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!

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

8 thoughts on “February Fill Dyke by Benjamin Williams Leader”

  1. I went up to Birmingham on Monday and visited the Art Gallery which has, as you say, some excellent Pre Raphaelites. I was very taken by this picture too and was pleased to see it in your blog. I was first interested in it because it is Worcestershire, but I think there is a lovely feeling of winter light in the picture and I very much emjoyed reading your comments about it. There was another one there, which was in the waterscapes section and was painted in the most fantastic blue, which I couldn’t decide if I loved or hated. 🙂 I think I feel like that about a lot of Pre Raphaelites. We also went to Birmingham cathedral which has a Burne Jones window I knew nothing about

  2. I bought the print of this painting from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The actual painting is huge and it’s stunning. It reminded me of so many winter days growing up in Warwickshire. I had the print framed and it now hangs above my fireplace in my very English living room in Washington State. I never tire of looking at this image it evokes so many memories of England as it was in my youth.

  3. i first caught a glimpse of this painting back in 2004 when i picked up the ‘the evening watch’ cd by gustav holst(helios discs).at first i thought to myself,”should i or shouldn’t i?”.my heart leapt with joy when i saw that on the track listing,that the first 2 pieces were psalms,though,and that persuaded me to buy the aforementioned cd. i later wrote to ,well,e-mailed charles legge at the daily mail about the location of the scene(on 18th of march 2011 it was published in his daily mail column entitled”answers to correspondents”).very exciting news,it was,although the scene has changed dramatically over the years.the cottages have gone for example.

  4. I came on line to find out more about this painting and the painter. I have an oil copy of it hanging in my home. It was painted by and given to my dad by my now deceased brother. I was told my brother did his excellent copy from a postcard. I don’t know where the card was obtained, though we did live in Birmingham in our youth, so maybe my brother brought it back from the Bham Museum & Art Gallery and kept it for years! (He was middle-aged & living in Wales when he painted it). I was amazed when I saw the very large original; my brother’s painting is just 18″x15″. Anyway, I love it – for all that I have read, and more.

  5. Those old postcards must have been very faithful to the original, unlike ones iI purchased from the Birmingham Art Gallery a few years ago in which the colours were quite distorted. .My uncle, Stanley Harrison, also made a copy,16″ x 12″ from the Birmingham Art Gallery postcard in 1935, given to my Grandmother and eventually passed to me. It hangs in my lounge in Handsworth today and has been much admired over the years and which is very close to the original in detail and colouring

  6. I found this interesting post while doing a search on Benjamin Leader. I’ve just inherited a Leader painting from my mother that has much of the atmosphere that you describe – “The wet ground is being warmed slightly by the late winter’s sun.” Not convinced it’s an original as lots of reproductions around called ‘Burnished Sky’ that look identical. Looks beautiful but doesn’t sit well if insuring a reporduction.

  7. To me, this is a most wonderful painting. As soon as I saw it I exclaimed, “That’s Redditch(Worcestershire)! – where I used to play as a child”. I would very much like to know where this scene was painted. juliahharris@hotmail.com 9 Nov 2016

    1. I was spellbound when I saw this original picture in Bermingham Picture Gallery. I bought a postcard of it and wanted to have a replica painted. After few years I found an artist from Gdansk in Poland and he painted me a smaller version of that original. I am so pleased to have the same scenery in my private collection. This beautiful oil painting is hanging in very nice gilded 19th century frame in my family home in Poland. I really would like to know were exactly is this spot in Worcestershire.

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