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Transcript of 'Elijah in the Wilderness' podcast

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Walker Art Gallery.  My name is Peter Betts and I work in the Learning Division of National Museums Liverpool.

In choosing this painting as picture of the month, I had in mind that this September we celebrate 130 years of the Walker Art Gallery; 130 years since the wealthy brewer and Tory Lord Mayor, Sir Andrew Barclay Walker combining philanthropy with an astute move to promote his business interests, spent more than £30000; tens of millions in today’s money, to open the first stage of the Walker Art Gallery.

So it now seems particularly appropriate that I should focus on a painting that was specially commissioned for the Walker in the year that it opened, 1877.

Elijah in the Wilderness, Frederic Leighton

It’s often said that every picture tells a story and this painting is no exception but the Old Testament event that inspired this painting, a story of great faith and God’s goodness triumphing over despair, seems in some respects unremarkable, in comparison to the many layered stories of the lives of the artist who painted the picture, Frederic Leighton| and the Liverpool man who paid for it, Andrew Kurtz.

These two men had things in common, both had spent extensive periods in Europe, at different times both of them had studied art in Paris and although never friends they were united by their passion for music.

Indeed the painting can be said to illustrate a passage in an oratorio by Mendelssohn, one of Kurtz’s favourite composers where angels sing two choruses over the sleeping prophet.

And although we are reviewing some events of 130 years ago there are interesting contemporary resonances, not least of which, is the man who purchased the picture from the artist admitted to being what we would call today a ‘shopaholic’.

He also experienced the not unusual sense of anti-climax and general dissatisfaction associated with this affliction.

In short, having spent a great deal of money, he was disappointed in his purchase.

I shall return to this point later.

Several months before the Walker Art Gallery opened on the 6th September 1877 Andrew Kurtz a local, wealthy chemical manufacturer decided that the gallery should have a painting by one of the most celebrated and successful British painters of the late 19th Century, Sir Frederic Leighton.

According to his diaries, now in the City Libraries Liverpool Record Office, Kurtz had wanted a picture from Leighton ‘dealing with female beauty, of which I think he is so charming a painter’ but he eventually left the subject of the Walker picture for the artist to decide.  Leighton eventually wrote and told him that the subject would be the angel feeding Elijah; that the figures would be life size and the picture would measure 7 feet by 8 feet.

Kurz’s home was Grove House in Penny Lane, for many years, in recent times known as Dovedale Towers but now newly re-branded as a bar/restaurant/night-club called Alma de Santiago. 

This house has been a silent witness to some curious historical changes.  In Kurz’s time it echoed with the sound of his chamber orchestra, in the 1960s it vibrated to the sound of beat music and last month there was the shocking sound of gun-shots as south Liverpool gangsters settled scores.   

Kurz 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, Kurtz aged 21 inherited the factory.

Although music, literature and art were his principal interests, he developed the factory until it was one of the biggest chemical works in the area.  Kurz was a paternalistic employer building the first public baths in St. Helens, a cottage hospital and co-operative stores for his workers.

Politically he was a Liberal and his philanthropy did not prevent him from being a shameless polluter of the water courses of South Lancashire.  He clashed with Tory landowners who wished, to restrict pollution from the chemical industries of St. Helens but he simply denounced their efforts as a political trick.

Kurz 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 Hayden.

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 £3360, almost a million pounds 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'.

Kurtz’s taste and appetite for collecting art was developed when aged 16 to 17 he had an extended stay in Paris, 1841-2.  During this time he spent many days looking at old master paintings in the Louvre. 

He also had tuition in drawing and painting and later in life his diaries record whole days spent painting and drawing, so we may say he had an educated eye. 

However his taste was narrow, he had a preference for what he called ‘grace, elegance, fancy, imagination, ideality, poetry, beauty and the creative faculty’.

He criticised Pre-Raphaelite| paintings as mere imitation of nature, and for their microscopic detail, above all he hated realism of any kind.

After seeing an exhibition of French Realist and Impressionist pictures in 1876 he wrote: ‘to relish such pictures, an old stager like myself must unlearn all he has been taught either to draw or admire’.

'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 that sustained him on his subsequent journey of forty days.

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 ten years he was an associate member 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 in 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, 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 24 January 1896.  He is the only artist to receive this honour.  He died the following day.

Andrew Kurz

When Kurtz visited Leighton in his studio he noted that the house seemed extremely uncomfortable.  He wrote of the visit in his diary that Leighton '…lives in the beautiful which is a necessity of his existence’. Kurtz saw studies and sketches of the figures and there were also small clay models. 

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

Leighton’s friend Mrs. Russell Barrington said of this picture, ‘it was one of those few pictures which reflected the side of his nature about which he was profoundly reserved,’ and Leighton ‘had put more of himself into the picture than in to any other he had invented.’

Kurtz paid 1000 guineas for the picture, £1050, perhaps more than £300000 at today’s values.  After seeing the completed picture he noted that it ‘gained with familiarity but was not a picture I should have bought myself either for public or private purposes.

The Art Journal of 1879 was more favourably impressed ‘...The muscular sympathy arising from utter exhaustion, as the prophet lies with his head pillowed on the hard rock is as perfect in its rendering as the cumuli are beautiful, rolling in their silver whiteness beyond the level reaches of the stratus-banked clouds…The design altogether is a very impressive one, and in its presence one feels almost ashamed of even appearing hypercritical.’

There are three other pictures by Leighton in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, all three are on show here in Room 8.  'Perseus and Andromeda' was presented to the Gallery in 1909, 'An Elegy' and 'An Italian Cross-bow Man' were presented by George Audley in 1924 and 1928. 

It is interesting to note that the prices of Leighton’s pictures declined sharply in the early 20th. Century. ' An Elegy' was sold in 1892 for £346.10s. thirty years later at auction it fetched a mere £29. 8s.

Three pictures by Leighton were bequeathed by Emma Holt and are presently exhibited at Sudley House.  Two of them, 'Weaving the Wreath|' and 'Study: At a Reading Desk|', are hanging in the drawing room. A very small painting entitled 'A Sunny Corner|' is displayed in the garden hall.

There are also no less than seven paintings by Leighton in the Lady Lever Art Gallery|.

Despite Kurtz’s eventual disillusionment with Leighton’s work, describing it thus ‘….of ideal beauty it is true but of a texture that suggests wax and not flesh’

And, ‘Mr. Leighton reaches the height of refinement in his… Grecian Ladies but to my mind they want more life.  They are refined all away to weary monotony.  Leighton seems to me….wonderfully refined but wanting in masculine force and mannered’.

He also wrote, ‘Frederic Leighton is a remarkable man and a great painter and should be an object of interest to people now long unborn’.

In conclusion, I hope that by sketching in the background story to this particular picture I have awakened an interest in the life and times of an artist now long dead.