A.C.Leighton
A Biographical Sketch

by Roger H. Boulet

 
 
 
 

Alfred Crocker Leighton was born m Hastings, Sussex, on October 27, 1901, the eldest of four sons born to Charles Leighton and Amelia Frances Jenner. Leighton's father, an owner of properties in Hastings and a man of some means, did not work, much preferring the life of a gentleman. It seems that A.C. Leighton was a distant relative of Lord Leighton, for many years president of the Royal Academy. Although reviewers would often mention this fact, Leighton did not feel that it was of any real importance.

The young Acie received his first education at the Hastings Grammar School. His aptitude for drawing earned him a scholarship at the Brassey Institute, Hastings' Municipal School of Art, where he studied architecture rather than art in accordance with his father's wishes. Later, after the Headmaster, Mr. Phillip Cole, interceded on his behalf, Leighton's father agreed to allow him to pursue his artistic studies on a full-time basis.

It was in 1917 that Leighton enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps, illegally, as he was not yet of the required age. Sometime early in 1918 during a training flight, he sustained internal injuries when the aircraft crashed after hitting some power lines. These injuries were to plague Leighton for the remainder of his life, but he refused a pension from the Service as he felt that no one, not the pilot (who had been seriously injured) or anyone else, was responsible for the accident.

His activities from 1919 to 1924 are difficult to document precisely. It is certain that Leighton received a position as a toy designer with Vickers after the factory had been converted to toy manufacture from that of weapons. Young Leighton found himself with a bevy of thirty-five women, who were employed to execute his designs. Perhaps self-conscious of his age and youthful appearance, he grew a mustache to look older.

In spite of the commercial work, Leighton enjoyed painting around the countryside and was encouraged by E. Leslie Badham, R.B.A., to submit his work for exhibition to the Royal Society of British Artists. He was soon made an Associate of the Society and began participating in their annual exhibitions. How long he stayed at Vickers is not known. He may have taught for a short time at an art school in London (Dartford), but we do know that he eventually set out on his own as a freelance artist. In this capacity, he was employed to make models for various advertising campaigns. One of these was a large tooth transformed into a fairyland castle, which suggested how a certain dentifrice protected the "castles of the mouth" against the onslaught of the nefarious villain, tooth decay.

In 1924, in co-operation with a partner, he constructed a working scale model ( 1" to 100') of the port of Liverpool, complete with moving boats. The model received some public attention and was noticed by executives of the Canadian Pacific Company. Leighton was quickly employed full-time by the Company for its large public relations ventures. Canadian Pacific's very extensive communications and transportation systems included the Empress ships that could take one to such exotic places as Canada, after which the Company's transcontinental railway service could continue the journey to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world—the Canadian Rockies. While there, one would naturally want to stay at the rather grand hostelleries along the way, also thoughtfully provided by the same Canadian Pacific.

A visit to Canada was imperative and Acie made the trip for the first time in 1925. He does not seem to have spent much time in eastern Canada. At Banff, the imagined landscape appeared at last. In the company of Leonard Richmond, another artist employed by the C. P. R., Leighton sketched avidly, obtaining some ideas for posters by jumping off trains at opportune moments. He would wait at the exit of the great spiral tunnel in Kicking Horse Pass near Cathedral Mountain for the next train to come steaming out. By agreement, the Canadian Pacific was to have the first selection of any paintings, and the artist could dispose of the remainder for his own profit. The scheme, a wonderful form of patronage, had actually begun when the railroad opened in 1887. Until about twenty-five sears ago, the C.P.R. patronized many of Canada's significant artists, when it could still afford to be more interested in passenger traffic, especially from a leisure class, than contemporary marketing techniques. Unfortunately, all of Leighton's paintings that Canadian Pacific purchased were lost during bombing raids of London in the second world war.

Leighton commented to The Studio (May 1927) about how he had first reacted to the mountains:

"The grandeur of the scenery, the purity and beauty of the colouring being indescribable, there was no lack of subject, for one could be found at every angle. The scale of the landscape was tremendous. I soon found that a 14" by 10" was too small even to rough-in composition, and something much larger was necessary to portray the magnitude, the imposing force and dignity of those mountains."

