George Dunlop Leslie

(2 July 1835 - 21 February 1921)


George Dunlop Leslie stated that his aim in art "has always been to paint pictures from the sunny side of English domestic life", and this seems a fair summary of his work. Typical are nice interiors with nice people, as in "Les Femmes Savants" (Victoria and Albert Museum), and single figures such as "Tea" (1894), showing a pretty serving maid. He was supported and helped by Edwin Landseer, and friends with the highly-regarded illustrator Frederick Walker, and with the bird-painter H. S. Marks. His views appear to have been somewhat conservative, as he was against such things as female students at the R.A., and accused Lord Leighton (P.R.A.) of diluting the British character of the Academy.

Landscape and genre painter, Leslie was born into an artistic family, son of the notable genre painter, Charles Robert Leslie, R.A. (1794-1859), and his uncle Robert Leslie was a marine artist. Studied art under his father and in Bloomsbury at Cary'sCary's Art Academy, then from 1854 (or 1856), at the Royal Academy. His first exhibition at the Academy was in 1859, and he showed his work every year thereafter. He became an Associate (A.R.A.) in 1868, and a full Royal Academician (R.A.) in 1876.

Leslie lived early on in St John's Wood (London), and was part of the St. John's Wood Clique, a group of artists who favoured light-hearted genre subjects. From 1884–1901, he was resident at "Riverside", St. Leonard's Lane, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. His sister Mary Leslie, (1833–1907), also an artist, lived at "Cromwell Lodge" next door. Fellow artist, James Hayllar, was also a resident of the village and they painted a portrait of Queen Victoria together for her Golden Jubilee in 1887. (From 1906, he lived at "Compton House" in Lindfield, Sussex.)

Mouseover Enlarges

His early works, such as "Matilda" (1860), showed the strong influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, but he settled into a more academic, aesthetic, style of painting with the aim of showing "pictures from the sunny side of English domestic life". He often used children as subjects and his work was praised by John Ruskin for its portrayal of the "sweet quality of English girlhood". One of his pictures, "This is the Way we Wash Our Clothes" was used as a poster in an advertising campaign for soap, and is in the collection of the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. Despite its apparently trivial subject matter, however, Leslie's work was highly regarded by critics of the time.

Leslie was also an author and had several books published. Our River (1888), Letters to Marco (1893), and Riverside Letters (1896), were all illustrated by him in black and white, and based on personal observations of life and nature in his local area. He also wrote a history of the early years of the Royal Academy - The Inner Life of the Royal Academy.

Leslie was married to Lydia. They had a daughter Alice (depicted in his painting "Alice in Wonderland") and a son Peter Leslie (1877–1953), who was also an artist. Amongst Leslie's artistic friends and acquaintances were Sir Edwin Landseer, Frederick Walker and Henry Stacy Marks.

The Inner Life of the Royal Academy, with an account of its schools and exhibitions principally in the reign of Queen Victoria, George Dunlop Leslie; Mid Sussex Times; English painters of the present day, Tom Taylor, 1871; Famous Paintings, Volume 1, G. K. Chesterton, (Cassell, 1913).

George Dunlop Leslie, R. A. Born in 1835. Son of Charles Robert Leslie of the. Royal Academy, whose pupil he was. George Dunlop Leslie entered the schools of the Royal Academy in 1854, and sent his first picture, "Hope" (now the property of Lord Houghton), to the British Institution in 1857.
In 1859, he sent to the Royal Academy, "Reminiscences of the Ball"
"Matilda" (from Dante) (1859)
in 1865, "The Defence of Lothian House"
in 1867, "The Cousins"
in 1868 (when he was made Associate of the Royal Academy), he exhibited "Home News,"
"The Empty Sleeve," (1868) and
"The Boat-House" (1868)
in 1870, "Fortunes"
in 1872, "Lavinia" and
"An Elopement" (1872)
in 1874, "The Nut-Brown Maid"
in 1876, "Roses" and "Violets"
in 1877, (when he became Academician), he contributed "Cowslips" and
"The Lass of Richmond Hill," his diploma work (1877)
in 1878, "Home, Sweet Home"
His "Celia's Arbor" was at Philadelphia in 1876
"Fortunes" (Paris in 1878)
"School Revisited" (Paris in 1878)
"Potpourri" (Paris in 1878)
"Lavinia" (Paris in 1878) and
"Celia's Arbor" were all in Paris in 1878.

