chat labels in the Drawing Room, Dining Room and so forth. It takes a little getting used to, but there is help at hand: a useful exhibition guide showing each picture in black and white, and a free audio guide for the key pictures. The latter is essential, for there is always more than meets the eye.
A "Unifying Theme"
The exhibition guide tells us that the "unifying theme, reflecting both the taste of the collector and a preoccupation at the heart of pictorial expression during this period is the representation of female beauty" (5). But it is rarely the kind of beauty embodied, say, in the ideal work of neoclassical sculptor John Gibson at the beginning of the period. Compare Gibson's Venus Verticordia (c.1833-37), for example, with Rossetti's painting of the same title (above left). Practically the only nude in Rossetti's oeuvre, his goddess has a classic look, her eyes cast downwards and to the side. Her mistily rounded flesh in its warm tones makes her look more sensuous than the sculpted figure, yet her beauty is nuanced. The roses faintly visible on the trellis hint at its transience, and in one hand she holds Cupid's sword, poised ready to wound. Both works show Venus with the apple presented to her by Paris, in return for Helen of Troy. Unlike Gibson, who places the tortoise of long fidelity at his subject's feet, Rossetti does nothing to offset the presence of the apple of discord. There is an even sharper edge to Edward John Poynter's Andromeda (above right). For Poynter has not shown Andromeda at the time of her rescue by Perseus, as in more conventional treatments, but when she is at her most vulnerable, alone by the swirling current, hands bound, exposed by the billowing of her own loose garment.
In greater danger still, and danger from which there will be no reprieve, is Millais's princess in The Crown of Life (right). This time the inspiration was not classical, but came from a poem of the same title by George Meredith. The girl is in the arms of a lover, who had been bent on fulfilling a task set by her father, and carrying her to the top of a mountain. A storm has arisen, and the girl holds herself stiffly, pleading with her lover to put her down and seek his own safety. But he refuses: they will meet death together. Even in Crenaia (left), Leighton's representation of a youthful-looking nymph newly emerged from the waterfall into which her garments still blend, has pink cheeks, and her pose is coy. She is conscious of her semi-nudity. How long will her innocence last? For all their beauty, the women in many of these paintings evoke complex feelings, arousing various degrees and kinds of anxiety rather than simple adoration.
Right: A Quartet: A Painter's Tribute to the Art of Music by Albert Joseph Moore (1868). Oil on canvas. 61.8 x 88.7 cm. Left: Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1871). Oil on canvas. 84 x 129.5 cm. Both from the Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico, and © Studio Sébert Photographes.
It is clear from other types of compositions, too, even those still inspired by Greece, that the old certainties were falling away. The musicians in Moore's classically-robed "Quartet," for example, play stringed instruments that had not yet been invented. An artist's celebration of a different art, the picture translates into visible form, shape and tone, music that could never have been heard. In creating a sense of it, the painting gives an extra meaning to the already current idea of "Art for Art's Sake." But it is curiously still and passionless. It is a composition, halfway to abstraction. Composition is also the very subject and theme of Leighton's Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea. Indeed, Véronique Gerard-Powell, who wrote the helpful catalogue commentaries for the exhibition, describes this as "a work of prime importance to the Aesthetic movement. Purely decorative, it makes an immediate impact on the senses due to its harmonious composition. Each figure is both isolated and yet linked to the circle that unites them and by the calculated rhythm of the limited colour palette" (108). We are not invited to admire the girls themselves but the patterns created by their poses and garments, as they stoop to gather pebbles on the windswept shore. It is a kind of dance to the music of nature, in which only the little patches of seaweed seem naturalistically painted. But these works are anodyne examples of "Art for Art's Sake." The kind of meaning that we are used to may be lost, but our emotions are baulked rather than affronted by them.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888). Oil on canvas. 132.7 x 214.4 cm. The Pérez Simó Collection, Mexico, and © Studio Sébert Photographes.