In England, Leighton's work for the Canadian Pacific continued, but he still managed to travel to the English countryside. He becarne very interested in the historic windmills in Sussex and Kent, which he had been painting since about 1924.

Another trip to Canada was made in 1927, and this time Leighton exhibited his work when the summer's sketching was finished. The exhibition, consisting of 27 paintings in pastel and watercolour of the Canadian Rockies plus 40 watercolours of English windmills, castles and bridges, was scheduled to be shown first at the Banff Springs Hotel from Septernber 3 to 6 and then for one week, at the end of September, in the Calgary Public Library. Due to its great popularity in Calgary, the exhibition was extended for an extra week.

The Calgary Albertan, on September 26, 1927, stated: "The fine drawing and colouring are two outstanding features of his mountain scenes. No loose splashing of Colour is seen in any of the pictures bur rather a fine etching quality, which raised the pictures above the average artist's work." The 'etching'quality might refer to Leighton's habit of enhancing his watercolours with pen and ink.

The exhibition travelled to Vancouver in October and was to Winnipeg in November of 1927. Writing for The Winnipeg Tribune, fellow artist Walter J. Phillips was pleased with Leighton's free and joyous style.
He mentioned in his column (December 3, 1927), Leighton's use of a pen line over which the colour washes were laid.

In 1928, Leighton prepared the formal programme for the launch of the Company's S. S. Duchess of York. He also exhibited at the Royal Academy. In May and June of 1929, he exhibited some work at the Paris Salon, receiving a review in La Revue Moderne illustrée des Arts et de la Vie, May 31, 1929. Elected a full member of the Royal Society of British Artists, Leighton returned to Canada to resume sketching in the Rockies. Fall exhibitions were held in Eaton's stores in Montreal (September), Toronto and Hamilton (October), and Winnipeg and Saskatoon (November).

Walter J. Phillips reviewed the exhibition in his column "Art and Artists" (November 9, 1929) in The Winnipeg Tribune:

"I have always felt a genuine admiration for this painter's superb draughtsmanship, the quality of his color, and for his handling generally. I have coveted many of his sketches. Now 1 proudly confess I own one. It will remain one of my most treasured possessions.

The difficulty is one of selection. I chose a windmill. It will be remembered that Mr. Leighton has a penchant for windmills. I fancy he has painted every specimen in
Sussex, and each in a masterly manner. Nothing could be more typical of the eastern shires, or more picturesquely English, than these upstanding fabrics. We have grain elevators, but they lack grace perhaps, and finish. These are paintable—Charles Jeffreys painted a noble canvas featuring a group—and possess a massive dignity but they have not the elegance of windmills, as expressed by Mr. Leighton.

In the current exhibition are several mill scenes, and they do not vary in excellence — Icklesam, Blackboys, and the Mill Cross-in-Hand amongst them.

I should be sorry to give the impression that Mr. Leighton paints nothing else. The majority of the pictures are other and various in subject. He has painted the Rocky Mountains in an impressive style. Not often is their illusive [sic] charm expressed so successfully. There are coast and river scenes, and delightful vistas down English village streets.

Mr. Leighton finishes his watercolors on the spot. They are direct and vigorous. He paints at times with the fullest range of tones of which the medium is capable, and again with the greatest delicacy. His "Rolvenden, Kent" is strengthened with a pen-line—a favourite device—and solid black shadows in the foreground. "Rochester", on the other hand, is of extreme refinement, an almost monochromatic harmony of warm reds.

In September 1929, Lars Haukness, Art Director at the Art Institute in Calgary, suddenly passed away. Leighton, who was in the East travelling with his exhibition was asked so replace him. Interviewed shortly after his arrival in Calgary, by a reporter perhaps a bit concerned by the fact that he was English, Leighton replied. 'Oh, I'm English—yes, that is—I dare say it's half and half by now. I 've been in Canada so often and so long that I'm really part Canadian, you know." In the same article in the Calgary Herald (November 30, 1929), he stated that he would "remain here until May. Longer, if the experiment proves a success. And I think it will."

