Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Fay and Babbo

The Gay Love Letters of Henry Greville to Frederic, Lord Leighton

Copyright © 2014 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Photograph of Lord Leighton in his studio

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–96), the "Great Olympian" of Victorian art, became President of the Royal Academy in 1878. The enormous popularity of his paintings did much to promote the influence of art upon life, and to generally increase the remuneration paid to artists for their work. Widely suspected to have been gay, he lead a thoroughly respectable life in England and spent his summers in Egypt and North Africa whose societies took a more realistic attitude to bodily pleasures. His paintings of large historical tableaux and female allegories, with almost prurient scenes of partially clad women in baths, generally conceal his real interests, though there survive several male nudes and also two powerfully homoerotic bronze statues, "The Sluggard" and "Athlete Struggling with a Python." The model for the latter was Angelo Colarossi, who also posed nude for John Singer Sargent's preparatory drawings for the Boston Public Library in 1890, in a private album that is obviously homoerotic.

Leighton's bronze The Sluggard Leighton's bronze Athlete Struggling with a Python

Leighton's large house in London presented an austere face to the street, but inside was an Eastern fantasy with a large Arab Hall, where he would entertain Rossetti and Simeon Solomon (the latter ruined by a homosexual conviction), and a magnificent studio where he would paint guardsmen. Henry James in his story "The Private Life" portrays Leighton as "Lord Mellifont," and artist whose "reputation was a kind of gilded obelisk, as if he had been buried beneath it."

Leighton was unmarried, left no diary, lived alone and always travelled alone, and has often been suspected of being secretly homosexual. However, later in life it is believed he may have loved his favourite female model, Dorothy Dene. Recently there was discovered some letters from the Italian painter Giovanni Costa, a friend of Leighton, to another English artist, in which Costa says that Leighton was "without his wife" at an exhibition, and later, "his wife keeps the reception rooms barred to us". But Dene never lived with Leighton, and these references are confusing and may come from some sort of misunderstanding, or even playfulness. They do not suggest that Leighton himself referred to Dene as his "wife".

Self-Portrait by Lord Leighton

However Leighton's sexuality may have developed over his lifetime, earlier in life, Leighton's first patron and intimate friend was Henry Greville, a wealthy aristocrat whom he met in Florence in 1856. Leighton's letters to Greville are lost. Greville's letters to Leighton are obviously love letters: he nicknamed Frederic "Fay" and called himself "Babbo" or "Bimbo" or "Babbino"; they often begin "My dear Boy" and end "Addio, carissimo." He frequently addresses Leighton (who was 26 at the time) as "mon petit dernier" ("my little boy"). Greville's letters reveal him to be an old sweetie or a silly old queen, depending on how you look at such things. He died in 1872. There is also a series of letters from Leighton to "Johnny," John Hanson Walker, one of many young male artists whom he helped and befriended, of whom he made many studies. Greville often gave commissions to these young men through Leighton, and teases Leighton by calling them his "moddles". The following letters were written by Greville to Leighton on his return from a trip to Paris soon after they met.

Leighton's painting of Icarus being fitted with wings by his father


April 25 [1856]

Dear Fay, –
          You are rather a bad boy not to have given either Ad. [Greville's sister Adelaide] or me a signe de vie, but as I have not seen her to-day, she may have heard from you. We both want to do so very much, so pray write ME a line directly. I only do so to-day to say that at my suggestion Ad. and I rushed off yesterday again to Colnaghi [the art dealers] to find out if the Queen or Albert knew of your picture being at his shop . . . I am very seedy with an affection of the bronchial tubes, and very low, and would give anything to see you, my dear boy, but must have patience till the pleasant moment of having you under my roof arrives. . . . I am starved to death here, and Ad. and I do nothing but grumble. She and I dined tête-à-tête last night, and slept and coughed through the evening with the occasional intermission of talking of you – you old Fay! . . . Now pray write and tell me all about yourself – and the moddles – and how you are – and how you get on – and what you do. Don't drag off to dull parties, but go to bed early.
          God bless you. Amammi, ne ho gran bisogno.

Monday, April 28th [1856]

Dear good Fay, –
          . . . I am very seedy and confined to the house by throat, bronchial, unceasing cough, swelled glands, bad eyes – and should not inflict myself and ailments upon you, but that it is a solace and a comfort to causer avec "mon petit dernier" – a cognomen which smiles UPON me – and made me smile. Sister Adelaide tea'd with me last night en tête à tête. . . . Adelaide has just been here, and brought me your dear letter. I don't see any present prospect of the fire of my affliction being extinguished or allowed to grow dim, so you may make your mind easy on that score, excellent Fay. I feel for your loneliness, and know what a contrast it must present with the sweet fellowship we have held together so unceasingly for those last two months. The only thing you gain by the loss of your people is more time, and a later repast. I don't doubt poor Mamma being unhappy at leaving you, her true and only Benjamin, and for an indefinite time. I can judge by what I felt at parting with mon petit dernier, and with the hope of so soon greeting him again. . . . my petit dernier (I wish you were my son, Fay!) . . .

August 26, 1856

My dearest Fay, –
          . . . Thanks, you dear boy, for your letter just received. I can understand your pleasure at finding yourself in your old haunts again, with your old friend and master to whom you owe so much. It is a great comfort to me to find that he likes your drawings, though I never doubted his doing so. I was amused by your account of the Pimp and Ballerina, whose modesty seems to have attracted you more than that of the Russian Princess. . . . I saw Sister A. yesterday on her way through, but my visit was spoilt by the – Girls and Cigala, who (as he never made love to me) appears to me merely a bon sabreur and horse fancier. You know my opinion of the young ladies who, par parentèse, adore you. . . . Charles says he can't think where your hat box can be – he is in ecstasies with your old trousers, which have come out bran [sic] new and a capital fit! You would be quite envious if you could see them.
          Good-bye, best of Fays. . . . God bless you, you dear good fellow.
                    – Love from your fond old

Thursday, August 28 [1856]

Dearest Fay, –
          . . . God bless you, my very dear boy – you are not so fond of me as I am of you – be sure of it. Take care of yourself, and write to and love your old

September 9 [1856]

My dearest Fay, –
          . . . [in response to criticism of his painting of Pan] It makes me so sick, all that cant about impropriety, but there is so much of it as to make the sale of "nude figures" very improbable, and therefore I hope you will turn your thoughts entirely to well-covered limbs, and paint no more Venuses for some time to come. . . . You dear boy, I am so glad you enjoy your Venice – which is all very pretty no doubt, but I hate stinks and fleas – and they abound there. I hate wobbling in a boat and walking in dirty alleys, so I don't envy you at all. . . .
                    – Your old loving father,

September 29 [1856]

My dearest Fay, –
          Here I am, sleeping in London on my way to Worsley to-morrow morning, and I have got my Mère Augusta occupying your room; the first female I have ever housed or fed, and it will be a rehearsal for Sister Ad. . . .
          Good-night, you dear boy. I can't frank this, as it is late, and I don't know how, so you must pay this time. Write soon, and answer my letters.
          I don't quite understand what it is you are doing in Italy except amuse yourself. Is there any other — ? How long will it be before I see you?
          – Addio, caro caro, tanto tanto,

SOURCE: Mrs Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, 2 vols. (London: George Allen, 1906).

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