Atlanta’s Lord Leighton

Norwalk_Jeni Pic

by Jenifer Norwalk 18C

When I first learned there was a painting by Frederic Leighton hanging in the library at Agnes Scott College here in Decatur, Georgia, I was stunned. While Frederic Leighton is certainly not a household name, he is one of the most influential British painters in all of history—he was elected President of the Royal Academy (the leading art institution in London) in 1878; in that same year, he was knighted, and eight years later he became a Baron. Thrilled by the opportunity to study a painting by such an important figure less than fifteen minutes from Emory’s campus, I determined to make The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets Over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet (1855) by Frederic Leighton the subject of my honors thesis.   

My excitement over Atlanta’s Lord Leighton was short-lived, however, as a week later I discovered that the painting at Agnes Scott was a copy of The Reconciliation—not the original work. The original painting had hung at Agnes Scott, though, for nearly forty years from 1963 to 1999, and many art historians still mistake this reproduction for the original. While I was disappointed that I would not be able to study from the original work of art, I still wondered why The Reconciliation had spent so long at an American university thousands of miles away from Leighton’s home—and how it ended up there in the first part. Prompted by these questions, I decided to trace the painting’s unusual history from the moment it left Leighton’s studio in 1855 until now.

As I began my preliminary research last spring, I quickly realized that the same things that attracted me to The Reconciliation also made it a difficult painting to study. Since it was located on a different continent than most Leighton scholars, there was little research on The Reconciliation, so I had to work almost entirely off of primary sources—many of which were in London. I was fortunate to receive a Bradley Currey, Jr. seminar grant, which provided funding to study archival material in London over the summer.

Before departing, I searched online catalogues for unpublished letters Leighton had written around 1855 and for any exhibition reviews that mentioned the work. In June, I flew to London with a list of archives and eagerly embarked on a week of intensive research. While in London, I was validated to discover that almost everyone I spoke to knew of Frederic Leighton. Granted, I spent most of my time at art institutions like the Royal Academy and the Victoria and Albert Museum, so my sample was probably a little biased. Still, it was nice to learn that so many people were familiar with Leighton’s work, especially as I received a much different reaction when I discussed my research with people in the United States (mostly blank stares and puzzled nods). 

One of the highlights of my trip was viewing one of Leighton’s original sketches for The Reconciliation. I could make out all of his stray pencil scratches and erasure marks, which made a man who had been dead for over one hundred years seem to come alive in the room with me. Visiting Leighton’s former studio house, which had been converted to a museum in 1929, had a similar effect. As I read countless letters and sifted through pages of exhibition texts, I began to piece together a general outline of where The Reconciliation had traveled. When I returned to the United States, I continued to fill in this outline as I uncovered new details about the painting’s history.

After nearly a year of study, I finally have a near complete picture of The Reconciliation’s timeline—though there are still some areas to be developed in future research. As a very condensed summary, Leighton struggled to sell The Reconciliation in Europe, so he sent it to The American Exhibition of British Art, an exhibition that brought paintings by British artists to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. In Philadelphia, Joseph Harrison, an engineer-turned-art collector, purchased the work for 400 pounds—the highest price of any of the sales made during the Exhibition, which is impressive considering that Leighton was still a relatively unknown twenty-eight-year-old artist at the time. Harrison probably bought the painting to decorate his enormous mansion in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. After he died, Harrison left the painting to his wife, Sarah. By the time of Harrison’s death, Leighton was beginning to become quite famous, so Sarah kept The Reconciliation until her own death in 1906. Six years later, The Reconciliation was sold at an estate auction. For the next fifty years, Victorian paintings were viewed as very unfashionable—no one wanted to be caught owning one. During this time, The Reconciliation faded into obscurity until it was donated to Agnes Scott College by an alumna of in 1963. Then, as Victorian paintings became more popular, The Reconciliation reentered the public spotlight. In 1999, Agnes Scott decided to sell the painting to raise money for the Department of Art and Art History, and in 2003 it was purchased by an anonymous British private collector in London. Like Harrison, this private collector wanted to hang The Reconciliation in his home.

Jenifer Norwalk is a senior majoring in Art History. Her senior honors thesis investigates The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets Over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet, a painting by nineteenth-century British artist Frederic Leighton. The Reconciliation hung in the library at Agnes Scott College for nearly fifty years until it was sold to a private collector in 2003, and as a result of its unlikely location here in Atlanta has been largely excluded from Leighton scholarship. Within the paper, Jenifer focuses on how The Reconciliation reveals Leighton’s views about the art of the 1850s—an important artistic period that saw the union of the academic and avant-garde across Europe.

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