February Fill Dyke by Benjamin Williams Leader

February Fill Dyke by Benjamin Williams Leader (1881)

My Daily Art Display returns to landscape painting but remains with English Victorian artists for the third day running.  My featured artist today is Benjamin Williams Leader who was to become one of the most acclaimed Victorian landscape painters during his lifetime.   He was born in Worcester in 1831 and he was the eldest of eleven children.  His father, Edward Leader Williams was a civil engineer and staunch non-conformist whilst his mother Sarah Whiting was a Quaker.  However after the two of them married in an Anglican church the Quaker establishment disowned them.     Benjamin was actually born as Benjamin Williams but in 1857 he added the surname, Leader, which was his father’s middle name, to distinguish himself from the rest of the Williams clan.

His father Edward was a keen amateur artist and was on friendly terms with John Constable.  Benjamin would often accompany his father on his painting expeditions along the Severn valley and soon he developed a love of art.  He attended the Royal Grammar School in Worcester and when he completed his schooling in 1845 was apprenticed as a draughtsman in his father’s engineering office.  However Benjamin never gave up his fondness for apinting and drawing and after many discussions with his father he was allowed to leave the world of engineering and follow his love of art.  His father gave his son one year to prove himself artistically.  Benjamin enrolled at the Worcester School of Design and one year later had achieved the position of “probationer” at the Royal Academy Schools.  A year on, and quite exceptionally for a first year student, he exhibited his first painting, Cottage Children Blowing Bubbles, which was bought by an American.  From then on he exhibited in every Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy up until 1922 when he had reached the fine old age of 91.

Leader married fellow artist Mary Eastlake in 1876.  She was an artist whose subject speciality was flowers.  She came from an artistic background being the grand-niece of Sir Charles Locke Eastlake who was President of the Royal Academy between 1850 until his death in 1865.  The marriage of the couple did not find favour with her family as Benjamin Leader was twenty-two years older than their daughter and whereas the Eastlake family came from a long line of Plymouth gentry, Benjamin’s family where  mere “trades people”.  However as is often the case, the noble Eastlake family had seen better financial days whereas Benjamin Leader, with the sale of his many paintings,  was financially sound.  They did marry and went on to have six children, one of whom Benjamin Eastlake Leader, became an artist but was sadly killed in action during the First World War.

Leader spent most of time painting landscape scenes of his beloved Worcestershire and the Severn Valley and in Lewis Lusk’s The Works of B.W.Leader, R.A. which was published in The Art Journal of 1901, Leader was quoted as saying:

“…The subjects of my pictures are mostly English.  I have painted in Switzerland, Scotland and a great deal of North Wales, but I prefer our English home scenes.  Riversides at evening time, country lanes and commons and the village church are subjects that I love and am never tired of painting…”

It was the Summer Exhibition of 1881 at the Royal Academy that Leader exhibited today’s featured work, February Fill the Dyke and it was highly commended.  The Art Journal of the day commented:

“…title and picture suit one another well.  The characteristics of the kind of weather which gives the epithet of “fill dyke” to the month of February are most truthfully depicted in the overflowing ponds and splashy roads and the pale, streaked evening sky.  It is a thoroughly English landscape…”

And so to today’s featured painting which is a beautiful landscape painting with the unusual title February Fill Dyke by Benjamin William Leader.  I was intrigued by the title of the painting, which I discovered comes from an old country rhyme:

February fill the dyke,
Be it black or be it white;
But if it be white,
It’s the better to like

It means that the ditches get filled in February either with mud or with snow.  The first thing which struck me about this painting was its realism.  This was not an Italianate landscape painting with the sun glinting on a beautiful landscape.  This is a painting of the fields in Leader’s native Worcestershire.  The wet ground is being warmed slightly by the late winter’s sun.  Leader has humanised the scene by adding a couple of children and their dog heading home through pools of water on the muddy path.  Ahead of them, the farmer stands at the gate and we can see a woman in front of the cottage busily collecting firewood.

This is what we see when we go for a walk in the countryside on a wet winter’s day.  Before us we have what appears to be a cold and somewhat miserable end to a winter’s day.  Darkness is rapidly approaching and it is time to get back indoors to the safety of our home and the warmth of an open fire and maybe a hot scented bath which will banish the lingering thoughts of what lies outside.  It is a type of day in which the cold and dampness moves stealthily into one’s bones adding to our aches and pains.  Yet having said all that  is this not truly a beautiful painting?  Maybe it is the type of painting you enjoy looking at when you are sitting cosily in the warmth of your house

I do like landscape paintings even more so if they replicate an actual view.  I do understand and appreciate idealised landscapes where an artist has put together various pieces of landscapes he likes, to finish with his idea of a perfect landscape.  What I am not very fond of is a painting of a landscape which seems to bear no resemblance to the scene it is supposed to be portraying.  I am not an artist and have never had the ability to draw anything that one would recognise so I suppose I shouldn’t criticise but we all have the right to freedom of speech so I will exercise my right.  I watched a documentary the other day which was about landscape painting and we were with this artist who was in a field painting a scene with a mountain in the background.   When he finished it we saw his work which was depicting what we had all been looking at but the landscape we had seen was not on the artist’s canvas .  I wonder whether he read my thoughts as he said that his painting was not necessarily a true reflection of what we and he were looking at but it was the view that was conjured up in his mind at the time.  I am not sure I can go along with that thought process but maybe for any of you artists out there you will understand what he was saying.  However if he had given me the painting to hang on my wall I would have no idea what it was all about!