About "Sun and Moon Flowers"
This picture was painted in 1890, from one of the windows of the artist's drawing-room at Wallingford, looking out over the garden to the meadow on the opposite bank of the river. According to Dunlop: "I arranged the two girls by the window. One is seated on a stool on the ground, and the other is on the seat of the deeply recessed window. The whole was painted direct from nature. A young lady friend posed for one of the figures, while ...the other is from Kitty Lambert, a favourite model of mine. The two girls are arranging sunflowers in a vase. In the picture some of the sunflowers are the usual bright yellow ones, and others, which I call moonflowers, are far paler. It is painted on canvas, very simply..."

"It must be a great delight to Mr. Leslie to see his son George D. Leslie do such good work as this 'Reminiscence of the Ball.' There is not a prettier piece of painting on the walls, and very few half so pretty I shall look anxiously for Leslie's work next year, for he seems to have truly the power of composition, and that is the gift of gifts, if it be rightly used. He colors very well already." - Ruskin's Notes on the Pictures of the Year, 1875.

"George D. Leslie has painted nothing so complicated in combination of figures and landscape as in this picture ['Fortune,' Royal Academy, 1870]. It illustrates both his merits and defects in a conspicuous way. The purity and beauty of the faces, the taste of the dresses, the grace of the figures, and the felicity of the grouping, with the amenity of the landscape, give a charm to it which was widely and directly felt." -- Tom Taylor in English Painters of the Present Day, 1876.

"It would be difficult, as a rule, to find on the walls of any gallery figures more unaffectedly refined and more winning in their attractiveness than those George D. Leslie places on his canvases The painter understands thoroughly the sources of a delicate beauty proper to a refined type of English girlhood; and he has the power, genuinely artistic of its kind, to bring all of the materials of the composition in accord with the dainty spirit that inspires it; for even the landscape portions of his pictures seem as if painted under the influence of the same graceful feeling and purity of taste, so as to present a perfect harmony between the outside world, and those who for the time at least occupy the scene.'' -- Art Journal, June, 1877.

Artists of the Nineteenth Century, Works, Biographical Sketches, by Clara Erskine Clement and Laurence Hutton. 1879.

In a former paper I have spoken of the knot of young painters commonly known as the St. John's Wood School. P. H. Calderon, R.A, as the oldest and, on the whole, ablest painter of the party, furnished the subject of the first article, in which attention was drawn to the chief characteristics of this group. It occupies the debateable ground between home-life and history, the field on the whole most congenial to English tastes and most compatible with the conditions imposed on art by English life. Mr. Calderon's excursions into the classical region seem rather deviations from a familiar track, by way of concession to the chaotic state of English art-theories and art-patronage, than results of any genuine inspiration of antique form or classic legend.

George Leslie, after Calderon one of the most prominent, and certainly the most popular of the St. John's Wood group, has known less than most of his contemporaries of that interval spent in feeling the public pulse with which English painters usually begin. He early showed his bent, and as it was an eminently popular one, he has been able to follow it uninterruptedly and prosperously. The son of a distinguished painter, he has had the good sense not to invite comparison with his father. He has known how to profit by the fine taste and sound teaching of one of the most delicately observant and happily-tempered minds in the English school, without forfeiting his individuality.

Home is his field, but it is home with its sweeter, sunnier side towards us, and its prettier inmates most en évidence, masquerading usually in the stiff brocades, and tamboured muslins, or painted linens of grandmamma's wardrobe, -- suggesting a faint fragrance of ancient potpourri and old-world lavender, -- looking archly out from under the flat caps or flapping straw hats of 1790, or demure in the long mittens, short waists, gored skirts, and juaint little bonnets, of 1810. Indeed Mr. Leslie has quite created a taste for the style of that time, which, till he painted it, I had always thought the ugliest that fashion ever strayed into. There is quite a family of painters now revelling in short-waists, robes-fourreaux, and chapeaux empire. Mr. Leslie might almost be described as an innocent Boucher. -- a Greuze or Chardin without arrière penseé (behind, backwards), or double entendre (“to mean, to understand”). He appeals to the instinct that draws us to pretty faces and graceful figures, but without a shadow of pmricnt suggestion. The perfect innocence of his charming maidens, whether of town or country, high life or humble, -- be it Clarissa reading her love-letter by the setting sun-light, in the quaint old garden, or Celia finding her lover's wreath in the summer-house, or Polly Peachum mending Macheath's coat in her London garret, -- is as unmistakable as their prettiness. The sweet air of English home breathes about them; they walk, like the Poet Laureate's Godiva, 'clothed on with chastity,' though not as their sole garment. On the contrary, as I have already said, Mr. Leslie is great in costume. He must have the fashion-books between 1789 and 1815 at his finger-ends. But just as the charm of his women arises from something in their faces which is neither prurient nor mawkish, so his treatment of dress is not millinerish.

