Monday, April 7, 2008

Leighton’s Lemon Tree

When you’re drawing something as complex as a tree, with all of its myriad twigs and leaves, how much accuracy is humanly possible? Suppose you had all the time you wanted. How much patience and care could you devote to making a faithful portrait of the entire tree in every detail?

Frederick Lord Leighton (1830-1896) undertook such an experiment during a vacation to Capri in 1859. He worked from dawn to dusk on this 21x15 inch drawing for over a week. He once said that drawing a flower or tree was as difficult as drawing a head if you approached it with the same conscientiousness.

When he finished the drawing, he presented it to the influential critic John Ruskin to hang in the Oxford Museum, in the hopes that it would “impede, if possible, the increasing wrong-headedness in study—the careless conceit, the irreverent dash, the incompetent confidence of many modern students.”

Leighton’s Lemon Tree is a monument of careful draftsmanship that rivals Durer or DaVinci. Ruskin marveled at what the pencil is capable of: “The structural quality is finely wrought out, everything is followed out to its termination, every leaf is suggested and yet kept in perspective.”

The drawing was on exhibit last fall in Bristol’s City Museum & Art Gallery.

Leighton’s letter to Ruskin, link.
Ruskins response, link.
Leighton at ARC, link.
Bristol Museum show, link.

Tomorrow: Hair: Ribbons and String Mops


Arco Scheepen said...

Unbelievable drawing! You can but admire the man's patience. The link to his paintings on ARC is interesting, I will definitely check out his work. Unfortunately I didn't get to see his work when I was in the Tate gallery in London three weeks ago...

Anonymous said...

Chinese brush painters had a strict iconography for th eleaves of each kind of tree. I cannot believe that this was drawd with no wind, but I have never been to Italy. It apprears the artist settled on an iconography (light/shade/shape) for lemon leaves in various attitudes. I wonder how many leaf types he needed to create this tree?

Unknown said...

I'm so drawn to pictures like this!
When I worked in the wine industry, I often heard that complexity was the most highly regarded and appealing aspect to fine wines. I think this applies to some degree to art as well.
Mr. Leighton had a rediculous and enviable amount of patience.

Patrick Dizon said...

I don't think I would even have the patience for that!

What are those things on the left?

James Gurney said...

Arco and Pat, I wouldn't have the patience either. Those are snails on the left.

Eric, what an interesting thought about complexity.

Art, I wondered, too about the wind, or just the day to day drooping and perking of the leaves. He was also looking through a lot of three dimensional space to make this 2-D record.

Unknown said...

I love the variation in leaf shapes. Too often we think of leaves as patterns when they can just as rightfully be taken as individual objects.

Anonymous said...

I love Mr.Leighton's work, I think its strange that some critics will marvel at such patience and attention to detail, and some will frown on it and say it looks to much like a photo. I myself, prefer to marvel at such great work.

Victor said...

I've been in love with this drawing for some time. One thing I have been wondering about is whether Leighton used some kind of optical device as an aid. I'm not talking about a camera obscura or camera lucida, but rather binoculars or a small telescope. Even though the tree doesn't look too large, Leighton would have had to have been a number of yards away from it in order for it to fit into his field of vision. At such a distance, it must have been difficult to make out some of the smaller details unless Leighton's eyesight was freakishly sharp.

Darren said...

Are we sure this is pencil? Newall's book The Art Of Lord Leighton says that it's silverpoint. That in itself would make it much more difficult.

James Gurney said...

You're right that it's silverpoint and that it would be more difficult than graphite. But I didn't mention that because Ruskin at least referred to silverpoint as a form of pencil. I wonder if those are hand smudges on the right side of the picture.

James Gurney said...

Here's a further clarification about the drawing from Valentino Radman of Croatia. Thanks Valentino!

Last summer I bought the book/catalogue A Victorian Master - Drawings by Frederic, Lord Leighton in Leighton house. (It is available only there, not through Amazon, unfortunately). It is actually a catalogue of the travelling exhibition of his drawings.

The large dark areas that appears on the image you uploaded are invisible on the color photography of that drawing published in the mentioned book). The lower left area corresponds, however, to the barely visible brownish spots on the off-white paper (I'd describe its color as very light, low chroma beige; it may be white when FL made a drawing, though). However, the large darkened area on the upper right part of the tree is not visible at all.

I think it is due to the boosted contrast on the photocopy-like jpg you uploaded.

(Btw, even if that dark area was real, the drawing is relatively large and I doubt that a man as pedantic as FL would be so sloppy as to left his handmarks on such a large portion of the drawing.)

The mentioned book says that a drawing is graphite on white paper. There are other botanical studies in it, as well.


Darren said...

Good clarification Valentino!

Pages 35-36 here:,M1