Frederic, Lord Leighton

Portrait of Mrs Henry Evans Gordon (1845-1925)

Oil on canvas: 20.9(h) x 16.9(w) in /

53(h) x 42.9(w) cm

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BE 150



Scarborough 1830 – 1896 London


Portrait of Mrs Henry Evans Gordon (1845–1925)


Oil on canvas: 20 ⅞ x 16 ⅞ in / 53 x 42.9 cm

Frame size: 30 ¾ x 26 ⅞ in / 78.2 x 68.3 cm

In a Watts pattern gilded composition frame


Painted circa 1870-5



The sitter, then by descent to her granddaughter, Judith Furse

Sale, Sotheby’s, 12th July 1967, lot 110, bought Douglas

Old Hall Gallery, Iden, Rye

Thomas N. Capozello, New York, June 1969



London, Richard Green, Nineteenth Century Paintings, 2008, no. 18, pp. 52-53, illustrated in colour



Leonée and Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton, Yale University Press, London, 1975, p. 160, no.197

Victorian High Renaisance, exh. cat., Manchester City Art Gallery, Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, 1978-9, p. 104, no. 42

Malcolm Warner, Friendship and Loss in the Victorian Portrait: May Sartoris by Frederic Leighton, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2009, pp.48-9, illustrated in colour fig. 33



In this striking portrait of Mrs Henry Evans Gordon, the refined handling of her face is skilfully contrasted with the more spontaneous treatment of the fichu that covers her head and is knotted at her throat, as well as the bold and confident modelling of her pink, silk dress and the indication of flowers in her hand. The dark, slightly mysterious background, suggests the auditorium of a theatre with May, an accomplished amateur actress, depicted in costume on the stage. 


Mary Theodosia (May) Sartoris was born in 1845, the second child and only daughter of Adelaide Sartoris, the author and hostess who played such an important role in Leighton’s early life and career. Adelaide Sartoris (1815-1879) was born Adelaide Kemble, and came from a famous theatrical family. She was the niece of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons, the two greatest tragedians of their day and the subject of celebrated portraits by Lawrence, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Her father was the actor Charles Kemble and her sister Fanny Kemble, was also a distinguished actress.  Before her marriage in 1843, Adelaide Kemble had been a leading soprano, best known for her performance in the title role of Bellini’s Norma. By Edward, the son of a wealthy French banker, she had three children, Greville, May and Algernon. 


Leighton met the Sartoris family in Rome in February 1853, and until her death, Adelaide Sartoris was his closest friend and confidante.  Leighton was very fond of her daughter May and painted her several times. A drawing of May’s head, now in Bolton Art Gallery, is signed and dated May 1854 the year after he met Adelaide. Leighton’s first oil portrait of May can be dated to approximately 1860, when the sitter was about fifteen years of age. In the full-length portrait, she appears walking towards the viewer in her black riding dress with a bright red scarf, set against a background of the autumnal Hampshire countryside (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). A second drawing of her head, inscribed ‘souvenir affectueux des bonnes journées’, bears the date October 1862 (private collection).


May married Henry Evans Gordon, the son of a Major General, in April 1871 and the couple settled near to her parents at Warsash in Hampshire. Leighton painted another oil portrait of May in the 1870s (besides the present work) and one of her husband, which was among his submissions to the 1877 exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery. The three quarter length portrait of May, now at Leighton House Museum, dated 1875 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in that year, shows her in profile, with her head turned away from the viewer. She wears a terracotta coloured dress, with an elaborate silver belt and lace collar and cuffs. Behind her is a small black dog, a blue bow round its neck.


Frederic, Lord Leighton, Mrs Henry Evans Gordon (1845–1925), 1875.

© Leighton House Museum, London / The Bridgeman Art Library.


The present portrait therefore falls between Leighton’s two other important oil paintings of the sitter and exhibits a freshness and immediacy that neither of them possess. Dating from the early 1870s and showing May in her late twenties, this picture may have been painted at the time of her marriage to Henry. Henry and May Evans Gordon had four daughters and the eldest, Catherine, inherited the portrait from her mother in 1925. On her death, it passed to the actress, Judith Furse, the daughter of Catherine’s sister, Jean.


We are grateful to Leonée and Richard Ormond for their assistance with the cataloguing of this work.



Scarborough 1830 – 1896 London


The English painter and sculptor Frederic Leighton (nicknamed Jupiter Olympus by Edward Burne-Jones) was the established leader of the Victorian Neo-Classical School of painting.  Born in Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1830, he was brought up initially in London attending University College School from 1840-41. The son of a Doctor (Frederic Septimus Leighton), Frederic spent most of his youth travelling on the Continent with his family due to his mother’s ill health (Augusta Susan Nash).  They settled briefly in Berlin, Frankurt, Florence, Brussels and Paris, where Leighton was enrolled in various art schools, returning to the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt between 1850-2, where he studied under the Nazarene artist Edward von Steinle (1810-1886). 


Leighton travelled to Rome in 1852 and became friendly with Giovanni Costa and George Heming Mason, who later became leading figures of the Etruscans.  While in Rome, he began work on Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna Carried in Procession through the streets of Florence, his first Royal Academy picture, exhibited in 1855, and bought by Queen Victoria.  The reception of this picture heralded the start of an incredibly successful career which took him to the heights of his profession.


From 1855-59 Leighton was based in Paris where he met Jean-August-Dominique Ingres and Eugene Delacroix, as well as Ary Scheffer and Joseph Nicholas Robert-Fleury.  These years marked a period of transition for the artist from his early devotion to the Nazarenes to incorporate a broader combination of influences including the painterly effects and colouring of Venetian art, the Realist landscapes of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and classical subject matter.


Leighton also travelled to North Africa and the Near East between 1857 and 1882.  It was following his stay in Damascus in 1873 that he began to include decorative Eastern accessories in his work, as well as building the Arab Hall in his house at Holland Park from 1877-79, which is now a museum.  In the 1860 Leighton settled in London and moved towards painting scenes of classical mythology, which coincided with a rising interest in Hellenic art.  Leighton’s interest in Hellenic art also informed his representations of the idealised nude in sculpture, such as Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877.


Frederic Leighton became a Royal Academician in 1868, was elected President of the RA in 1878 and was increasingly thought of as leader of the Victorian art establishment until his death in 1896.  He was also knighted in 1878, made Baronet in 1886 and was raised to the peerage in 1896 just before his death – the only English artist to be accorded this honour.  After lying in state at the RA, he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. 




VictorianFrederic, Lord Leighton