There are some painters of our time, fashionable portrait-painters especially, in whose hands the dress seems the most important part of the picture, just as there are many painters of pretty faces wlio suggest unreality as inevitably as prettiness, and whose work never gives us an inkling of the painter's individuality any more than it does of real life. None of these things can fairly be said of Mr. Leslie's women. There is the breath of life in their forms as in their faces. They are, like Wordsworth's Ruth, --

'Creatures not too bright or good
For human nature's daily food.'

Their substantial flesh and blood, a sweetness which does not exclude character, and a relish of good old literature about the names and dresses the painter gives them, altogether impart to his creations a delightful individual quality, and a healthiness rarely found in the pictures of men who chiefly employ themselves in painting woman under attractive aspects. As everything Mr. Leslie does shows an amiable and innocent mind, not employed about far-off fancies, or vapoury idealisms, but healthily homely, with a lettered fancy, and a manly delight in feminine charm, what wonder if his popularity has been rapid, and his success assured?

All the painters of the group with which Mr. Leslie is usually classed are alike in a sober good sense, which belongs to all their work, historical, legendary, humorous, or domestic. We find among them no trace of that morbid mind which seems able to intoxicate itself with the mysticism and romance of the past, as an opium-eater with his poppy-juice, or that determined and exclusive mediaevalism which insists on forcing the fancy into ancient moulds, while, technically, it goes back in its worship of the past, to imitation of the quaint or contorted detail of an immature art. And yet there is a very decided liking among this school for past things, fashions, fancies, and people. But respect for life and nature controls it in all of them.

Born in 1835, a third son and sixth child, Mr. Leslie's art-education was from the first guided by his excellent father. He was sent first to F. S. Carey's School of Art, then a usual road of access to the Academy, at which drawing from the antique was the principal -- indeed, if I mistake not, the sole -- employment of the students, and thence to the Royal Academy, where he was admitted in 1854. He had an unusual number of comrades who have since distinguished themselves; among them, Poynter, Simeon Solomon, Marks, Storey, Brett, and H. W. B. Davis. 'My father,' Mr. Leslie writes to me, 'gave me very little systematic teaching, but continually caused me to look at fine pictures, taking me to galleries and collections, and from a very early period I had formed a pretty correct taste in these matters.'

It is easy to conceive how valuable these oral instructions -- clinical lectures on the art, as it were -- from a master like Mr. C. R. Leslie must have been. No man, within certain limits, was more catholic in his taste, more modest, yet refined and exact, in his judgments. The soundness of his critical faculty is shown in his Handbook for Young Painters, of which I see no reason to qualify the opinion I have elsewhere expressed*," 'that there has been hardly any book written on the theory of painting containing a larger proportion of sound principles, or more likely to guide the student safely, so far as it attempts to guide him.'
(* In my Introduction to his Autobiography. Published in Two Volunics. Murray, London, 1866.)

At the same time it is there pointed out that Leslie wrote in ignorance of the finest examples of decorative painting in its connexion (sic) with architecture, which Italy alone supplies; and that he undervalued both the historical importance and the expressional qualities of early art. But the tendency of the time towards the mediaeval, so marked among our younger painters, has corrected in the son whatever this limitation of the father's likings in art might have done to warp or limit appreciation. It is interesting to observe in a painter's personal belongings the turn of his tastes. Mr. Leslie loves quaint carved and painted furniture and properties, while that relish for Japanese art, which is common among our younger painters, has also left very visible traces in his surroundings. This, however, was also marked in his father, and from him the son might have imbibed it.

Like all our young painters, whose instruction has been confined to this country, Mr. Leslie strongly feels his own deficiencies in technical training. 'I always feel,' he writes, 'that I know more about art than I can give expression to in my works, owing to my having been all my life taught to appreciate the great masters. I have, I think, rather suffered in consequence of my unfortunate attempt to render my ideas without sufficient knowledge of the means; and I believe a few years' study in Paris would have been of inestimable advantage to me.

