Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


100 Fanny Kemble: A Study for 'Jezebel and Ahab' c.1862

Black and white chalk, approx. 14.5 x 13 (5 3/4 x 5 1/8) on blue wove paper 22.5 x 28.5 (8 7/8 x 11 1/4)
Inscribed in a later hand bottom right in pencil 'Study of Head: for the Dante'


Frederic Leighton was the most eminent of all native artists working during Queen Victoria's reign, but though he was English he was very much a product of a Continental training. For most of his contemporaries his large figure paintings, often of classical subjects, represented Academic art at its very best. Born in Scarborough, between 1839-40 and 1859, when he finally settled in London, he studied art in Rome, Florence, Berlin, Frankfurt and Paris and travelled extensively throughout Europe. Leighton's training, his cosmopolitan outlook and his intellectual range were unique among his English contemporaries, and although there was some hostility in the London art world at his early, glittering success because it was not founded on a Royal Academy training, he eventually became President of the Royal Academy in 1878. One result of Leighton's rigorous training on the Continent was the importance he attached to the making of preliminary drawings to settle a composition in all its details before he began painting it in oil.

This drawing was originally mounted with a label which named the subject as the actress Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) and as having been bought in 1897 by the artist H.B. Brabazon (1821-1906) at the exhibition and sale of 241 of Leighton's sketches which opened in December 1896 at the Fine Art Society. The catalogue for this show noted that exhibits were stamped with the monogram 'LLC' ('Lord Leighton's Collection') to certify that they were drawings left by Leighton; this sheet has such a stamp and it can therefore be identified with no.62 in the catalogue, 'Study of Head of Miss Fanny Kemble'. Despite looking like a study of a male face, this characteristically sensitive chalk drawing does, indeed, portray the actress Fanny Kemble whom Leighton had met in 1854 (Ormond 1996, p.71), and it is confirmed by comparison with a photograph of her in middle age (Ransome 1978, pl.7).

Christopher Newall has pointed out that this drawing is a study for the head of Elijah in Leighton's RA picture of 1863 Jezebel and Ahab which is now in Scarborough (Newall 1996, no.28). That Leighton should use a woman to model for a male figure is at first surprising though earlier he used a study of a boy for the head of the girl in his Lieder ohne Worte of 1860-1 (T03053; Tate Gallery 1981, pp.32-3; Ormond 1996, no.21). However, as Fanny Kemble herself reported, she modelled for Jezebel and Ahab, though initially only for the figure of Jezebel: Leighton 'despairing of finding a model to assume a sufficiently dramatic expression of wickedness ... was deploring his difficulty one day when Henry Greville ... said to him, "Why don't you ask her" - pointing to me'. She went to Leighton's studio and was 'duly placed in the attitude required, and instructed on what precise point on the wall opposite me to fix my eyes ... endeavouring, after my old stage fashion, to assume as thoroughly as possible the character which I was representing'. After a short time the strain of the pose caused Fanny nearly to faint but she recovered, continued to model for Jezebel and then concluded the session by 'lending another aspect of my face to my friend for his Elijah' (Kemble 1882, vol.2, pp.92-3), the result, presumably, being this drawing.

Although the use of a woman to pose for a male figure seems unusual, this drawing would none the less have been used to help set a male model when Leighton started painting. S.P. Cockerell wrote of how the artist would pin such a drawing 'on a standard close to his canvas [and] painted from nature and corrected the form from the drawing as he went along' (Cockerell 1896, p.12). The pin holes at the corners of this sheet confirm this usage.

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.234 no.100, reproduced in colour p.235