Beverly Cohn, Editor-at-Large
With beautiful classical music played by Robert Korda & His Stringed Trio filling the quaint Cambridge Art Gallery in Santa Monica, invited guests viewed a striking collection of paintings by noted Victorian British landscape painter, Benjamin Williams Leader. Upon his election to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1898, Leader was declared “one of the most truly national painters the British Isles has ever produced.”
According to the vivacious president of the gallery, Amanda E. Shore, who offers lecture programs by historians and curators throughout the year, her artistic mission is to bring the best of the 19th century art to contemporary audiences. “This exhibition is the largest known collection of Leader’s work in the world, a collection of paintings that define the artist and the subjects he chose.” It’s also the first exhibition of the painter in the U.S.
Shore, raised in the pastoral English countryside of Kent, grew up with an innate love of landscapes. “When I look into his paintings, he takes me home. His works are like windows into England, and one of his trademarks was his remarkable ability to capture atmospheric conditions – the amber luminosity of the afternoon sun and the wet lush heaviness of a rain-drenched countryside. No other landscape painter of the Victorian era captivated an audience like Benjamin Williams Leader.”
In addition to the charming Shore and the ravishing display of art, another highlight of the evening was a most informative, spellbinding talk by Ruth Wood, art historian and world’s authority on Leader. In what was a slice of Masterpiece Theatre come to life, a petite Wood, who lives in a thatched roof home on two acres in the English countryside, a short walk from Leader’s home in Burrows Cross, shined a light on the life and times of the artist who was born in 1831 in Worcester, the third of eleven children. His father, a civil engineer and amateur painter, greatly admired Constable, as did the young Leader.
The popularity of Leader’s work grew, and by the late 1850s he attracted the attention of the major London art dealers. However, despite his public acclaim, establishment success did not come until almost 30 years of exhibiting his work when he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and finally, at the age 67, a full Academician.
According to Wood, who trudged all over the countryside in hunting boots to authenticate the locations of Leader’s paintings, “The artist produced over 3,000 pieces, some of which are lost. He sold every painting, but the original titles and sizes of some may have been altered.” Wood took the rapt audience through a journey into some of the paintings, pointing out the three-dimensional depth and that “he always leads you diagonally into the painting.”
The Leader paintings, which took two-and-a-half years to assemble, will be on exhibit at the gallery through November 30 and range in price from $16,000 to $128,000. Even if you cannot afford to buy one, do visit the gallery and feast your eyes on these amazing paintings.
Cambridge Art Gallery, 200 S. 26th St., SM 90402, 310.451.2888, www.cambridgeartgallery.com.