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Art in Scotland
William Leighton Leitch


WILLIAM LEIGHTON LEITCH.
Born, 2d November 1804; died, 25th April 1883.

The art of painting in water-colours was of a later development in Scotland than in England, and even yet can hardly be said to have attained the same popularity which it enjoys in the south. The moist nature of the Northern climate, as well as the wilder form of its scenery, are more adapted to the practice of oil in landscape, and the hardy and severe character of the mountaineer is more easily and rapidly caught by the hog-hair brush than the camel-hair. W. L. Leitch will always remain a distinguished representative of this branch of art in Scotland, as, although he also painted in oil, he is by far most exclusively and favourably known as a painter in water-colour.

He was born in Glasgow, in the upper part of the High Street, or rather its continuation northwards called Castle Street, nearly opposite the Royal Infirmary and the entrance to the Cathedral, a district which has twice since that time changed its appearance, when it appeared pretty much like the memory-sketch made by the artist and presented to his friend Mr A. Macgeorge of Glasgow in 1879. His father had settled in Glasgow after serving some eighteen years as a sailor and soldier, and there William remained till he got married. He early began the practice of his art, and found abundance of material for his boyish efforts in the quaint old tombstones and noble cathedral at his own door, which probably influenced his future choice of subjects. He was sent to a weaving factory after receiving a good plain education; but his love of art was so strong, and further fostered by his associating at this time with the late Horatio MacCulloch and Sir Daniel Macnee, that he determined to follow it as a profession. Giving up his situation as a weaver, he obtained another of a more artistic kind in the shop of a house-painter, where he soon evinced much talent in the more ornamental part of that trade, receiving at the same time some instruction from Mr John Knox, a popular local artist, who taught drawing and painting. Fond of theatricals and music, it was at a Choral Union practice that he met Miss Smellie, whom he married in his twentieth year, and commenced a happy life on fifteen shillings a-week. He began scene-painting in 1824, at the salary of twenty-five shillings a week, in the Theatre Royal in Queen Street, which then possessed, in addition to scenery by David Roberts, the magnificent drop by Alexander Nasmyth, the appointments of this theatre being among the finest of any in the kingdom. The theatre, however, was too large and too expensive to keep up in a town where many of the people looked upon actors as little less than limbs of the Evil One, and Leitch considered himself lucky if he got his wages duly paid on the Saturday night. On one of these occasions when the "treasury" was empty, and the cupboard probably as bare as old Mother Hubbard's, the scene-painter, along with Macklin the machinist, were sent off to Ayr one Saturday to get the theatre there ready for "Blue Beard" for Monday night. Under the impression that their expenses had been paid by the manager, they set off with empty pockets, and their experience is thus related by Mr Macgeorge: "We got to Ayr about nine o'clock, and I got off the coach cold, stiff, and faint, for I had eaten nothing since eight in the morning. Our lodging had been provided at the house of a baker, whose wife Macklin knew,
and who gave us a simple Scotch supper, for which we were both very thankful. About ten o'clock Macklin came to me and said, 'My dear boy, get to bed, for although to-morrow is Sunday, we must be up at six o'clock, and get into the theatre before people are up, otherwise there is a possibility of our getting into trouble for desecrating the Lord's Day. I didn't like this at all, but there seemed to be no help for it. I was awakened in the morning by old Mack, and we were soon at the stage-door of the theatre. When we opened it and got upon the stage, I shall never forget the look of desolation it had. - . . The wretched paltry pieces of set scenery, broken and torn, lying about, the hazy light of a misty morning hardly showing the tackle overhead, the dirt and dust and confusion, with the intense silence, were all very depressing. We began our work, and the old blue-chamber was got out and the 'flats' put together. They were sadly faded, and looked very bad, and I had but a poor stock of materials; but I worked away as well as I could, though I felt very weak and stupid; and poor Macklin was in a still worse condition. About nine o'clock we heard a peculiar tapping at the door, and then a low whistle. Macklin immediately got up, and staggered to the door saying, 'That must be Jamie.' I had not heard of Jamie before, but it appeared he was a half-witted creature, who always made his appearance to Macklin when he came to Ayr. I asked Jamie if he had any money, but he had not a farthing. I had left my watch at home, and neither of us had anything else which we could have pledged, even if a pawnshop had been open on Sunday. Something, however, had to be done; so Jamie and I got a bit of candle lighted, and descended to an apartment under the stage, where, after a long search among dust and dirt, we discovered four empty beer-bottles covered with grease. They had evidently been used as candlesticks. Having cleaned them as well as we could, Jamie was sent off with directions to sell them, and to spend what he could get for them on something to eat. It was getting on for twelve o'clock when he came back. He had got 3d. for the bottles, and this he had expended in a few potatoes and three small salted herrings. . . . A new difficulty arose. How were they to be cooked? for there was neither pot nor pan on the premises. We searched everywhere, and were returning in a hopeless state, when, in a dark place under the stage, my foot struck against something sharp, and on stooping to ascertain what it was, I brought up a dilapidated white iron theatric helmet. I was about to throw it away, when it occurred to me that if it could hold water it might serve our purpose. To test this, we clambered up to a cistern kept in readiness in case of fire, when to our great joy we found the old helmet was water-tight. A fire was speedily made in the greenroom; the potatoes were washed and peeled, packed into the helmet, and the herrings placed on the top, and all cooked together."