One advantage Mr. Leslie has derived from his homekeeping habits as a set-off to any defect in his art training -- essentially English feeling about personages, scenery, and subjects. His summers for many years past have been spent on the Thames. Hampton Court was a favourite summer haunt of his father's, and there and at Petworth many happy holidays were passed by an innocent and united family. George Leslie's pictures seem to me as redolent of home as of England. It gives them, to me, and I have no doubt to the public, their greatest recommendation and their most winning charm.

He first exhibited in 1857, at the British Institution, a little allegorical picture called 'Hope' which was bought by Lord Houghton. I remember the picture, timid and tender in feeling and colour. His next picture (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859) was called 'Reminiscences of the Ball.' -- a graceful girl, thinking over her ball triumphs by her dressing-room fire. Of this Mr. Ruskin writes in his Notes on the Pictures of the Year: -- 'It must be a great delight to Mr. Leslie to see his son do such good work as this. There is not a prettier little piece of painting on the walls, and very few half so pretty. All the accessories, too, are at once quaint and graceful: showing an enjoyment of elegance in form (even down to the design of the frame of the picture and the bars of the chair) which is very rare among the young painters of the rising school. This grace of fancy is shown no less in the little Chinese subject by the same artist, which, however, is not quite so thoroughly painted. I shall look anxiously for Mr. Leslie's work next year, for he seems to have truly the power of composition, and that is the gift of gifts if it be rightly used: he colours very well already.' This high estimate of the young painter's promise has proved just. Mr. Leslie has rapidly advanced in favour, and with hardly a back-cast. In 1860 he exhibited three pictures -- two single emblematical or allegorical figures: Matilda' (from Dante) and 'Meditation;' and a sacred subject, Bethlehem,' the largest and most ambitious picture he had yet attempted -- Mary and Joseph humbly turning aside to the stable, from the noisy and overcrowded inn. I remember the tender grace of Mary's expression and attitude, and some delicately painted pigeons fluttering about the stable-yard. But, if I recall it aright, the picture betrayed decided immaturity. It was an attempt beyond the painter's technical power; perhaps not within his range of invention or knowledge, in a realistic time which insists on the facts of Eastern life and landscape in treating Biblical subjects. In 'The Lost Carcanet' (exhibited at the British Institution in 1863) he had got back to his natural field; and in 1864, besides a composition from a subject suggested by Chaucer, 'The Flower and the Leaf,' at Mr. Wallis' Winter Exhibition, he exhibited at the Academy, under the title 'Say Ta,' a scene by the side of a canal -- a bargeman's young wife making her child acknowledge the gift of an apple from two pretty girls, on a walk with a little brother.

In 1865, he took an historical subject, the siege of Lathom House, with the heroic Countess of Derby lashing the splintered flagstaff, at the foot of which lay a cavalier wounded in the same work. Her figure and face were both spirited and charming, but I remember thinking the composition disagreeable. In the same year was exhibited a pretty single figure of a girl in a blue dress, in an old-fashioned garden, called 'The Grassy Path.' In 1866, was exhibited at the Royal Academy 'Clarissa,' at sunset, reading Lovelace's letter in the garden of her father's house -- a sweet and graceful figure in half-mourning, which achieved the greatest success up to that time reached by the painter. It was decidedly one of the 'hits' of the year. Encouraged by its success, Mr. Leslie, in 1867, exhibited three pictures, -- 'Willow, Willow,' a love-lorn maiden, in a sedgy and willowy nook, contemplating the water in a way suggestive, but not too painfully suggestive, of suicide, -- one felt a consoler was not far off; 'The Cousins,' a delightful version of the Town and Country Mouse -- a fine lady visiting her home-keeping relation at the farm, and unsettling her with her town airs, town dress, and town gossip; and 'Ten Minutes to Decide:' Mr. Leslie's favourite old formal garden, with a pretty young lady of 1794 in the agonies of making-up her mind, at short notice, on an offer of marriage. This picture was a commission from Sir Edwin Landseer, of which the painter was, and is, justly proud. 'The Rose Harvest,' a group of girls making pot-pourri in a garden, --

