Benjamin Williams Leader once said, “The subjects of my pictures are mostly English. I have painted in Switzerland, Scotland, and a great deal of North Wales, but I prefer our English home scenes. Riversides at evening time, country lanes and commons, and the village church, are subjects that I love and am never tired of painting” (as quoted in Lewis Lusk’s “The Works of B. W. Leader, RA,” The Art Journal, London, 1901 Christmas Issue, p. 30.) Leader’s statement best described his landscapes, which he produced throughout his long artistic career. Considered as one of the most acclaimed Victorian landscape painters during his lifetime, Leader’s work was also extensively engraved.
He was born Benjamin Williams on March 12, 1831 in Worcester, England. His father Edward Leader Williams, a civil engineer, knew and admired the landscape artist John Constable (British, 1776-1837). He was also active in the promotion of British modern art in Worcester, and enjoyed painting in his spare time. Young Benjamin often accompanied his father when he went to paint scenes from nature, especially along the Severn River. There, he “would sometimes take advantage of his father’s absence from the easel and add his own touches to the canvas.” (Lusk, p. 13.)
Although Benjamin aspired to become an artist, his father wanted him to follow in his profession as an engineer. Therefore, in 1845, after attending the Royal Grammar School, Benjamin joined his father’s engineering office. However, from the beginning, he enjoyed sketching in the field much more than drawing plans for bridges, locks and weirs. After almost five years, his father finally acquiesced to his wish of becoming an artist, and gave him one year to prove himself. Benjamin enrolled in the Worcester School of Design, and in 1853, became probationer at the Royal Academy Schools where he studied for a short while.
During his first year at the Royal Academy, Benjamin exhibited and sold a painting entitled Cottage Children Blowing Bubbles. Thereafter, he sold his paintings to a number of leading Worcester citizens, and continued to exhibit in several venues. Besides the Royal Academy in London, he submitted his paintings to the National Institution and the British Institution in London, as well as to the Birmingham Society of Artists, and Liverpool Academy. At this early stage of his career, he painted various subjects that included landscape and genres scenes. These paintings showed the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of copying nature faithfully, attention to detail and use of bright colors. Examples of his works reflecting this style included The Chair Mender (1856), The Young Mother (1856) and Landscape (1855).
Despite the increasing number of commissions and sales, Benjamin was not satisfied with either his method of painting or subject matters. He began experimenting with different methods to “achieve the effects of natural light and shade over his landscapes, rather than the harsh artificial luminosity from the use of bright colors alone.” (Ruth Wood, Benjamin Williams Leader, RA 1831-1923: His Life and Paintings, Woodbridge (Suffolk, England): Antique Collectors’ Club, c1998. p. 26) He also began searching for new subject matters, and went on sketching holidays around Britain to get inspiration. The results of these trips were scenes from the Midlands, around Worcester, Scotland, and the north Wales especially around Bettws-y Coed.
In 1857, he changed his name to Benjamin Leader to distinguish himself from the Williams family of painters, exhibiting in London. During the first year he exhibited as Benjamin Leader, he received favorable reviews, and by the late 1850s, the London-based dealers noticed his works. Two of them would play an important role in marketing and promoting his works. The first was Thomas Wallis, a respected dealer in London, who actively promoted Leader’s paintings, and “advised him on what to exhibit in the London and Paris venues.” (Wood, p. 32) The second was Samuel Carter Hall who used to encourage young British artists through his proprietorship of the Art Union Monthly Journal, renamed The Art Journal in 1849. That journal was very influential, and under Hall’s editorship, it would become “the most consistent promoter of Leader’s paintings, reviewing them favorably during the 1860s and 1870s.” (Wood, p. 32)
In 1861, Leader decided to move to London. He was ambitious and knew that the Royal Academy was the principal venue for all those who aspired to gain fame and financial success. There, he entered the art scene, but at the end of the year moved back to his county, in the village of Whittington, south of Worcester. His career continued to be prosperous, and by 1863, recorded the sale of 41 pictures at a total of £1,154, more than he had ever sold before. (Wood, p. 35) One of these paintings was A Welsh Churchyard (1863), a scene of an area around the old fourteenth century church of St. Michael and All Angels located in the village of Betws-y-coed. Leader noted in his diary that the painting “was universally liked and pronounced by The Times and other papers as one of the best landscapes of the season.” (Wood, p. 36) Because of the success of that painting, Leader felt confident to submit his name as a candidate for election as Associate of the Royal Academy, however it would take him 18 years to succeed in that endeavor.
