Lord Leighton meets Ram Shergill

Special Collaboration with Leighton House Museum

Comments by our Editor in Chief Ram Shergill

Artwork by Lord Leighton

Photography by Ram Shergill

 

For London Fashion Week Leighton House Museum has teamed up with our Editor in Chief, internationally acclaimed British fashion photographer, Ram Shergill, who has picked 5 of his favourite paintings by Lord Leighton and married them to some of his finest works. The images and comment by Shergill could be seen throughout Fashion Week across social media, but for those who missed out on this extraordinary collaboration we present the full feature to you here.

Frederic Leighton: Bianca (c.1881) / photograph by Ram Shergill, Bianca is wearing a 14th century garment

Frederic Leighton: Bianca (c.1881) / photograph by Ram Shergill, Bianca is wearing a 14th century garment


I love this image of Bianca. One of my favorite models is, in fact, called Bianca and I have taken many photographs of her in a similar style.  Bianca’s gaze is sullen, introspective and yet nonchalant. Her hands and skin are delicate. She is not looking at us, she is looking behind us - something that I always try to capture in my photography as I find it creates a magical and inviting pose.

With the natural daylight in this image being very soft, fabric flows around the breasts of Bianca with enticing sensuality. However her folded arms do not reach out to us suggesting she is protecting herself from any advances.

This image has the softness that designers try to convey in their collections such as Chanel haute couture by Karl Lagerfeld or Margiela by John Galliano. The ruching of the sleeve and the juxtaposition of a flowing white fabric and a black strap on the garment create a graphic and timeless look, almost like an early Vivienne Westwood in her Pirates collection or the current, primarily monochrome collection by Ricardo Tisci for Givenchy.

The placement of the bows in Leighton’s painting is very subtle so as not to distract from the subject.  Was this part of the artist’s vision or was it simply the actual garment he saw before him when portraying Bianca?

Leighton’s background in the painting reminds me of the luscious fabrics adorned with heavy embroidery that I also love using in my photographs. I adore the depth and shine of heavy fabrics create in a painting or photograph. 

Frederic Leighton: Head of an Italian Model (c.1884) / photograph by Ram Shergill, Riki Hall in Ziad Ghanem couture

Frederic Leighton: Head of an Italian Model (c.1884) / photograph by Ram Shergill, Riki Hall in Ziad Ghanem couture

This haunting image of a very handsome Italian man is relevant today as it could almost be seen as a ‘fashion portrait’. Beautifully groomed and poetic in appearance, he looks like an affluent artist or nobleman, a man of distinction. His hair looks like it is slightly moving in the wind. The subject looks like a choice of model that many campaigns and editorials are using in fashion right now, the beard has been very en vogue for a while – and facial hair is not frowned upon like it was in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The rich colouring in this painting is reflected in collections by Gianni Versace, who loved the Old Masters and focused on opulence and performance. The almost god-like gaze and pose of Leighton’s Italian is sensual and provocative to both men and women.

What I try to achieve in my own work is to convey the sensuality and delight of the fabric touching the model’s bare skin or even the eroticism implicated in certain clothes. The thick purple brocade coat in this painting is resting heavily on the man’s shoulders, while the white shirt might feel a little crisp.

The different tones of the backdrop add to the allure, reminding us of a green-blue sea and sky. The different tones and hues of blues lead the viewer back to be transfixed by the beautiful eyes of the subject.

Frederic Leighton: A Noble Lady of Venice / photograph by Ram Shergill, model is wearing a 14th century garment

Frederic Leighton: A Noble Lady of Venice / photograph by Ram Shergill, model is wearing a 14th century garment

What attracts me to this image is the opulence of the garments that the lady is wearing as well as her elegant headscarf. The detail of the garment draped around her reminds me of the couture designers I am constantly working with, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, and their Zardozi work. It is also reminds of the great fashion designer Christian Lacroix’s haute couture with lavish and chic costume extravaganzas that still remain wearable.

The delicate china vase is evidence of Lord Leighton’s travels and the many elements he worked with and united so effortlessly, not only in his wonderful paintings, but also in the architecture of Leighton House itself. Different structures such as the bas relief in the background of this painting unite with the stone column to the left.

The flowers in the vase themselves, might spark a variety of emotions in the Noble Lady, but are clearly objects of her desire or affection. She holds the vase gently, almost like a person caressing their loved one. The flower motif continues on the dress – and perhaps, figuratively speaking, into her soul. A passing thought, a romance, or a reflection of herself?

