The shortest peerage in history – Lord Leighton as influencer

In a review of James English’s book, The Economy of Prestige, Louis Menand describes:
“the ‘struggle for power to produce value, which means power to confer value on that which does not intrinsically possess it.’ In an information, or ‘symbolic,’ economy, in other words, the goods themselves are physically worthless: they are mere print on a page or code on a disk. What makes them valuable is the recognition that they are valuable. This recognition is not automatic and intuitive; it has to be constructed. A work of art has to circulate through a sub-economy of exchange operated by a large and growing class of middlemen: publishers, curators, producers, publicists, philanthropists, foundation officers, critics, professors, and so on…..  Of course, we like to think that the recognition of artistic excellence is intuitive. We don’t like to think of cultural value as something that requires middlemen — people who are not artists themselves — in order to emerge.”

Visiting Leighton House Museum the other day, I was struck by Lord Leighton’s role in the high Victorian value-adding process. His house first: the centre piece is a huge studio room, where he painted. This room has a stage or large dais at one end, on which musicians can play, poets recite, etc., surrounded by late nineteenth century art drawings, classical objects, Arab tiles, Persian carpets, etc.. It’s a sort of temple to art, art of the classical, grand, high-minded, late Victorian style.  (With a nod to Victorian practicality, there is even a special high, narrow, dark wood door to the left of the dais, so that his largest canvases could be safely removed for sale.) This is how it Ought To Be.leighton_house

Frederick Leighton the man was a major art establishment figure: president of the Royal Academy from 1878 to 1896, knighted and awarded the Legion d’Honneur. Queen Victoria herself visited his house. He knew not only the other Royal Academicians, but the pre-Raphealites, some of whom were not establishment enough to be Academicians, eg Rossetti, Holman Hunt. He knew poets like Browning. He had studied in Florence and Frankfurt and lived in Paris, and was fluent in all three languages. He met a wide range of eminent Victorians – Sir Richard Burton and Henry Layard, for example. He was clearly wealthy and must have earned a lot from his art. Finally, far from being at one end or the other of the division drawn by Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 operetta ‘Patience‘, between aesthetic wimps and blustering military heroes, Leighton, the man surrounded by art, was also a volunteer in, and finally Colonel commanding, the Artist’s Rifles. He was the first artist ever to be raised to the peerage, but sadly he died the day after his peerage was gazetted, setting another record for the shortest peerage in history.

According to Vera Zolberg, high status persons, or ‘omnivores’, “inhabit prestigious occupations that reinforce their standing in modern or postmodern societies. They are adapted by education, social networks and, to some extent, wealth, to living in varied global circles….[and] participate in more cultural activities and enjoy a wider range of music than do those of lesser status.” Artistic taste becomes a ‘marker of social standing’. Taste is ‘social in its formation, symbolic in its expression, and has social consequences for individuals and social institutions’, and ‘functions as a form of capital that crystallizes inequalities based on economic and social advantages or disadvantages … becom[ing] a badge of social honour or scorn, signaling to influential groups that some tastes (and their bearers) are more acceptable than others.”

On this view, the house, and Leighton’s life, are a bank of the capital of taste. But, like his peerage, this may have been a hollow triumph.

He seems to have been a man of many acquaintances, but few close friends. There is only one bedroom in the house. (There may have been staff bedrooms below stairs.) He never married, and there are the inevitable rumours. He usually dined alone at his club, the Athenaeum. The Museum brochure says ‘at twilight as he passed by… you might catch sight of his figure sitting motionless in his brougham, alone.’

Once he was dead, the local council and then the London County Council declined to take over running the house, although in 1925 they bought the freehold for £2,750. (In 1896, the library, some paintings, carpets and other objects had raised £31,549.) After much argument, expenditure, delay, world war two bomb damage, damage caused by rain leaking in, and so on, the house began to resemble its current state only after 1982, and this has taken much restoration, and the careful collection of original or similar objects.

Undoubtedly Leighton had a tremendous influence on the art world in the 1880s and 1890s, both formally as President of the RA and more generally as the upholder of a style of ‘taste’ represented by his house. However, he was a defender of the status quo in the face of major artistic changes. Two years after he died, Van Gogh moved into the Yellow House in Arles, and set about painting sunflowers to decorate it. Ten years after he died, Picasso painted the Demoiselles d’Avignon. Twenty years after he died, the Cabaret Voltaire was performing in Zurich and the First World War had started. During that war, 2,003 of those serving in or trained by the Artists’ Rifles would be killed.

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