Benjamin Williams Leader R.A.

(12 March 1831 - 22 March 1923)


English landscape painter. Leader was born in Worcester as Benjamin Leader Williams, the son, and first child of eleven children, of notable civil engineer Edward Leader Williams (1802-79), and Sarah Whiting (1801-88). His father was described as a "non conformist dissenter" and his mother was a Quaker - their marriage in an Anglican church resulted in them being disowned by the Society of Friends. Leader's father was a keen amateur artist - a friend of John Constable - and Benjamin would often accompany him on sketching trips along the banks of the River Severn. His brother, also Edward Leader Williams, later became a notable civil engineer who was knighted for his work, and is now mainly remembered for designing Manchester Ship Canal - which was to become the theme of Leader's largest painting. The family eventually came to reside at "Diglis House" - now a hotel. Leader was educated at the Royal Grammar School, Worcester, and initially worked at his father's office as a draughtsman while studying art in the evenings at the Worcester School of Design. In his free time he also did a lot of "open air" landscape


THE baptismal name of this excellent landscape-painter is Benjamin Williams, but he has long adopted the surname of Leader; by this he is known, not only in artistic circles, but among his friends. He was induced to assume it -- an old name in his family, by the way -- to distinguish himself from the several artists bearing that of Williams, to none of whom is he related. Mr. Leader was born in Worcester, where he has always resided, on the 12th of March, 1831: he is son of Mr. E. Leader Williams, a well-known member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, who, in his capacity of engineer to the Severn Navigation Commission, has carried out, and is now completing, some large and important works for improving the navigation of that river. In the early days of Mr. Leader, his father, having a great love of Art, was accustomed to occupy some of his leisure hours with painting, to the great delight of his young boy, who would stand by watching him, and sometimes take advantage of his temporary absence from the easel, to put in a few "finishing touches" of his own. We have heard him say that he has a distinct recollection, when a child, of Constable paying a visit to his father at Worcester, though he could not associate him in any way with the glorious Art of one of the great painters of English landscape.

Mr. Williams intended to bring up his son to his own profession, and caused him to pursue a course of study that would qualify him for it; but the youth found much more pleasure in sketching the picturesque lanes and cottages of his native county, than in taking measurements and drawing formal plans and elevations of locks and weirs: as the result, he soon abandoned engineering for Art. He seems to have had no direct instruction from any painter, but gradually worked his way to knowledge by the impulse of his own natural talents aided by such information and counsel as his father's experience gave him. One of his first pictures, a view near his present residence, was exhibited in the gallery of the Birmingham Society of Artists, where it was purchased by Mr. F. W. Hulme, the landscape-painter: this acknowledgement of its merits by a brother-artist, one, moreover, well able to judge of a good picture, was a great encouragement to the young exhibitor. In the autumn of 1856, Mr. Leader went into Scotland: the mountainous character of the country made a strong impression on his mind; for, till then, he had seen no higher hills than the Malverns, the neighbourhood of which was the great holiday-place of his childhood: a trip to Malvern with sundry wanderings over the hills and rocks was a pleasurable anticipation, to be talked about and looked forward to weeks beforehand. The same may be remarked of another class of subjects this artist frequently illustrates -- the cottages, farm-houses, lanes, hedgerows, and churchyards, so exceedingly picturesque and beautiful, which abound in the vicinity of Worcester.

#Some of the earliest pictures exhibited by Mr. Leader in London were hung in the gallery of the National Institution, Portland Place. One we saw there, in 1857, called 'A Trespasser,' was characterised in our columns as "of the best promise we may safely expect the painter to take his place ere long among the magnates in Art." Of two pictures he sent the same year to the Royal Academy -- the first time of his appearance there -- one, 'A Stream from the Hills,' we also commendably noticed, as did Mr. Ruskin in his pamphlet on the exhibition. A second work, 'An English Homestead,' was hung in the gallery at the same time.

In 1858 he contributed several subjects to the National Institution; among them, 'In the Highlands,' -- the result of a second visit to Scotland in the autumn of the preceding year, -- 'Where the Mosses thrive,' and 'Temptation:' in the last, a boy standing by the side of the garden of an untenanted cottage, looks wistfully at the ripened crop on the fruit-trees. All these pictures attracted our notice by their truthfulness, and the patient assiduity with which the whole of the details are worked out. One of them -- the second on the list, if we mistake not -- was purchased by the late T. Creswick, R.A.; and it marks the estimate of Mr. Leader's works by his brother-artists, when we add to the instances already given, that, out of four pictures in the Academy Exhibition of 1858, one, A Sketch on a Common,' was bought by Mr. A. Elmore, R.A.; and another, 'A Quiet Pool in Glen Falloch,' by the late D. Roberts, R.A. The third, 'A Chat by the Way,' was secured by the eminent picture-dealers, Messrs. Agnew. The title of the fourth subject was 'The Heath at Albury, Surrey.' These pictures necessarily brought the artist numerous commissions.

