London, Royal Academy, 1900, no. 66
Royal Academy Pictures, 1900, London, 1900, p. 55, illustrated
Academy Notes, 1900, London, 1900, pp. 24, 118, illustrated
Alfred Yockley, The Art of Edmund Blair Leighton, Art Annual, London, Christmas 1913, pp. 11, 31, illustrated
Edmund Blair Leighton was born in London in 1853, the only son of Charles Blair Leighton and Catherine Boosey. Charles Blair Leighton was an artist destined for greatness as a portrait painter, tutored by the famous Benjamin Haydon, along with Landseer and Eastlake. At the time of Edmund’s birth, the Blair Leightons lived at Red Lion Square, the former residence of Rossetti and Deverell, and four years later William Morris moved into the square. In this environment, Edmund would have been surrounded by artists and men of position and undoubtedly would have trained in his own father’s studio. Unfortunately, the early death of his father, at the age of thirty-two, prevented this. Edmund was placed in a private boarding school in St. John’s Wood and later went to the University College School. He was encouraged to put all hope of becoming an artist firmly behind him and look towards a mercantile career. Although he worked during the day in the City, in the evenings he attended classes at the South Kensington School of Art and at Heatherley’s School of Painting where many artists launched their careers.
At the age of twenty-one Edmund Blair Leighton left his office job and was accepted as a Student at the Royal Academy Schools, where he quickly excelled. His body of work can be divided in two themes, Eighteenth Century lovers’ trysts, and medieval heroines and heroes, derived from Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. As Blair Leighton’s biographer Alfred Yonckney wrote, “Romance, poetry, and the drama of humanity appealed to him strongly from the beginning. He saw a world composed of vital situations awaiting interpretation, and it became his desire to give expression to those emotions which are among the privileges of life at its ripest moments” (The Art of E. Blair Leighton, by Alfred Yockney, in The Christmas Art Annual, 1913, p. 13).
Edmund Blair Leighton and his fellow artists Frank Dicksee and John William Waterhouse were without doubt the greatest exponents of Pre-Raphaelitism in its last and most elaborate phase. Painting a generation after Rossetti and Millais revived interest in chivalric tales of heroic knights, damsels in distress, romantic bards and mournful kings, Blair Leighton painted the same subjects with equal fervor. The image of a beautiful young maid or princess bravely wishing her knight farewell in his quest to protect her and the kingdom was a particular favorite among the Pre-Raphaelites, evoking the poetry of Alfred Tennyson, but displaying a readily accessible emotional charge which was easily understood by all.
God Speed was exhibited at the Royal Academy the year of its creation. The word “godspeed” dates back to 15th century England from the medieval phrase “god spede you,” a parting wish to travelers for a prosperous journey. In the present work, a beautiful young noblewoman ties her richly embroidered red scarf around the arm of her knight; a token of her appreciation for his courage, and a reminder that her love awaits his return. As he waits patiently for her to secure the sash, his wide-eyed, earnest expression conveys his chivalrous devotion to her; in the ideal of courtly love, it is the knight’s duty to serve his lady first and foremost and, after her, all ladies, as Sir Lancelot did for Queen Guinevere and, prior to that, Sir Tristan for his love Isolde. Leighton created a series of painting devoted to the ideal of chivalry, including The Accolade in 1901 (fig. 1) and The Dedication in 1908.
The charm of Blair Leighton’s work is in the emotion and beauty captured by an artist who fully understood, like the best theatre or film directors, how to create maximum drama without descending into parody or empty sentimentality. He painted a world of romance and enchantment set in medieval times and can perhaps be credited with influencing the modern-day conception of medieval history, which was later adapted by contemporary film-makers. Blair Leighton's paintings appealed greatly to late Victorian audiences, who appreciated the artist’s decision to capture the innocence of courtly love, as Yockney explained, “We live in an age of unnatural haste and of wonderful scientific progress. The main roads and rivers bear witness to the changes which are taking place, while by-paths and back-waters and the very air we breathe are penetrated by the vibrating inventions of mankind. There seems to be little repose and no room for sentiment. Yet in the midst of this material world there is everyday evidence that the chief animating principles of life are lacking in force unless associated with affection. The audience of one remains the most potent inspiration, knight-erranty survives, prisoners of love sue for deliverance, and journeys still end in lovers’ meetings” (ibid Yockney, p.14). The same is still relevant and Blair Leighton’s work acknowledges the hold literary and historical subject matter had and continues to have on the popular imagination.
A photogravure of the present work was published by Louis Wolff & Co. Ltd. before 1913.
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