Monday, 15 October 2012

Follow the Leader

This is a follow up to yesterday really about the decline in fortune of  Victorian painters.
Let me tell you a story.....
I grew up with a faded print on my mother's wall - it portrayed a typical English village scene around evening time. I was always drawn to it and was fascinated by the tale it told of a bygone age. Eventually when I began to paint myself I  wanted to be able to paint like the artist I so admired, even though I didn't know his name. Gradually I progressed - learning my colours, developing my technique - until I felt I could do it justice at last!
Merice, my wife, took a photo of the print and I did my simplified version of it on a 30" x 22" watercolour. I have already said it was faded so there was little colour to go on. I decided to make my painting  a 'nocturne' so I could concentrate on the tones of the piece without having to worry about colour.
I was (and still am!) pleased with the result and when we had framed it, Merice said she would try and find out the original artist so we could give him due credit. It didn't take her long -thanks to good old Google - there he was...Benjamin Williams Leader RA. and the original painting was entitled "February Filldyke".
Intrigued I delved a little deeper.
His real name was plain Benjamin Williams. However  there were other Benjamin Williams at that time who also painted, so he added Leader to distinguish himself. His father was a friend and neighbour of a certain John Constable RA and it is thought that the great man encouraged young Benjamin and even gave him some sketches to work on. By the time he painted "February Filldyke" he was a member of the Royal Academy and one of the most well known artists of the day.
I was pleased to be able to give him due credit for my painting and even more pleased when I found out that the Ferens Gallery in nearby Hull had two originals and several 19th century prints in their collection.
.....and they all lived happily ever after.....well no!
I got in touch with the Ferens and made arrangements to go see the 'Leaders' and was told that one was in Hull City Hall in the chambers and the other was in the stores, not on public display.
I had already done another  painting based on "When Sun is Set" by Leader and this was the painting in the vaults at the gallery so I was naturally keen to see it. A curator kindly led us down into the storeroom and on the way she remarked, "Do you know how big it is?" I hadn't given it much thought - my paintings were 30 x 22 inches but it turned out his paintings (in oil of course) were 6 x 4 FEET, and with a large ornate frame it was a very impressive presence. Unfortunately the painting is in need of some restoration work. Sadly Leader's standing, in common with so many talented painters of that era, is so low that the gallery cannot justify the expense of restoration from public funds - so there it languishes unseen and unwanted.
I was not allowed to photograph it, nor do a sketch from 'life', but its magnificence is clear and bright in my memory.Perhaps we should start a campaign to rescue it as a symbol for all those other great artists of that time!
"Back to Life"
Original watercolour
by Glenn Marshall
based on "February Filldyke"
Benjamin Williams Leader RA
"Evening Falls"
Original Watercolour
by Glenn Marshall
based on "When Sun is Set"
by Benjamin Williams Leader RA

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