Alma-Tadema's The Roses of Heliogabalus goes further. The highlight of the exhibition, this large canvas perfectly illustrates the shading of the ideal into a new, amoral aesthetic. It does so in a spectacular and shocking way. The centrepiece of the purpose-built Perrin Gallery, a room that was added to the house after Leighton's death, it seems to show nothing but banqueters revelling in a sea of pink rose petals, to the enjoyment of their host and his immediate companions. But the curators, who have cleverly filled the room with the heady scent of roses from a diffuser, invite us to look again – to examine, particularly, the picture's small preliminary oil sketch. This seems curiously like the scene of an accident, with upturned silver vessel, out-flung arms, and so on. Other relevant drawings, photographs and information also help us "read" the larger canvas. Far from simply offering a lush and overly-gorgeous scene, it tells a terrible story. For the pleasure of the select few at his table, and to the accompaniment of pipes, the callow young third-century Roman Emperor Heliogabalus is getting rid of his hangers-on: he is actually drowning them in the petals. In the finished picture, perhaps with an eye to the prospective buyers, Alma-Tadema has played down the gruesomeness. Nevertheless, it is there. The conjunction of beauty and cruelty, even death, is the height of decadence, and the painting provoked a strong response from the moral mainstream. Dean Farrar, who had become Archdeacon of Westminster in 1883, denounced it in the strongest terms, asking, in his impassioned critique of it, "was there nothing worth the infinite toil of this skilled hand but this carnival of bejewelled sensualism, this portent of abysmal depravity, this avalanche of wasted roses over the dazzling banquet of the world, the devil, and the flesh — that banquet where the dead are there, and the guests in the depths of hell"? Can or should art be moral? What do we make of this painting now? The Perrin Gallery is the ideal space for such a large canvas, which benefits from the kind of contextualisation provided here, and gives us time to puzzle over it.
The Enchanted Sea (c.1899) by Henry Arthur Payne (c.1899). Oil on canvas. 91.5 x 65.5 cm. The Pérez Simó Collection, Mexico, and © Studio Sébert Photographes.
Elsewhere are other pictures to take away in the mind's eye, and puzzle over later. One such is The Enchanted Sea by Henry Arthur Payne (1868-9940), another illustration of a work by George Meredith. This was inspired by an episode in Meredith's Arabian fantasy, The Shaving of Shagpat (1856), a tale-within-a-tale full of shape-shifting, fraught with dangers and challenges for the young hero, Shibli Bagarag. More importantly for this painting, the novel reflects, too, on the power and transience women's beauty. Here, the Princess of Oolb has escaped from Shibli, who needs to outwit her to achieve one of his objectives. Her magic cockleshell speeds across an enchanted sea in which other women are swept past in the current. In contrast to her gorgeous and exotic robes and headwear, her face is wan and thoughtful. Indeed, she is thwarted in the next chapter, and turns into a monstrously ugly old crone, with a frog's face and colouring, a camel's back, a pelican's throat, and legs like those of a peacock. Payne, originally a stained glass artist, has not just illustrated this preceding scene. He has captured the princess's well-founded apprehensions, and foreshadowed her fate in the grotesques patterning the lining of the cockleshell. Moreover, whereas Meredith describes the women in the sea as lifting their heads as the cockleshell passes, Payne shows those in the foreground as asleep, inert, either unaware of their predicament or already lost to it. Fortunately, the surrealism of Payne's painting is a more accurate sign of things to come than the passivity of these women. Victorian art is not all about narrative paintings and the Pre-Raphaelites, popular as these are now. By guiding us through these examples from the Peréz Simón Collection in their uniquely appropriate setting, the curators have offered us some arresting encounters with work that takes us to the end of the nineteenth-century – and even beyond.
Gerard-Powell, Véronique. A Victorian Obsession: The Peréz Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum. Ed. Daniel Robbins. Trans. Laura Bennett. London: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, 2014.
A Victorian Obsession: The Peréz Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum: Exhibition Guide and Events Programme. Available at the Museum.
Last modified 9 December 2014