'Mong roses, mingled with their fragrant toil,'

exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, showed the same charming sitters and becoming costume which Mr. Leslie had already used in the Country Cousins. The flowers, I remember, were painted with great finish, force, and feeling. The drawing of the arms was complained of, not without reason. In the same year was exhibited a piquarite figure of Polly Peachum in her garret, sadly but contentedly sewing a button on Macheath's coat. In 1868, were exhibited at the Royal Academy 'Home News,' and 'The Empty Sleeve,' an old Admiral in a quaint summer-house, telling the story of his wound to two children. In the same year Mr. Leslie painted a lunette at South Kensington, and a picture never exhibited, 'The Boat-house.' Next year marked a decided advance in Mr. Leslie's power and popularity, with 'Cupid's Curse,' a deserted girl consoled by an old woman; and Celia's Arbour,' -- suggested by the sweet old- fashioned glee of the same name -- a lovely figure in white, and a wreath of red roses round her neck, by pearly morning light, in a garden-house grown about with pale climbing roses. Mr. Leslie had not, till now, produced any figure on this scale, and showing this carefulness of study both in face, form, and drapery. It is, and remains to my mind, his most painter-like work, even beside his largest and probably most popular composition exhibited last year, under the title of 'Fortunes,' -- a group of lovely English girls in a park watching flowers, emblematic of their fates in love, gliding down a stream. He has painted nothing so complicated in combination of figures and landscape, as this picture. It illustrates both his merits and defects in a conspicuous way. The purity and beauty of the faces, the taste of the dresses, the grace of the figures and felicity of the grouping, with the amenity of the landscape, give it a charm which was widely and directly felt. The picture had always a crowd round it at the Exhibition; but, after acknowledging its delightful qualities, the critic was bound to admit that the forms wanted solidity, the colour more force with its sweetness, and the figures firmer and exacter drawing.

In truth, Mr. Leslie has never got over the want of more thorough artistic training, which he himself is the first to feel and acknowledge. It is the want of all English artists who do not avail themselves of foreign training. Only in the ateliers, of France, Belgium, and Germany, can the student learn anything from authoritative tuition of the principles on which pictures are painted and put together. At the schools of the Royal Academy, hitherto, all that the most diligent student has been able to acquire is drawing the figure. The use to be made of that knowledge in picture-making our Academy has thus far hardly made even a pretence of teaching. Mr. Leslie has worked hard, and is still working, like all our rising painters, to supply by his own efforts what Academy teaching has left undone, or rather unattempted. It is to be hoped that, with its new habitation, the Academy is about to infuse new life into its instruction, with a wider reach in its range of teaching.

One of Mr. Leslie's most interesting pictures, painted at Knowsley in 1869, represents the late Lord Derby in his dressing-gown, as a gouty invalid, with his little grandchild, a boy of four or five, leading him along one of the corridors of the house. Lord Derby chose the subject himself, and was very strict in his requirement of accuracy in facts. The combination of the grey, gouty old statesman and the little child, exactly suited the painter.

In an agitated and pretentious time, when all conspicuous ability is sorely tempted into excess and affectation, and when young artists are very apt to draw apart into mutual-admiration coteries, one values any man who ventures to be thoroughly himself; above all, in a simple way. Though Mr. Leslie is usually classed with the St. John's Wood School, his connexion (sic) with it is rather one of friendly intimacy and neighbourhood than of style or subject. In his choice of these he has happily found, and honestly followed, his own bent. As this is towards all that is most sweet, innocent, and attractive in English home-life and womanhood, let us be thankful that he has been content to remain himself, in spite of the many influences about him tending to make artists other than they are, and to impress on much clever work of our time a morbid character, which combines the ascetic with the sensual in a way that seems to me as unmanly as it is unwholesome.

Mr. Leslie was elected an Associate in January 1868. The little study of which we publish a reproduction is a pretty, if slight, example of his graceful hand. As an illustration of hereditary transmission of artistic talent, I may add that, besides a sister, Mary, whose drawings show exquisite grace, finish, and feeling, and a rare, if peculiar, fancy, Mr. Leslie has an elder brother, Robert, whose passion for the sea has led him to make his abode by sea and river, and to confine himself in his art to subjects of sailor-life, shipping, and seascape. All that he has exhibited of this kind has shown a genuine love and pure feeling for nature, a thorough mastery of the technical element of his subjects; and a consistency in all parts of his pictures, such as, in this particular walk of art, only exact knowledge can secure. These qualities give a distinctive value and interest to Robert Leslie's pictures, which have as yet hardly received the recognition to which their merits entitle them.

English Painters of the Present Day, The Portfolio, an artistic periodical, Volume: 1, edited by Philip Gilbert Hamerton, (1834-1894), Tom Taylor, 1870. (Vols. for 1870-1889 also called no. 1-240; 1890-93, also called new ser., no. 1-48.)

Our River, The Thames, 1881, (.pdf - large file opens in new window)

View painter's work: George Dunlop Leslie (1835-1921) [new window view]