From the middle of the 1860s, Leader replaced his Pre-Raphaelite detailed style with a more naturalistic portrayal of nature. His works reflected his study and admiration for the landscapes by John Constable, John Linell (British, 1792-1882), and the French Barbizon School. On a visit to Paris in 1865, he came to admire the plein air (open-air) techniques used by the French Barbizon artists, Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878) and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875). Notable among the works he produced around that time was An Autumn Evening on the Severn River, near Worcester (1868), which was also his first pure landscape. Besides painting other naturalistic landscapes, Leader also portrayed the romantic ruins of Chepstow Castle and Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley on the Welsh borders. Leader also traveled to the Continent on several occasions, and produced a number of Swiss landscapes, which according to The Art Journal were “perhaps the best contribution from this artist. It is clearly and firmly painted, with excellent perception of atmospheric influences.” (Wood, p. 47)
In 1876, Leader married Mary Eastlake. She was an artist specializing in flower paintings, and was the grandniece of Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, President of the Royal Academy from 1850 until his death in 1865. At first, the Eastlake family was against the marriage as she was over 22 years younger than he was. More importantly, they considered Leader’s family was ‘in trade,’ while they were from the Plymouth gentry. (Wood, p. 50) However, they recognized that such a marriage would be convenient as Mr. Eastlake was not a wealthy man, and Leader could certainly provide Mary with financial security. By this time, he had accumulated wealth from his prosperous artistic career as well as from investments in companies that were part of the fast growing economy of Victorian Britain. (Wood, p. 50) They would have six children: Benjamin, Ethel, Beatrice, Mary Edward, and Margaret. They resided in Whittington until 1889, and then moved to Burrows Crosse House in Surrey, which was designed by Norman Shaw for the artist Frank Holl (British, 1845-1888). (Martin Postle, “Leader, Benjamin Williams,” Grove Art Online Dictionary)
By the 1880s, Leader had developed his own distinctive style of painting. He mastered the natural effects of light, particularly the amber luminosity from the late afternoon sun, which became his hallmark. His subjects also focused more on scenes of Worcestershire countryside, although he continued to paint and exhibit Welsh landscapes. Just “like Constable before him, Leader painted best what he knew best and this was for Leader, Worcestershire‘s rivers, its leafy lanes, commons and fields, and its villages and churches…The scenes were depicted in amber glow of the setting sun or the harsher brightness of early morning after rain.” (Wood, p. 72) Most notable among the paintings he produced at that time was February Fill Dyke (1881). It was so popular, that it was the first of many of Leaders’ paintings to be etched or engraved and sold commercially. It also received glowing reviews, and most of the art critics agreed that this was his best paining so far. The Art Journal commented:
“…title and picture suit one another well. The characteristics of the kind of weather which gives the epithet of ‘fill dyke’ to the month of February are most truthfully depicted in the overflowing ponds and splashy roads and the pale, streaked evening sky. It is a thoroughly English landscape.” (Wood, p. 61)
Finally, in 1883, Benjamin Leader became Associate of the Royal Academy. Following his election, Leader received even more commissions and that year recorded the highest annual income from the sale of his paintings, including studies and sketches. At that time, it was customary for artists to prepare studies and sketches for their finished works, which were characterized by the loose brushstrokes associated with impressionism. Besides painting a number of preparatory sketches, Leader sometimes painted two versions, with minor changes of the same landscape he wished to exhibit, or painted replicas of the same scenes.
In 1889, Leader received a gold medal for his painting In the evening it shall be light (1882), exhibited that year at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. At the same time, the French government also decorated him as Knight of the Legion of Honor (Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur). (Wood, p. 77) Nine years later, Leader achieved his ultimate ambition of becoming a full member of the Royal Academy (RA- Royal Academician). After his election as Royal Academician, The Art Journal, which believed it had done much to promote Leader since the 1860s, published a monograph about the artist in the 1901 Christmas Art Annual. With the desirable letters ’RA’ after his name, Leader’s popularity grew and he was assured even more financial success. His audience extended beyond the exhibition-going public and wealthy art collectors, as those who could not afford the prices of his paintings could purchase his widely available prints.
By the turn of the century, Leader achieved international fame, especially in America and Canada. In addition, numerous articles appeared about Leader’s career and work, such as those in The Strand and The Windsor magazines. In 1914, one of his paintings entered the royal collection, when King George V and Queen Mary purchased On the Llugwy, Bettws-y-coed. That year, the citizens of Worcester honored him with the Freedom of the City. (Wood, p. 101) However, World War I would bring tragedy to the Leader family, when their son Benjamin was killed in 1916. Throughout the war and the remaining five years of his life, Leader continued to produce large or medium-sized landscapes for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions. He died in his home on 22 March 1923.
Benjamin Leader was commercially successful during his lifetime, and had exhibited approximately 216 paintings at the Royal Academy over 69 years from 1854 to 1923. In addition to other London venues, Leader exhibited his works in exhibitions held in Worcester, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow (UK) as well as in international exhibitions in Paris (France), Canada and the United States.
His work can be seen in a number of museums including: Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio (US), Tate Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and other museums in Blackburn, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester (UK).