CHAPTER III

My letter of introduction to Sir Frederick Leighton, P.R.A. — His house and studio in Holland Park Road — The artistic beauty of its interior — Impressions of my visit — Leighton's sympathetic personality — His wonderful charm of manner — His linguistic accomplishments — The secret of his great popularity — His Sunday receptions — Amusing anecdote of a Royal Academician — The fashionable crowd in the studio on Show Sunday — Story of the President and the model

I HAD brought with me from Paris two letters of introduction from Gérôme, my Master, at the École des Beaux Arts, one to Lord Leighton, then Sir Frederick Leighton, the President of the Royal Academy; the other to John Everett Millais, R.A., but had postponed presenting them until I was settled at some permanent address, so that now I was fixed up in Marlboro' Hill I decided to pay my visits.

Millais lived in a great big newly built house of the prosperous bourgeois type at Palace Gate facing Kensington Gardens. He was reputed to be up to his ears in work, and to be making £30,000 a year by his portrait painting alone in those days, so I had my doubts about being able to see him. He happened to be out of town when I called, so I went straight on to Sir Frederick Leighton's, hoping to have better luck with him. Curiously enough, for some reason which I am not able to recall, I never presented my letter of introduction to Millais; it was a long way from St John's Wood to Kensington, and I heard he was a difficult man to catch, so perhaps that accounted for my not chancing the journey again.

Sir Frederick lived in Holland Park Road, in a very beautiful place, which he had had built from his own designs, and which had become one of the show places of the artistic world. Holland Park Road in those days was almost rural in its quietude, for it was practically an unfinished thoroughfare, in fact so much so that Leighton used to tell every one as a joke that he lived in a mews, for to get into his road from either end one had to pass through a stable yard; but he had artistic company in his "mews," for his friend Val Prinsep lived next door, and there were several studios of eminent painters close by in the road itself — amongst whom was Solomon J. Solomon, the most brilliant of the younger men of the day, who had just made quite a sensation at the Royal Academy with his
painting "Cassandra."

Leighton's house, which has been open to the public since, and can now be visited on certain days, is so well known as scarcely to call for any detailed description, and photographs have been published of it scores of times. Out of sheer curiosity to see what alterations had been made since it has been practically turned into a museum and concert hall, I visited the house a short time ago when in the neighborhood. To my surprise I found little or no change, and that it was practically as I knew it during the lifetime of the Master. I was quite prepared to find it turned into a museum; but it was somewhat painful to me to enter the familiar hall, to see everything as it was when I used to visit Leighton years ago. A picture or two may have been displaced, and the studio rearranged somewhat to adapt it for concert purposes, but apart from this, to any one who knew the President, there was little or no change.

Somehow to me I had rather a few more years had elapsed before his sanctum, on which he lavished such loving taste, should have been turned into a common show place for a Bank Holiday crowd to wander through at will. If the house had any historic associations one could understand it — but No. 12 Holland Park Road was a new building, the delightful dwelling-place of a very erudite and sympathetic artist, who had a big circle of friends who sincerely admired and appreciated him and mourned his loss, and therefore, to any one like myself, who had the privilege of his personal acquaintance, the endeavor to keep alive his memory by making an exhibition of the house with all his personal treasures so soon after his death, seems almost a sacrilege. It seems on a par with the modern vulgar craze for publishing letters and biographies of dead men almost before the sound of their voices has gone from our ears, a glaring instance of which was shown in the recently published life of that prince of good fellows, King Edward the Seventh. By all means let us preserve anything of interest concerning our great men; but let it be for the benefit of future generations.

In those days of which I am writing, Sir Frederick Leighton was one of the most popular of English painters, and his Sunday receptions were amongst the attractions of the season, and one met every one of note there. I had chosen a week-day for my call, as I had learned that the President only received his personal friends on Sundays.

With a certain amount of trepidation I rang the bell at the extremely unpretentious hall door, for intuitively I felt that a good deal depended on my visit. It was, I remember, a lovely spring morning, one of those days when one feels glad to be alive; and as I waited in the sunshine I felt that it was a happy idea on my part having made up my mind to call on so fine a day when only a curmudgeon could be sour with his fellows. The door was opened by a man servant of impressive appearance — just the type of servant one would have expected. Leighton was said to be so intimate a friend of Royalty and the entire aristocracy that it seemed as though some of his urbanity had shed itself on his attendant. Although he could not fail to perceive that I was a young man unversed in the etiquette of visiting the President, there was none of the haughty disdain he might perhaps have been permitted to display. I asked if Sir Frederick was at home.


The Delightful Dwelling-Place...


"Sir Frederick," he told me with, as I thought, a certain suggestion of deference in his voice, was "at home, but only receives by appointment, and at certain hours."

On my explaining that I had a letter of introduction he said he would take in my card and the letter, and perhaps the President would fix an appointment for me to call. He returned in a few moments, and showing me into an inner hall, said that if I didn't mind waiting a little while, Sir Frederick would come down and see me.

I will not attempt to describe the famous Moorish chamber in which I found myself, for it is practically unchanged today — suffice it briefly to attempt to record my impressions of that first visit. Accustomed though I was to splendor of effect in the studios and houses of the great painters in Paris, I had never seen anything to equal the artistic beauty of this inner hall in Leighton's house. It showed genius in its conception, and the taste of an artist and poet in every nook and corner. There was a sense of the mystery and charm of the East around one, and the silence was unbroken save for the splash of a tiny fountain in a shallow marble pool in the center of the hall, whilst high above, suspended in the darkness of the dome, a small lamp shed an uncanny glimmer of light on the deep blue of the tiled walls.