'Still Evening,' exhibited at the Academy in 1861, became the property of Mr. H. Hall: it was, unfortunately and undeservedly, hung in such an out-of-the-way place in the gallery, as to enable us only to realise the fact; and we remarked at the time, that a fine picture seemed to have been purposely kept out of sight. In the following year he contributed two capital landscapes -- 'An Autumn Afternoon, Worcestershire,' with sheep in a stubble-field, and 'Summer-Time:' both of them compositions of much poetic feeling. A favourite method adopted by Mr. Leader in the treatment of his subjects is to present dark masses, trees and other objects, set against an evening sky, with the sunlight still glowing on the distant hills. An example of such effect we especially observed in his 'Welsh Churchyard,' exhibited in 1863, in which a group of almost black yew-trees stand, "like mourners watching over the tombs;" a striking picture, which the taste and judgment of our present prime-minister, Mr. Gladstone, induced him to purchase. A large landscape, entitled 'A Sunny Afternoon, North Wales,' was in the Royal Academy the following year: it shows a reach on the river Llugy; and, to quote our remarks made at the time, is a work "wherein no trick of composition intrudes, for nature seems to grow unchecked by the hand of man, and unconscious of the beauties wherein she is clothed." The artist sent with it another, 'An English Churchyard -- Autumn,' a very different subject, but scarcely, if at all, inferior in merit to its companion.

'Autumn's Last Gleam,' one of Mr. Leader's Academy-pictures of 1865, extorted from our critic high panegyric. "Taken for all in all," he says, "we question whether there is in the whole Academy a landscape so free from fault, and at the same time so abounding in unobtrusive merit as this, the masterpiece of Mr. Leader. Every object, whether mountain, tree, or rock, asserts its place without prejudice to its neighbour. The handling is dexterous without ostentation; the pencilling of the tree-stems, and the delicate touching of the leaflets against the sky, are points for special praise." His second picture of the year, a scene in the valley of the Lledr, entitled 'A Sunny Afternoon, North Wales,' is an exceedingly beautiful landscape. Both works were purchased by Mr. Alfred Castellain, of Liverpool. In 1866 we find him exhibiting two most attractive pictures, with the respective titles of 'The Close of Summer' and 'A Fine Day in Autumn' -- examples of Welsh scenery. In the next year he also contributed two pictures to the Academy -- 'An Autumn Evening in the Valley of the Lledr,' evidently a favourite locality of the painter, and 'Through the Glen:' the latter represents a dark, gloomy wood overhung by lofty cliffs.

That Mr. Leader could sometimes abstract himself advantageously from the beauties of Wales we have already seen; but such dissociation was especially manifested in the two works sent to the Academy in 1868 — 'A Fine Morning in Early Spring,' a view of the churchyard of the parish -- Whittington, near Worcester -- in which he resides, with its venerable elms just beginning to show signs of renewed life, children gathering primroses, and sheep and lambs in the foreground; and 'A Moated Grange,' one of the old farm-houses that abound in Worcestershire, and bear evidence of having in years long gone by been mansions of some pretension. The hangers at the Academy paid these admirable works the compliment of placing them respectively on each side of the President's principal picture, -- the portrait of the Earl of Bradford, -- hung at the end of the large room.

Passing over, for want of space in the way of comment, his pictures of 1869, -- 'An English Riverside Cottage,' and 'Looking down a Welsh River,' -- we come to those exhibited last year -- 'Chepstow Castle,' a good subject admirably treated; and 'The Lock and Church, Stratford-on-Avon:' the latter is remarkable for power of colour and general effect: it is the property of Mr. Jardine, of Alderley. Many of Mr. Leader's most important works have never been exhibited, but have passed direct from his studio into the hands of purchasers. Among them are two subjects: 'The Church and River at Beitws-y-coed,' in the collection of Mr. Fox, also of Alderley; and 'The Birch-Wood Capel Curig, North Wales:' both serving as examples of the attractive and thoroughly artistic manner in which he treats the picturesque scenery of Wales. In these, as in the majority of his other works, he shows a fine sense of the beauties of nature, in her varied aspects, allied with much poetic feeling.

Mr. Leader's style is a happy medium between excess of detail and over-elaboration on the one hand, and dash of execution on the other. There is enough of finish in his works to satisfy those who look for carefulness, but this quality does not degenerate into affected trivialities, while they show breadth of manner and brilliant effect by judicious arrangement of light and shade. His colouring, too, is generally pure and true to nature: latterly, however, he seems too much inclined to a free use of browns: this is notably prevalent in his large picture, 'A Worcestershire Cottage,' in the present "Winter Exhibition" at Mr. Wallis's gallery in Pali-Mall: the reflections in the water of the cottage and the almost leafless trees are a mass of brown, giving great heaviness to the right side of the composition, while the left side is full of clear daylight: the contrast is not agreeable. We would offer a friendly hint on this point to one of our best landscape-painters, for as such we regard Mr. Leader.

The Art Journal 1871, James Dafforne

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