Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896)
‘Athlete Wrestling with a Python’
Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896) 'An Athlete Wrestling with a Python' Patinated Bronze Cast by Ernest Brown & Phillips, Leicester Galleries,...
DimensionsHeight: 29.5 cm (12 in)
Width: 20.5 cm (9 in)
Depth: 52.1 cm (21 in)
Weight: 8.9 kg
Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896)
‘An Athlete Wrestling with a Python’
Cast by Ernest Brown & Phillips, Leicester Galleries, London, from the model by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), England, Circa 1905.
An Patinated-Bronze Statuette of ‘An Athlete Wrestling with a Python’, Cast by Ernest Brown & Phillips, Leicester Galleries, London, from the model by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), England, Circa 1905.
The nude male athlete modelled contrapposto with his weight resting on this right leg and the serpent coiled around his left leg. His right arm outstretched with hand throttling the hissing serpent. Finely cast, detailed and retaining its original dark brown patina of good lustre.
bronze with dark brown patina
signed and dated ‘F. Leighton 1877’,numbered ‘XIV’ (fourteen) and with foundry inscription ‘Pubd by Ernest Brown & Phillips / at the Leicester Galleries, Leicester Square London’.
Conceived 1877, this cast circa 1905.
A seminal work in the history of art and arguably the most influential piece of British sculpture of the 19th Century, Leighton’s Athlete Wrestling with a Python inspired a whole generation of sculptors as the definitive work of the ‘New Sculpture’ movement. Its timeless appeal lies as much in the depiction of virile naturalism as the dichotomy of good and evil.
The Victorian audience speculated whether man or serpent would win this life and death struggle. The Times newspaper supposed the athlete’s left arm to be ineffective: ‘The Struggle will soon be over and then heaven help the man!’.
Leighton’s paintings far outnumber his sculpture but the critic A.L Baldry said Leighton was ‘by instinct and habit of mind, more a sculptor than a painter’, that he ‘looked at nature with a sculptor’s eye’, with a ‘technical process […] closely akin to modelling’ (A.L. Baldry, Leighton, London, 1908, pp. 75-76.).
Leighton conceived his Athlete Wrestling with a Python when modelling three-dimensional sketches to realise figures for his major painting The Daphnephoria (1876; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool). It is representative of his interest in classical mythology as best evidenced by his painting Hercules Wrestling with Death for the body of Alcestis (1869 -1871; Wadsworth Atheneum, Connecticut) and Hellenic art, most obviously the writhing masculinity of the ancient Greek statue The Laocoön.
‘When I was at work upon the Daphnephoria it occurred to me to model some of the figures […]. It was at this time that the idea of my Athlete struggling with a Python came into my mind.’ (‘Artist as Craftsmen, no. I: Sir Frederic Leighton, Bart., P.R.A., as a Modeller in Clay’, The Studio, no. 1 (1893) p. 6).
Leighton was persuaded by his friend the French sculptor Jules Dalou to work up the initial small model into a life-size sculpture and the monumental bronze was cast with considerable technical expertise from his protégé, the sculptor Thomas Brock, and shown to much acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1877. Purchased by the Chantrey Bequest the life-size bronze remains at the Tate Gallery, London, its importance cemented by it being awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition the following year. The original plaster cast was given to the Royal Academy by the artist in 1886, and in 1891 a marble version was commissioned by Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of the Carlsberg Breweries, and is today preserved at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
In 1902, the brothers Cecil and Wilfred Phillips opened The Leicester Galleries in London’s Leicester Square. They were joined a year later by Ernest Brown. The Leicester Galleries was a leading venue for the presentation and sale of modern art in the early twentieth century. Athlete Wrestling with a Python was published by the Leicester Galleries in two sizes, 38½ inches and 20 ½ inches high. A period advertisement specifies that the larger of the two sizes was limited to an edition of ten, however only three such examples are known: one at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (purchased from the Leicester Galleries, 1910), one at the Union Club, Sydney and one sold Christie’s, London, 11 July 2013, lot 8. The smaller of the two sizes was cast in an edition of no more than thirty, and probably limited to twenty-five, of which the present bronze is one such example and is numbered XIV (fourteen). Other examples in museum collections include cast number IV (four) at Anglesey Abbey (NT 515041) and number XIX (nineteen) at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (1973P42).
From 1905 Ernest Brown and Phillips began to to offer casts of works of sculpture, the advertisements in its catalogues for sculptures by Leighton running until 1914 (Evelyn Silber, ‘The Leicester Galleries and the promotion of modernist sculpture in London, 1902-1975’, Sculpture Journal, 21.2 (2012), pp. 131-44, p. 135). The advertisement first appears in June 1905, so it would seem likely that the first casts of the Athlete wrestling with a python will have been made shortly before then (Catalogue of an Exhibition of Water-colours of Burma by R. Talbot Kelly, R.B.A., Leicester Galleries, June-July 1905). The London Letter of The American Art News, 24 October 1908, notes “Messrs. Brown and Phillips have also recently published a limited edition of bronze statuettes, 20 ½ inches high, of the late Lord Leighton’s famous statue, Athlete Struggling With a Python” (VOL. VII. No. 2., p. 5).
Conceived 1877, this cast circa 1905
'F. Leighton 1877' incised on base numbered XIV
Famed for his paintings and sculptures of historical, mythological and religious subjects, Frederic, Lord Leighton served as President of the Royal Academy for 18 years.
Born in Yorkshire to wealthy parents, Leighton spent his late teens and early twenties travelling around Europe, studying at various academies in Italy, Germany and France. In 1855, he made his first submission to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna. On the opening day of the exhibition Leighton’s painting was bought by Queen Victoria, establishing Leighton as an important emerging artist.
He was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy in 1864, over the following years, he successfully forged close friendships with artists both inside and outside the Academy and continued to regularly exhibit impressive paintings of classicising subjects; in 1868 he became a full Royal Academician.
Leighton produced both paintings and sculptures. In both cases he produced numerous preparatory drawings and also made plaster models on which he could drape fabric and study the effects of drapery on the figures. Leighton’s 1878 sculpture, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python has been retrospectively heralded as the beginning of the “New Sculpture” movement, which sought to imbue sculpture with a new sense of dynamism and naturalism.
In 1878, Leighton was elected President of the Royal Academy, cementing his position at the centre of London’s art world. By the 1880s he also served on the advisory boards of the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Leighton was knighted in 1878 and in 1896 became the first painter to be given a peerage. Sadly, this was a short-lived honour as the artist died the following day. His last words were “My love to the Academy”. After an elaborate funeral arranged by the Royal Academy, Leighton was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral. His home in Holland Park has been preserved as the Leighton House Museum.
The Collection of Seymour Stein, New York.