I was absorbed in contemplation of the romantic scene, when I heard footsteps, and turning I found myself face to face with the President.

It was often said that Leighton was far and away the best looking man they had ever had as President of the Royal Academy, and I remembered this as soon as I saw him — as I don't think it would have been possible to find a handsomer specimen of manhood than he presented in the 'eighties, for he was of fine presence, above the average height, about 5 feet 11 inches I should say, and built in proportion — but it was his head chiefly that arrested attention. He was in his fiftieth year, and his long hair and pointed beard, which were just turning grey, gave him a most striking appearance. He had the eye of a dreamer and student. He was the beau ideal painter of tender subjects and beautiful women, and the most brilliant President the Royal Academy has ever had.

His reception of me was most unconventional, and put me at once at my ease, for he was attired in an old painting smock, and looked just like any ordinary painter in Montmartre. Holding out his hand to me he said heartily, "I am very pleased to know you, and glad to hear from my old camarade Gérôme."

His unaffected simplicity and fascination of manner absolutely magnetized me; he held my hand whilst he spoke as though henceforth he was my greatest friend, and I felt in an instant that he was the most genuine man I had ever met. I forgot to mention that the letter of introduction I brought with me was in accordance with French custom sealed up — from his manner therefore it was presumable that its contents were not uncomplimentary so far as I was concerned.

He invited me to be seated, and we had an informal chat on Paris and my work at the École des Beaux Arts, and he seemed interested to hear about friends of his I knew, who had become great painters, for he himself had studied in Paris. He told me that he went over as often as he could, and what a good thing it was to keep in touch with one's Alma Mater, and then I recollected I had disturbed him at his work, so I hinted at it and got up to go.

"Yes, it is time I got back to my model, but come and see me again whenever you like," he said with the utmost geniality, as he shook me warmly by the hand. "Sunday afternoons I am always at home; but if it is important you will generally have a chance of catching me in between the lights. I shall be pleased to know how you get on in London."

As I came away from the house, delighted with his reception of me, I realized that Leighton's inimitable charm of manner and sympathetic voice were part and parcel of the genius of the man, and that learned one never so hard this suaviter in modo is innate and cannot be acquired, and this was undoubtedly the secret of his popularity with all with whom he came in contact.

It may be of interest to mention as an instance of his unfailing courtesy, that he never, judging from my own experience, left a letter unanswered even for a day. At the time of which I am writing, before the advent of the telephone and the almost universal use of the typewriter, he apparently did all his correspondence himself, the arduous nature of this task may therefore be imagined considering what the magnitude of his correspondence must have been. This remarkable trait in his character always impressed me, and I have often contrasted him in my mind with other men of importance I have met since, who consider the answering of letters as a subject that requires no manner of regard whatever.

From this day I felt that I could look on Leighton as a personal friend, and I had no hesitation in taking advantage of his cordial invitation to call on him. Sunday, as he had told me was his jour de reception invariably, and the house and studio were usually full of interesting and distinguished people who wandered around the place as they pleased. All the work on which he had been engaged during the week would be on view, and he gladly welcomed criticism if intelligently given.

As is well known, Leighton was a most accomplished linguist, and spoke several languages absolutely fluently and with perfect accent — not the least interesting feature therefore of these informal Sunday receptions in the studio was to watch the remarkable facility with which he kept up conversations with foreigners who happened to be visiting him. He never seemed to be taken aback whether it was French, German, Italian and, I believe, Spanish; it all came quite natural to him apparently, together with the distinctive mannerism of each.

A rather amusing anecdote was told of a brother Royal Academician of Leighton's who determined to emulate his example and also become a linguist, so as a start he took a holiday and went over to Paris and remained there for exactly six weeks — of course he could not learn the language in the time, and he never returned to France; but from then till the day of his death, many years after, he always spoke English with a French accent!

Leighton's "Show Sunday," before his pictures went to the Academy, was one of the events of the season. Holland Park Road would be quite blocked with carriages that afternoon, and the crowd would be so great that one could scarcely move. I often used to wonder how many of all those people he really knew; but every one seemed to shake hands with him, and his urbanity never deserted him, tiring though it must have been to keep it up for several hours.

These glimpses of smart English society were to me quite a novelty, as in Paris my time, when not in the Bohemian artistic world, had been spent mostly amongst bourgeois folk who, although for the most part extremely wealthy, were very simple in their tastes, and abhorred anything in the nature of a "Society Show." Somehow it struck me that too many of the visitors on these Academy Sundays attended for no other reason but that it was the fashion.

As was well known, Leighton had a strong predilection for painting beautiful women, and on one or two occasions when I went to his studio I met his models coming away, and they all appeared lovely creatures to my eyes — though perhaps that was because I guessed they had been sitting to the great man. In this connection I remember a funny story concerning Leighton and one of his models. A girl who used to sit for him for the nude gave up sitting and went on the stage, and got on so well that eventually she married into the aristocracy. One day, sometime after, she called on Leighton — driving up to the house in a smart carriage and pair. Kemp, the man servant, not recognizing the quondam model, and probably much impressed by her splendid equipage and gorgeous appearance, ushered her up at once to the studio, where she burst in on the President with scant ceremony. He turned and stared with surprise at the extravagantly attired person who had come in without waiting to be announced. There was a momentary silence, then he bowed and asked with his most courtly air, " To what am I indebted, madam, for the honor of your visit?"

"Oh! nothing," she replied excitedly, "except that I thought I would like to see you again — don't you know me ? I used to sit to you for the figure."

"Oh! is that all?— then strip," said the President, without moving a muscle.




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