The artist took his duties at the Institute very seriously, holding full day classes on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Thursday afternoons and evenings and Friday afternoons. At Christmas break, rather than relaxing, Leighton spent eight days sketching in the Mountains. Often waist-deep in snow with his easel buried almost out of sight, the cold stiffened the pigments on his palette and caused him to suffer from frostbite.

Leighton met Barbara Mary Harvey in 1930. She was a student in one of his classes. They were married in St. Stephen's Church on Sunday, May 31, 1931, and spent their honeymoon by packing into the Kananaskis area. This was also the year that Leighton formed the Alberta Society of Artists, and became its first president, and that the Edmonton Museum of Art held a joint exhibition of the work of A. C. Leighton and W.J. Phillips.

In October, Walter J. Phillips visited Leighton in Calgary and wrote of the experience (The Winnipeg Tribune, October 10, 1931):

Towards the end of our stay in Calgary, A C. Leighton telephoned to say he was coming to fetch us. He arrived very late, having driven all she way with the emergency
brake on. We piled in the car, and having succeeded, by the grace of God, in getting headed in the right direction, we started immediately on an exciting seven-mile journey to his new country home. For Leighton, though a beautiful painter, is an indifferent chauffeur. He finds it difficult to keep his eye on the road and his mind on the job.

We emerged an a bare expanse of prairie, a desolate spot at night, but one which affords in the daytime an unrivalled view of distant mountains. Here Leighton caused a house to be built during the summer, having then assumed that state of life m which a home is deemed a necessity. Mrs. Leighton welcomed us and led the way to the studio.

In the East many artists' homes have been built around a studio, but in the West I know of only two—Charles Scott's in Vancouver, and Leighton's in Calgary. Leighton's is in the best tradition— high, wide and handsome, with plenty of light—a beautiful room.

There was a large canvas in progress on the easel—a mountain scene. We looked also over a pile of watercolor drawings representing the summer's work in the Rockies and in Edmonton, where he conducted a summer school class in painting.

An amazing feature of these delightful drawings is the speed with which they were executed. Two hours, or two-and-a-half, seems absurdly short time in which to make a sketch of such size and finish.The drawing alone, always impeccable, would represent half a day's work for most men. Yet he never exceeds this time limit. The Edmonton drawings are all street scenes or compositions embodying old buildings, a type of subject which Leighton paints as well as any aquarellist living.

The evening passed quickly as it must when the conversation is happy and absorbing, and Mrs. Leighton prepared to drive us back to our hotel, The Palisser, in the belief that it would be safer for her than for him to do so.

Leighton's activities throughout the thirties were oriented towards teaching and exhibiting. He taught at the Summer Art School of the University of Alberta (Edmonton) in 1932. His programme was interrupted by a trip to England to visit his mother, who was gravely ill. She died that year. The following year, he initiated a summer art school at Sebe near Banff, where selected art students from Alberta and Saskatchewan were invited to attend. The experience was repeated again the following year, but by 1935, the art classes were being held in Banff, which led to the establishment of the now famous art school.

An undated report in the Calgary Herald gives us some idea of what one could expect to hear during a Leighton class:

"The true artist pants for himself alone and not for the public," said A. C. Leighton. Mr. Leighton went on to say that the real artist seeks achievement for himself in his painting that will not be merely "pretty" but have some character about it. The speaker said that while sunsets appealed to the public, the colouring was raw from an artistic standpoint. He showed several examples of pictures with bold reds, yellows and blues which would sell well, and were therefore nicknamed "pot boilers".

"An artist," went on the speaker, "needs knowledge and must study continually to obtain this. The drawing itself must be correct. It must have character and expression, although this may be expressed by very few lines," as he illustrated by several clever drawings. "Another thing, there must be no edge or outline around the figure. This is expressed through tone values, with which the artist must be familiar also."

