Art-training in mid-Victorian Britain: Leigh’s/Heatherley’s

decorated initial T  by Thackeray

The London art-school known simply as ‘Leigh’s’ or ‘Leigh’s Academy’ was set up by the painter James Matthew Leigh (1808–60) in 1848, following on from on earlier independent grouping developed in 1845. Leigh’s intention was to provide an alternative to the Government School of Art in Somerset House. Working from his premises at 79 Newman Street, which runs off Oxford Street, Leigh developed his school as an unorthodox institution. Defined in contrast to the Government School by offering a broader curriculum, it also provided something of a challenge to the traditionalism of Sass’s, which prepared its students for The Royal Academy and was closely linked with it.

Leigh’s was unconventional in a number of ways. It admitted women – unlike Sass’s – and it had no strict entrance requirements. It had lower fees than its rival and differed from Sass’s in that the teaching was based on the atelier system, rather than a rigorous prescriptivism favoured by the academicians. Under the direction of Leigh, students were encouraged to be experimental; although copying from the antique was a part of the curriculum, as it was at Sass’s, Leigh’s put a much greater emphasis on working from a living model. Crucially, Leigh also encouraged students to form fraternities in which small groups discussed each other’s work and learned through a process of critical reflection. This innovation promoted independent learning in which students interrogated their experiences rather than simply providing their instructors with ‘correct’ responses. The effectiveness of this approach is suggested by surviving papers. While a student at the school, the painter and illustrator A. W. Bayes kept a journal in which he ruminates on a variety of styles and idioms as part of the process of finding his own artistic identity.

Measured against the standards of both Sass’s and The Royal Academy, Leigh’s seems modern and progressive. There was complete continuity when Leigh died in 1860 and the school was taken over by Thomas Heatherley (fl. 1858–1887), an artist who specialised in fairy and literary paintings. The only change was the name: ‘Leigh’s’ became ‘Heatherley’s’, and the school was run by this able individual until 1887. In this incarnation the school’s reputation was further enhanced and was ultimately tasked with the primary art education of some of the most celebrated artists of the age: a list that includes Leighton, Long, Poynter, Burne-Jones and Frederick Walker, as well as the illustrators Bayes and Crane and the historical painter and photographer, David Wilkie Wynfield. These artists went forward to further training at The Royal Academy, or made careers with the skills they had acquired at Heatherley’s. The school continues to this day, outliving Sass’s, and still a highly effective provider of professional training.


Bayes, A. W. The Studio early 1860s. Extensive manuscript material in the possession of Mrs. Clare Ash, Bayes great-grand-daughter, Portsmouth, England.

Gillett, Paula. The Victorian Painter’s World. Gloucester: Sutton, 1990.

Last modified 26 October 2012