Leitch remained at the scene-painting in connection with the Theatre Royal rather less than a year, and after some time had elapsed, during which he found enough employment of various kinds, barely sufficient to make ends meet, he went to Cumnock in Ayrshire. Snuff-boxes decorated with small pictures were then in great demand; Macnee and MacCulloch were then similarly employed, and John Anderson formed a fourth. The last gave great promise in art, and was well known afterwards for his small heads and general versatility in painting. Both Macnec and Leitch aided Anderson, who ultimately settled down in PaisleyŚ a poor field at that time for art. It is pleasing to record the fact, that when death relieved Anderson from a long illness, Leitch was not quite unmindful of his widow.

While engaged at Cumnock, his work attracted the attention of the Marquis of Hastings, and Dr Young of Irvine, on whose advice he ventured to London, bearing with him a letter of introduction to David Roberts. Through the influence of this eminent artist he was employed at the Queen's Theatre (afterwards the Prince of Wales'), where he found plenty of work, but with very little pay on which to support his wife and three children. Here he first made the acquaintance of Clarkson Stanfield, and in 1832 found better employment at the Pavilion Theatre, managing also to find sufficient time to do a little drawing and painting on his own account, appearing as an exhibitor at the Society of British Artists in the same year. Mr Anderden, a stockbroker, who had noticed Leitch's talent, now proved a good friend to the young artist, not only by affording the means of going to the Continent, but also showing great kindness to his wife and children during his absence. He spent about four years in various parts of Italy, contriving to earn a living by what teaching he could get to do among English families in the towns where he was studying, and returned home with a large quantity of sketches and studies in oil and water colours, including some for a commission which he had received from Lord Douglas. He now found himself in a position to decline accepting work as a scene-painter, and began to assume one more in keeping with his talent as an artist, by giving lessons in painting to people of a class who could afford to pay a high fee. Her Majesty was at this time fond of painting, and finding among her ladies several who were pupils of Leitch making good progress, requested Lady Canning, who was one of these, to desire him to wait on her at Windsor, where he had the honour of giving her Majesty a course of lessons in water-colour painting. This led to his attendance at Windsor, Balmoral, Osborne, and Buckingham Palace, at various intervals for over twenty years, after which he had the further honour of directing the similar studies of some of the young princes and princesses. He gradually, of course, gave up teaching altogether, his last pupil being the Princess of Wales, who, on hearing of his death, sent a wreath for his grave.

He was an exhibitor at the Royal Academy from 1841 to 1861, with a few breaks, but never exhibited more than one picture at a time. After his election as a member of the new Society of Painters in Water-Colours, he contributed regularly to the exhibitions of that Society, and on Louis Haghe's election as president on the death of Henry Warren, was elected vice-president. In 1854, on account of his health, he accompanied his pupil, Sir Coutts Lindsay, on an Italian tour of four or five months, in the course of which he made many beautiful drawings. He had suffered all his life from acute pains in the head, which occurred at regular intervals, a derangement of the system well known to physicians, and often brought on by want of sufficient exercise. It was probably due to the cause of these attacks, which became more violent in the later part of his life, that he died on the 25th of April 1883.

His works are well known through the medium of numerous good engravings, among which may be mentioned, Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, by Forrest; the Villa of Lucullus at Misenum, by Willmore, issued by the Art Union of London in 1851; the Villa Fountain, by Forrest, for the Glasgow Art Union ; and the Shores and Islands of the Mediterranean, a quarto volume published in 1841. He was not so successful in his oil-pictures as his water-colours, by which he is most generally known. They are characterised by a great deal of sweetness and beauty, both in regard to form, colour, and sentiment; and while sometimes suggestive of the works of Turner, Roberts, and Stanfield, especially the last, have always an individuality of their own. He retained his power till almost the very last; and the writer of this recalls with pleasure an interview with the artist in Macnee's house in Glasgow a few years before his death, when shown a series of charming little water-colour sketches then made on the banks of the Clyde, in and about the neighbourhood of Bowling.

A sale of Leitch's work was held soon after his death: this included a group of drawings by Dc Wint, which had hung on his wall, and which had visibly affected his style; in fact, this similarity had never been noticed till they were hung alongside of Leitch's own works. The high esteem in which he was held by all who knew him, and the enduring friendship which existed so closely between Macnec and his other friends, are a sufficient testimony to the amiability of the man, whose manners and language were at all times quaint, homely, and modest.


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