The Leighton Portrait

There are any number of pencil, ink, watercolor and oil portraits of Sir Richard Francis Burton, across the years from his childhood to his old age. There are also many photographs extending from a few years of age to one on his death bed after his passing. However, the most widely reproduced and seemingly definitive portrait of Burton is the one painted by Frederic Leighton in 1875.

The History of the Portrait

Frederic Leighton portrait of Richard Francis Burton, 1875

Frederic Leighton met Burton in 1869 while they were both “taking the waters” (a reputed cure for gout and liver ailments) at Vichy, France. Their friendship would last until Burton’s death in 1890.

On 26 April 1872, at Leighton's longtime urging, Burton began sitting for his portrait at the artist's studio in Kensington. In Isabel's recounting, Burton was anxious about the sitting, begging with Leighton — or joshing with him, in alternate accounts — “Don't make me ugly, there's a good fellow.”

The portrait was unfinished when Burton left for Trieste in October 1872 and was not completed until 1875. (Whether Burton sat any further for the work is not known.) It was exhibited the following year, and Leighton kept it in his personal collection for the remainder of his life. Leighton, a founder and trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, apparently intended to leave the portrait to that institution. In the end, it was donated after his death by his sisters and became part of the original collection in 1896.

The portrait, a life-size work at 23-1/2 by 19-1/2 inches, hangs today as part of the permanent collection, in Room 23, the Hall of Explorers. (John Hanning Speke was, as of June 2008, there represented only by a temporary exhibit of watercolor portraiture.) It hangs rather high on the wall, at perhaps eight feet, and reflections from its dark glossy surface can make it difficult to view well. The tones are very dark, and (artistic considerations aside) it is an example of a painting whose somewhat-adjusted reproductions make for a more satisfying viewing. The versions used on book covers are often highly adjusted or retouched, and even (as in the case of Farwell's biography) flopped from left to right.

Frederic Leighton

Sir Frederic Leighton, self-portrait 1880

Frederic Leighton, 1830-1896, was a gifted painter and sculptor of the Victorian age. He became President of the Royal Academy in 1878, the same year he was knighted. (The British being generous with their marks of nobility, he is often referred to as Sir Frederic Leighton, or even Lord Leighton, in Burton writings although he had not yet attained the title at the time he painted the famous portrait.) He became the first painter elevated to the British peerage, being created Baron Leighton on 24 January 1896. His baronetcy lasted just one day, being extinguished on his death the next day. His proper historical reference is nonetheless Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton, or Lord Leighton.

Leighton's strengths were in classical subjects and he was an associate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters who advocated a return to the strict approach of Quattrocento (high Renaissance) forms and rules. He was also an influential sculptor who, among other things, designed Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb in Florence.

Leighton's portraiture is almost without exception undistinguished and often described as lifeless. Something about Burton inspired him, though, and the 1875 portrait is regarded as his very finest, and among the best of his paintings overall. It is a masterful composition — although there are other of his portraits using exactly the same form — and striking if notstunning in its use of light. His self-portrait of 1880, seen here, is almost the only other work among his portraits considered a masterpiece.

References & Notes

Entry for the Leighton Burton portrait at the National Portrait Gallery web site.

Current contents of Room 23 of the NPG at the National Portrait Gallery web site. (I am curiously amused to find a Gifford among the subjects there.)

Page Updated 2008-07-23

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