The tragic muse
Although biographers have always presented Frederic Leighton as a solitary man, his relationship with his model, the actress Dorothy Dene, was far closer than has been acknowledged. With many major works returning to the Leighton House Museum this month, it is time to recognise how artist and model came to share their lives with each other
It has been repeated many times that Frederic Leighton (1830-96) lived a solitary life. For such a public figure, there is a remarkable lack of evidence and insight into his personal life, leading many to the conclusion that he didn't have one. However, new information suggests that from 1879, the life of Leighton was interwoven with that of his model, Dorothy Dene (Ada Pullan, 1859-99; Fig. 1), to a greater extent than has previously been acknowledged. He not only supported her to an exceptional degree, using his many connections to further her career, but may even have shared his home with her.
Ada Pullan, the daughter of an impoverished mechanical engineer from south London, was just 19 at the start of 1879. Her mother was bed-ridden, soon to die, her father had deserted the family and she, with elder brother, Thomas, was now the carer and provider for five younger siblings, including a sister of five and a brother of two. With limited options, Pullan found work as an artist's model. She began by modelling for Louisa Starr, and perhaps others, at the studios in Holland Park Road, Kensington. Here she was spotted by amateur artist Emily Barrington, Leighton's neighbour and later biographer, who noticed 'a young girl with a lovely white face, dressed in deepest black, evidently a model'. Soon Leighton had 'engaged her as a model for the head'. (1) Barrington is careful to convey that Pullan was engaged in the more respectable form of modelling: 'from the head'. Nude modelling was then viewed very differently. Whether or not Pullan began by modelling 'from the head', she would soon be seen nude on the walls of the Royal Academy.
Leighton was then at the top of his profession. Recently elected President of the Royal Academy, he was a celebrity artist, who commanded considerable respect and influence. Before long Pullan and her sisters were travelling from their rented flat in Clapham to Leighton's imposing studio-house in Kensington. Sensitive to the financial situation of the family, Leighton encouraged others to employ Pullan as a model and she worked for several artists: John Everett Millais, George Frederic Watts, Val Prinsep, Herbert Schmalz and Barrington, all neighbours or close friends of Leighton.
Leighton's first works to include Pullan were exhibited at the Academy in 1880. Sister's Kiss and Light of the Harem were both modelled by Pullan and her youngest sister Isabella (Lena), while Crenaia showed Pullan as a full-length semi-nude in a sensual pose (Fig. 3). Leighton's earliest paintings therefore present her as the occupant of a harem and expose her nude body, although her then anonymity protected her from any social stigma. Pullan would...