Leighton's art deserves to be more widely known. In Canada it should be measured against the best related work of his contemporaries. It seldom has been. Such an exhibition would place his watercolours alongside those of David Milne, Carl Schaeffer, Goodridge Roberts, and his compatriot, w. J. Phillips. In such an exhibition, how would it fare? At its best best, very well. Nevertheless, I suspect it would look curiously out of place, even in relation to the watercolours of Phillips.
In such a setting Leighton's art would look immediately English and academic, despite its reliance on Canadian subjects -- and that would be a stigma. In this century, we've tended to look down on academies of all kinds, generally for good reason. By the early 20th Century, Britain's Royal Academy had become a bastion of conservatism. It opposed French painting, especially work by what Roger Fry called the post impressionists. French painting after Manet was seldom seen in England, despite the efforts of Fry and a handful of modernists.8 Indeed, if his library is any indication, Leighton's discovery of 19th Century French painting was almost as belated as his discovery of British modernism.9
French painting never really embraced watercolour (at least not after Delacroix, who admired British art). In that, his primary medium, Leighton gained strength of his British academism. Although this sets it apart from watercolours by his Canadian contemporaries, this separation wouldn't be entirely to Leighton's detriment. Milne, Schaeffer, Roberts, and even Phillips were modernists. Leighton was not. The spare bold design of even his late work owes more to John Sell Cotman than to Monet or Cézanne. At his best, he stands up to any of the Canadians.
If Leighton's academic Englishness has inhibited his reputation in Canada, that reputation has been limited further by his constitutional Englishness. Leighton came to know few Canadian painters. Because he was so tenuously connected with the Canadian art world, he remains something of an artist without a country.
The fact that Leighton's art was seldom purchased by museums during his lifetime inhibited his recognition in its own way. Few art museums existed in western Canada during the late '20s and early '30s when he first painted there. while his work attracted attention in the East during the late '20s, at the time he was regarded as a visiting British painter. Thereafter, his work found an audience primarily in Calgary. Certainly the great depression didn't help his sales during the '30s. By the time he returned after the war he was virtually a recluse, avoiding contact with his fellow artists in Calgary, let alone those in the remainder of Canada. Today, apart from a substantial collection at the Leighton Foundation and smaller collections at the whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, the Glenbow Museum, and The Edmonton Art Gallery, most Leighton paintings remain in private hands in Calgary.
Ironies exist, of course. The supreme one is that Leighton's inspiration lay behind the establishment of the Banff School of Fine Arts. That School was dominated subsequently by artists firmly entrenched in the Canadian establishment, not the least of whom was A. Y. Jackson. Did Leighton feel any sympathy towards the practice and ideals of the Group of Seven? Apart from a shared interest in mountain wilderness, I doubt it. Jackson and Leighton, one gregarious the other reclusive, must have been antithetical spirits.
8 Post impressionism was introduced by Fry in 1923 at an exhibition at London's Grafton Galleries. Did Leighton see it?)
9 Leighton's library of art books is dominated by works on the important British painters, especailly the watercolourists and members of the Royal Academy. Significantly, the library includes no books on Canadian art published during his lifetime. Leighton appears to have remained indifferent to Canadian art throughout his working life. Until 1935, his library was dominated by books on English watercolour and Academic paitning (Leighton was proud of his membership in the Royal Academy). After the war his library picks up works by some French impressionists and English modernists. (The generally higher tonality and bolder handling of his later oils may owe something to impressionism. The organization of some of his late watercolours suggests a passing interest in a flattish layout.) British taste dominated his art and his library to the end.
On to Chronology