"A third essential is design, the use of a pleasing design and color. Harsh colors annoy, and only really good paintings hold one's interest for all time." The speaker said that the use of reds, yellows and blues in profusion was not good art, but that if considerable gray were added, this would soften the effect and they could be used to advantage. "Gray, " he said, "is the color one can live longest with."

"Technique is that which draws the line between the professional and the amateur, and this is the most difficult thing for the public to judge in a picture."

An exhibition of Leighton's work was held at the Vancouver Art Gallery in May of 1935. Overwork was taking its toll, however, and by the end of the term in 1936, the artist was exhausted. The Leightons travelled to England for a rest and Acie went sketching in Devon and Cornwall. He never returned to his teaching positron and officially resigned in 1938.

Essentially retired by the fall of 1941, the Leightons were living at Chilliwack in British Columbia. They had purchased a 120-acre farm and arranged for a man and his family to work it for one-half of the profits. A year later, the man and his family moved out one night without notice, leaving the Leightons with fourteen cows, eight sows and their litters, as well as a crop of grain in the field. They were forced to work the farm themselves for over a year before they finally sold it

Another piece of land (forty acres) was purchased at Crescent Beach, near Vancouver, where the Leightons built a new house. Shortly after, the Leightons were back in Calgary. In spite of the milder climate, Acie found that there were just too many dull, rainy days on the Coast—not the best weather for a landscape painter. Another house was built at 35th Avenue and 4th Street, N. W., and Leighton continued to sketch in the Mountains and the Foothills, with occasional visits to England after the War.

In 1952, Seagram's commissioned Leighton to paint a view of the city of Calgary. Several other artists were also being commissioned to paint various cities, with the objective of sending the paintings on a worldwide tour. Leighton decided to paint Calgary at sunrise from the hill on the north side of the Bow River, overlooking the Centre Street Bridge.

This meant that the artist had to rise early in the morning and had less than an hour to capture the desired effect. The view had been chosen because Seagram's had requested that the mountains appear in the painting, and this proved to be only one way in which they were demanding. Accuracy was all important and Seagram's insisted on receiving the work as it progressed, so that they could check the details against an aerial photograph. When requested to paint scenes of Banff and Edmonton as well, Leighton refused, as he did nor wish to work under such conditions. He received $1,000 for the Calgary commission, and even then, the task was not complete. While in England, the painting was sent to him because it was damaged. Ascertaining that the damage was really too costly to repair, Leighton made an exact copy of the painting instead.

The frequent trips to England were not only for sketching. Leighton was seeking an answer to a stomach problem, with which he was afflicted. In 1953, the Leightons returned to England for almost two-and-a-half years, while he rested and painted. When they were finally back in Calgary, they began a new search for land. Having heard of some acreage available near Millarvrlle, they drove out to see it but were disappointed by what they found. It so happened, however, that the farmer who helped them to locate the Millarville land also had some acreage for sale. It overlooked a beautiful foothills valley, framed by the distant Rocky Mountains. Acie wrote a cheque for it on a page of his sketchbook and became the new owner on June 15, 1952. A home and the beginning of a new studio were constructed with the help of men from the region. It was called "Ballihamish" after a small schoolhouse which had once been located nearby.

The house was built in stages, which were sited for the views of the valley and the mountains. Soon the artist was producing watercolours of these views and of the surrounding area. After the death of A.C. Leighton's father, about 1960, Ballihamish was completed with money from the inheritance. It remains the home of the Leighton Foundation to this day. There would be two more major exhibitions during Leighton's lifetime. The Canadian Art Galleries in Calgary exhibited 51 watercolours in 1956 and The Edmonton Art Galley exhibited the 25 paintings from the J.F. Baron Collection to 1957.

Leighton's health was deteriorating. He made has last trip to England in 1962. Admitted to the General Hospital in Calgary in May of 1965, A.C. Leighton soon passed away. He was buried at Millarville, Alberta, not too far from Ballihamish. In tribute to the man, the Glenbow Institute organized a survey of Leighton's work in 1971.

 

 

 

 

 
 
  The Paintings (essay continued)