Leader, Benjamin Williams [formerly Benjamin Williams]
- Tim Barringer
Leader, Benjamin Williams [formerly Benjamin Williams] (1831–1923), landscape painter, was born on 12 March 1831 in Worcester, the second son and the third of eleven children of Edward Leader Williams (1802–1879) and his wife, Sarah Whiting (1801–1888). Although Benjamin's birth was recorded in the Quaker birth register, his parents are recorded as non-members of the Society of Friends, having been disowned following their Anglican marriage at St Giles's, Reading, in 1827. His father, himself an amateur landscape painter, was a prosperous ironmonger and engineer in Worcester. Williams senior took a keen interest in Worcester Athenaeum, a scientific and literary institute which also held significant art exhibitions.
Benjamin Williams attended Worcester Royal Grammar School and the Silver Street Academy, Worcester, whence he moved on to an informal apprenticeship in his father's firm. He is also recorded as having worked as a clerk in a bank in Worcester. His desire to become an artist manifested itself early, however, and he pursued this ambition at the Worcester School of Design, where he attended evening classes. On 24 December 1853, when he was twenty-two, a study from the antique completed at Worcester won him admission to the Royal Academy Schools in London, but he seems not to have taken up his place there. The academy offered little to the landscape painter, and Williams seems to have favoured this branch of art from the beginning. His earliest surviving works, dating from the mid-1850s, are, however, not pure landscapes but, rather, brightly lit rural narrative paintings in landscape settings, influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism. One of these appeared in each Royal Academy exhibition from 1854 to 1856.
These works had been exhibited under the name ‘B. Williams’, and sent to London from the family's home address, Diglis House, Worcester. The name Williams, however, presented a problem for a young artist seeking renown, since a large family of landscape painters of this name was already well established. Indeed, three of the six sons of the painter Edward Williams (1782–1855), not related to Benjamin's family, had begun to adopt their wives' maiden names in order to establish an independent identity. From 1857 Benjamin adopted his father's second name, Leader, using ‘Williams’ as his middle name from 1858. Under this final form—Benjamin Williams Leader—from which he never deviated, he built a rising reputation as a painter of highly finished landscapes close in style to those of his friend George Vicat Cole, with whom he sketched at Albury, in Surrey, in 1858. He was to continue to paint in this region for the rest of his life and was eventually to abandon his native Worcestershire to move there permanently in 1889.
However, it was as a painter of Welsh scenery, notably the mountains of north Wales, that Leader secured a high reputation and considerable prosperity. His works of the 1860s—carefully crafted, replete with detail, and often highly coloured—became popular with dealers and middle-class patrons. In A Welsh Churchyard (1863; London, Guildhall Art Gallery), for example, a meticulous rendering of foreground detail and some more distant yew trees is complemented by an effect of brilliant sunshine in the background, with figures of local women and children providing picturesque staffage.
A trip to Paris in 1865, where Autumn's Last Gleam was displayed prominently at the Universal Exhibition, allowed Leader to see work by painters of the Barbizon school and while there he copied a landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. From about this time (and perhaps as a result of this French influence), he began to broaden his style, adopting freer and more visible brushwork and often aiming for more dramatic effects of lighting. This tendency culminated in February Fill Dyke (1881; Birmingham City Museums), Leader's most celebrated work, in which a golden sunset is strikingly reflected in standing water. Although the scene was actually sketched in November, the painting's title, drawn from an old country rhyme, 'February fill the dyke / Be it black or be it white …', added to the painting's popular appeal. Leader's work continued to be admired in Paris, and following his success at the 1889 Universal Exhibition, he was awarded the decoration of the Légion d'honneur.
From the 1850s Leader had aspired to membership of the Royal Academy, where he was a regular and prolific exhibitor: 216 of his paintings appeared there over a period of sixty-nine years from 1854, including three oil sketches exhibited posthumously in the exhibition of 1923. His name was first put forward as a candidate for membership in 1867; it was not until 1883, following the exhibition of ‘In the evening shall there be light’ (priv. coll. Greenwich, Connecticut, USA) that he secured election as an associate of the academy. This painting was another dramatic landscape in which the sunset beyond a deserted graveyard seems to offer the promise of redemption. Leader had to wait until 1898 for full membership of the Royal Academy, depositing as his diploma work The Sand Pit, Burrows Cross (1899; RA), which pays homage to the work of John Constable. Leader's later work, from 1890, tends to repetitiousness, though the industrial landscape The Manchester Ship Canal: Works in Progress at Eastham, Sept. 1890 (National Trust), unique in his œuvre, shows the artist at his most vigorous. The painting was commissioned by Lord Egerton, the chairman of the canal company, on the suggestion of the artist's elder brother, Sir Edward Leader Williams, who was chief engineer of the canal. Although Leader continued to paint until 1920, there was a gradual decline in the quality of his work in his last years.
There is little to note of Leader's uneventful personal life. He was married on 29 August 1876, at the age of forty-five, to Mary Eastlake (1853–1938), whom he always called Fluff, at Buckland Monachorum in Devon. The destination of their honeymoon is recorded in Unterseen, Interlaken: Autumn in Switzerland (1878; Royal Holloway Collection). They had two sons (of whom the elder, Benjamin Eastlake Leader, was killed in action in 1916) and four daughters. In 1889 the family moved from the Lodge at Whittington in Worcestershire to Burrows Cross House, south of Gomshall in Surrey, which had been designed by Norman Shaw for the artist Frank Holl. Leader died there on 22 March 1923 and was buried in Shere churchyard. Leader's work, highly regarded in its own day, has been unjustly neglected since. Although the sheer quantity of his output inevitably resulted in many mundane canvases, the best of his works, from before 1890, achieve an attractive synthesis of Pre-Raphaelite rigour and Francophile freedom of gesture. The popularity of Leader's paintings can perhaps be attributed to their accessible presentation of ideal English and Welsh landscapes, much in demand among urban Victorian patrons.
- R. Wood, Benjamin Williams Leader RA, 1831–1923 (1998)
- F. Lewis, B. W. Leader RA (1971)
- J. Dafforne, ‘British artists, their style and character, no. XCVII: Benjamin Williams Leader’, Art Journal, 33 (1871), 45–7
- A. Chester, ‘The art of Mr B. W. Leader, RA’, Windsor Magazine (Jan 1910), 211–24
- A. Chester, ‘The art of Mr B. W. Leader, RA’, Windsor Magazine (March 1911), 451–63
- A. Chester, ‘The art of Mr B. W. Leader, RA’, Windsor Magazine (May 1912), 693–704
- L. Lusk, ‘B. W. Leader RA’, Art Annual, 3 (1901), 1–31
- priv. coll., account books
- priv. coll., diaries
- priv. coll., records of paintings sold
- B. W. Leader, self-portrait, oils, 1884, Aberdeen Art Gallery
- mechanical process postcard, 1898, repro. in J. Maas, The Victorian art world in photographs (1984)
- H. von Herkomer, group portrait, oils, 1908 (The Council of the Royal Academy), Tate collection
- B. W. Leader, self-portrait, oils, priv. coll.
- R. Taylor, woodcut (after photographs), BM
- photograph, NPG
Wealth at Death
£86,185 15s.: probate, 25 May 1923, CGPLA Eng. & Wales