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Elijah in the Wilderness, by Sir Frederic Leighton


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About the artwork

Although this picture did not arrive in the gallery until 1879, after first being exhibited in Paris, it was specifically commissioned for the Walker Art Gallery in the year that it opened, 1877. The man who commissioned it was a local wealthy chemical manufacturer, Andrew Kurtz [1825 – 1890]. He had decided that the gallery should have a painting by perhaps the most celebrated and successful British painter of the late nineteenth century, Sir Frederic Leighton.

According to his diaries, Kurtz had wanted a picture from Leighton ‘…dealing with female beauty’ but he eventually left the subject for the Walker picture entirely for the artist to decide. Leighton wrote to tell him that the subject was to be the Angel feeding Elijah, that the figures were to be life-size and that the picture would measure 7 feet by 8 feet.

Grove House, Penny Lane

Kurtz lived in Grove House, Penny Lane; in recent years known as Dovedale Towers but now newly re-branded as a restaurant/bar/night-club, Alma de Santiago. He was the owner of the Sutton Alkali works in Saint Helens.  His father who had been born in Germany, purchased the factory in 1842 and when he died four years later, Andrew Kurtz aged 21 inherited the factory.

Although music, literature art and drama were his principal interests, he developed the factory until it was one of the biggest chemical works in the area. Kurtz was a paternalistic employer building public baths, hospitals and co-operative stores for his workers. Politically he was a Liberal and his philanthropy did not prevent him from polluting South Lancashire. He clashed with Tory landowners who wanted to restrict pollution from the chemical industries in St Helens. He simply and shamelessly denounced their efforts as a political trick. Kurtz was primarily a patron of music, and a talented pianist with an extensive collection of original music scores by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn.

However he also collected pictures and purchased four from Frederic Leighton. When he visited the studio to approve the studies and sketches for Elijah he also purchased two other pictures. In all he spent £3,360, perhaps as much as £800,000 at today’s values; he wrote in his diary, ‘I don’t know what craze seizes me where pictures are concerned but I seem to buy wildly regardless of consequences; I must try to be more cautious.’ 

'Elijah in the Wilderness' is inspired by an episode from the Old Testament described in 1 Kings, chapter 19 verses 4 – 7.  Elijah, escaping from Jezebel, who had vowed to kill him, went for a day’s journey into the desert, sat beneath a tree and asked that he might die.  However, an angel appeared with bread and water which sustained him on his subsequent journey of forty days.

Frederic Leighton

Frederic Leighton was born the son of a wealthy doctor in Scarborough but spent much of his early life on the continent, where he trained as an artist, in Florence, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris.  At the age of 25 one of his pictures, exhibited at the Royal Academy, was bought by Queen Victoria.  This purchase immediately established his reputation and launched him on a career of spectacular success.  Within less than 10 years he became an Associate of the Royal Academy, in 1868 he became a full member of the RA., and in 1878 he was elected President of the Royal Academy and Knighted in the same year.  Leighton’s work did not meet with universal approval.  The painter, Whistler described Leighton’s work as ‘cosmetic’, ‘bloodless’ was another description.

Leighton lived in an extraordinary, purpose built house on the edge of Holland Park, London.  The house had only one bedroom but a large studio and gallery. The principal feature of the house, which still stands and is open to the public, is the Arab Hall which is decorated with a huge collection of North African and Middle Eastern tiles. Leighton was fluent in several languages and an inspirational speaker.  He received doctorates from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Dublin.  He was created a baronet in 1886 and elevated to the peerage on the 24th. January 1896. He is the only artist to receive this honour.  He died the following day.

When Kurtz visited Leighton in his studio he noted that the house resembled a museum and seemed extremely uncomfortable.  However, he wrote of Leighton in his diary that ‘he lives in the beautiful which is a necessity of his existence’. Kurtz saw studies and sketches for the picture, and there were also, small models of the figures. 

Unusual method of working

Leighton had an unusual method of working, in that he frequently sculpted models of figures that he was painting and it was this practice that led him to make larger scale models which were eventually cast in bronze, such as 'Athlete Struggling with a Python', which is also exhibited here in Room 8 at the Walker. 

Kurtz paid 1000 guineas for the picture, £1050, perhaps as much as £250,000 at today’s values  After seeing the picture finally hung in the Walker Art Gallery, he noted that it ‘gained with familiarity but was not a picture I should have bought myself either for public or private purposes’

There are three other pictures by Leighton in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery ('Perseus and Andromeda', 'An Elegy' and 'An Italian Crossbowman'), all three are on show in Room 8.  Three pictures by Leighton were bequeathed by Emma Holt ('Study', 'Weaving the Wreath' 'A Sunny Corner'), all of them are presently on show at Sudley House.