Frederic Leighton: Colour sketch for Countess Brownlow (1878 - 1879) / photograph by Ram Shergill, model is wearing cloth and drape by Ziad Ghanem

Frederic Leighton: Colour sketch for Countess Brownlow (1878 - 1879) / photograph by Ram Shergill, model is wearing cloth and drape by Ziad Ghanem

I always find colour sketches very inviting as the blurred forms let you imagine more and lead you in. The face of the Countess is not worked out here which draws the eye even more to the garment and background and overall composition.

The swathes of the fabric transmit the movement of the Countess, the form of her body and the wind that might be catching the fabric are suggested by well-placed brushstrokes. The fluffy clouds and part-blue sky makes us think of the comfortable life the Countess might have led, with her puppy joyously jumping by her feet. Even the red colour of the flowers sparks my imagination and fantasy further, adding an element of lust and passion to the English countryside in the background. I have been using lots of flowers in my photographs as they add a sense of romanticism.

Looking at this painting from a fashion perspective, the fabric seems soft and sensual, almost like a sari, draped in a skillful way. Perhaps the Countess travelled and took inspiration from the British Raj? Or perhaps Lord Leighton had just traveled to Greece and returned with wonderfully fine cottons?

Flowing gowns nipped tightly at the waist with a band can be seen on many runways today. Alexander Wang and Herve Leger have predominantly showcased monochrome collections. We can only wait for what Chanel might have in store for this year’s Paris Fashion Week.

Frederic Leighton: Head of a Italian Male / photograph by Ram Shergill, model is wearing Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla

Frederic Leighton: Head of a Italian Male / photograph by Ram Shergill, model is wearing Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla

I particularly like this image as it has a certain realness about it. I love the darkness of it as it takes me right back to the time when I first started photography. There is something quite dark and macabre about this portrait.

The image reminds me of when Alexander McQueen showed me some of his art and photography books and said that he was into ‘the macabre’ - something that mesmerized me. This image captures a ‘sensual’ macabre for me as it is a magnificent portrait of a beautiful profile.  But there also seems to be something sinister in the way the subject is looking up as if to pray, or to perhaps reflect on something that he has done or is intending to do. Since meeting McQueen, my work has always contained this edge.

The palette is similar to some of the great paintings by Caravaggio who has inspired various works by me. The lighting lends itself to the display of light-coloured fabrics in combination with the pale skin tones of the human body.

Arab Hall at Leighton House Museum ©Will Pryce

Arab Hall at Leighton House Museum ©Will Pryce

About Leighton House Museum

Leighton House Museum is the former home and studio of the leading Victorian artist, Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896). It uniquely combines an exceptional collection of Victorian art with the intimacy of a private home. Designed by Leighton's great friend, the architect George Aitchison RA, the house acted as a showcase for artistic taste as well as to entertain and impress the foremost artists, collectors and celebrities of the day.

The exterior of Leighton House gives little clue as to the treasures that lie within. The highlight of any visit is the extraordinary Arab Hall which reflects Leighton’s fascination with the Middle East where he travelled widely. This room was built between 1877 and 1881 to display his outstanding collection of 16th and 17th-century Islamic tiles and also contains mosaic floors, a gold mosaic frieze, set beneath a gilded dome, and a calming fountain.

Leighton’s spacious painting studio is located on the first floor, with its large north-facing window, picture slot and screen. Leighton produced all the works of his mature career in this room.

About Frederic, Lord Leighton

Frederic Leighton was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1830 to a wealthy medical family, the second of three children. At an early age he showed an interest in drawing, and went on to study art on the continent, despite his parents’ early reservations about his choice of career. Leighton did undeniably succeed – Queen Victoria bought his first major painting in 1855, and in 1878 he reached the pinnacle of his profession, with his election as President of the Royal Academy of Arts. He also received numerous international honours and was highly regarded by his peers.  However, the man himself remains something of an enigma. His private life was closely guarded – he lived alone, travelled alone and left no diaries. Even his letters make little reference to his personal circumstances.

Just before his death in 1896, Leighton was ennobled, becoming Baron Leighton of Stretton. He is the only British artist to have been awarded this honour and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral

 

Special thanks to Leighton House Museum, Daniel Robbins and Ana Garcia for making this collaboration possible.