On Wednesday 14 December, we have our auction of Old Master, British and European Art. We are pleased to be offering the Barnes Collection of works by Benjamin Williams Leader, R.A. (1831-1923). This is the most significant collection of works by the artist to come to auction that we know of. It consists of twelve works and covers the breadth of Leader's long career. Here, Head of British and European Pictures, Brandon Lindberg tells us more about this wonderful collection.
During his lifetime Benjamin Williams Leader became one of the most widely acclaimed and popular landscape painters of the Victorian age. His works celebrated the peace and beauty of the English countryside and struck a chord with an urban middle class who had grown rich during the industrial revolution. Many of his major works entered the collections of important regional museums and his engravings populated countless suburban villas often hanging alongside prints by Millais, Landseer, and Holman Hunt.
'I’m almost forced to believe that my pictures are too simple and true, not enough Clap Trap about them, and yet I should be very sorry to stray from the path I have laid down which is to faithfully and simply copy nature.' he wrote in his diary on the 7th February in 1859. His early work was indebted to John Ruskin and his Pre-Raphaelite mantra of 'rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing' (Modern Painters (1843) vol. 1).
The present collection of twelve works was lovingly put together by Diana and Martin Barnes over a thirty-year period. The collection covers many aspects of the artist’s long career, including rugged Welsh scenery, the verdant landscapes of his home county of Worcestershire and, in later life, pastoral Surrey meadows. The Barnes’s were great friends and supporters of the late Ruth Wood, who in 1998 published the definitive book on the artist and The Outskirts of a Farm (Lot 200) features on the front cover.
Leader was born in Worcester in 1831 as the third of eleven children of Sarah and Edward Leader Williams, and his father was an engineer and Honorary Secretary of the Worcester Scientific and Literary Institute. In 1834 he organised an exhibition of Modern British Art at the Worcester Atheneum. The exhibition included works by John Constable who lent three pictures to hang in the family home and the following year he stayed with them when he returned to Worcester to deliver a lecture on The History of Landscape Painting. In later life Leader fondly recalled this visit and cited the great master as an important early influence.
After studying at the Government School of Design in Worcester he enrolled at the Royal Academy School in 1854, and he began to exhibit at The Royal Academy in the same year. His early paintings were domestic and genre subjects treated with minute attention to detail and strong colouring. In 1856 he was encouraged to specialise in landscape painting when one of his pictures was bought from the Birmingham Society of Artists by the landscape painter Frederick William Hulme. In 1857 he changed his surname from Williams to Leader to distinguish himself from the large and very prolific Williams family of landscape painters. In the same year his picture A Stream from the Hills was exhibited at the Royal Academy and was referred to by John Ruskin in Academy Notes as ‘elaborate and valuable’.
In 1859 Thomas Agnew and Thomas Wallis, both respected London-based art dealers, began to buy paintings from Leader. Wallis was the first major art dealer who actively promoted Leader's paintings. Unlike Leader's business relationship with Agnew's, the artist formed a close friendship with Wallis, often staying at the dealer's home in London and entertaining Wallis' daughters when they visited his sisters in Worcester. The first picture Wallis purchased was most likely Lot 199, a Welsh scene, On the Llugwy, near Capel Curig, when it was exhibited at the Worcester Society of Arts, no. 937 (Wood, p. 31).
In 1862 he settled at Whittington, near Worcester and each year sent pictures to the summer exhibitions at the Royal Academy where he steadily gained the reputation as one of the foremost landscape painters of his age. Gradually the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism waned and his broader brushstrokes and emphasis on the effects of atmosphere and the quality of light at morning and evening prevailed, such as An English Country Churchyard (Lot 203). His landscapes depicted wider perspectives and more distant views. His works were praised for their recognisably English character, and he was seen by critics as continuing the long tradition of English landscape painting.
The critic Lewis Lusk, in his 1901 Art Annual essay praised ‘his careful retention of the picturesque, his style of arranging his masses, his selection of cloud effects, his peculiarly poetic strain of the Lyric order, which so often makes his canvas an illustration of some choice verse of an English poet – there is sufficient likelihood that these qualities of his work will always ensure respect and study from many a maturing mind. They are all inherent in the national character.’
His masterpiece February Fill-Dyke (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery), which he showed at the Royal Academy in 1881 brought him national acclaim. This was followed by a series of similar pictures, including In the Evening there shall be Light (R.A. 1882) which led to his election as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy and then a gold medal at the Paris Salon after it was exhibited there in 1889. In 1898 he was made a full member of the Royal Academy.
Wednesday 14 December | 10.30am GMT
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
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Viewing in London (highlights only):
Dreweatts London, 16-17 Pall Mall, St James’s, London SW1Y 5LU
Monday 28 November: 10am-4pm
Tuesday 29 November: 10am-4pm
Wednesday 30 November: 10am-4pm
Viewing at Donnington Priory (full sale):
Dreweatts Newbury, Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
Sunday 11 December: 10am-3pm
Monday 12 December: 10am-4pm
Tuesday 13 December: 10am-4pm
Wednesday 14 December: from 8.30am
Remote viewing service | Available by appointment from Sunday 11 December
Dreweatts 360 Virtual Auction Tour | Available from Wednesday 30 November
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