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Sir Richard Francis Burton

17 of 24 portraits on display in Room 23 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sir Richard Francis Burton, by Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton, 1872-1885 -NPG 1070 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Sir Richard Francis Burton

by Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton
oil on canvas, 1872-1885
24 in. x 20 1/8 in. (610 mm x 510 mm) overall
NPG 1070


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Inscriptionback to top

On reverse of canvas, stamp: ‘CHARLES ROBERSON / LONG ACRE LONDON’.
On stretcher label inscr. in ink: ‘W.F. & S. No.1088 / s c & v repair damages / 19th Aug 70’.
On frame:
(a) stencil in red: ‘No. 3615’;
(b) printed label: ‘189 /CHICAGO [partly obscured]’;
On backboard, five labels:
(a) ‘Manchester City Art Gallery / Victorian High Renaissance / 1 Sept – 15 Oct 1978 / cat 51.’;
(b) ‘Minneapolis Institute of Arts / Victorian High Renaissance Exhibition / cat. 51’;
(c) ‘The Brooklyn Museum / Temporary Loan / TL 1979.4.51 / From Minneapolis Institute of Arts Victorian Renaissance [sic] / Jan 22 1979’;
(d) ‘Visions of the Ottoman Empire / oil on canvas’;
(e) ‘Royal Academy of Arts / Frederic Lord Leighton / 1996 / cat.68’.

This portraitback to top

According to the sitter’s wife, ‘Sir Frederick [sic] Leighton began to paint Richard on the 26th of April [1872], and it was very amusing. Richard was so anxious that he should paint his necktie and his pin, and kept saying to him every now and then, “Don’t make me ugly, there’s a good fellow;” and Sir Frederick kept chaffing him about his vanity, and appealing to me to know if he was not making him pretty enough. That is the picture that Sir Frederick has now, and is going to leave to the nation; and both Richard and I always retained the pleasantest memory of the many happy hours we passed in his studio.’[1]

At this point in his life, Burton was awaiting a new diplomatic posting. The sittings were completed at Leighton’s home at 2 Holland Park Road (later enlarged into Leighton House and renumbered 12) during May 1872, before Burton left Britain for Iceland on 4 June. Leighton’s own technical note deposited in the Royal Academy indicates that he resumed work on the portrait in 1875, however, presumably in preparation for its exhibition the following spring. He detailed its material components on a form devised for the purpose (which he hoped fellow Academicians would use but was not often employed), giving the following information:

Ground priming: primed with a mixture of flour, water, oil, flake white and whiting.
Vehicles: starch and oil boiled to the consistency of thick cream
Varnish: rubbed over with “huile chromophill” / probably poppyoil clarified with charcoal – and lastly with Boehme’s varnish.
Mode of procedure: underpainted in strong ?shapes with brown and white – worked over when dry with indigo powder rubbed up in water – then painted up with the full palette.
When commenced: 1872
When finished: 1876[2]


This account accords with Leighton’s habitual painting process, as described by Marion Harry Spielmann in the Magazine of Art. Following studies, the design was transferred to canvas, with the whole figure highly finished in warm monochrome, showing ‘every muscle, every joint, every crease’ until the image resembled ‘a print of any warm tone’. Then ‘a rich local colour is probably rubbed over them, the modelling underneath being, though thin, so sharp and definite as to assert itself through this wash’, which might (as indigo here) be a tint opposite to the final colour. The structure of the picture would be ‘thus absolutely complete’ and by reference to an earlier oil sketch, Leighton ‘has nothing to think of but the colour, and with that he now proceeds deliberately but rapidly’.[3] This layering of the paint here contributes to the finished effect of a rugged, lined face and scumbled complexion.

At this date, Leighton was moving into his mature phase both as an artist and as an influential figure in British society, within the RA, the Volunteer Movement and London clubland. The exact date of his first meeting with Burton is unrecorded, but they were acquainted by the mid-to-late 1860s, when Burton’s daring pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca and his East African expeditions were well known. When in 1869 Burton was appointed British consul in Damascus, he travelled there via Vichy in France, where Leighton was also staying together with Adelaide Sartoris. Burton was accompanied by Algernon Swinburne. ‘They were very happy days,’ recalled sabel Burton. ‘We made excursions in the day and in the evening the conversation was brilliant.’[4] Among the men, it was also very free and wide-ranging,[5] presumably on the sexual subjects enjoyed by Swinburne and Burton, and no doubt also covered aspects of the Middle East that interested Leighton, who in 1868 had travelled to ancient sites on the Nile.

Leighton and Burton discussed the acquisition of Islamic tile panels for Leighton’s proposed ‘Arab Hall’ in his London house, and 18 months later Burton wrote to say he was ‘quite as willing to have a house pulled down for you now as when at Vichy’ but it was hard to find such a source. ‘Of course you want good old specimens, and these are waxing very rare.’ He added that he had seen Holman Hunt in Jerusalem, and his friendly relationship with Leighton may be gauged from the tone of his final paragraph: ‘I am planning a realistic book which has no Holy Land on the brain and the Public will curse her like our army in Flanders. Pilgrims see everything thro’ a peculiar medium and tourists shake hands (like madmen) when they sight the plain of Esdraelon or Sharon as the case may be … My wife joins in kind remembrances.’[6] Shortly after this, Burton was recalled from Damascus, owing to his tactlessness. In London, he would have heard of Leighton’s splendidly extended house, and perhaps seen recent paintings, including the Condottiere, shown at the 1872 RA.[7]

Leighton was not an eager portraitist, preferring to earn money and reputation by other work. ‘The best of his portraits were therefore of men and women of whom he was fond and with whom he felt at ease.’[8] Unusually, therefore, his portrait of Burton was neither a commission nor a presentation piece, and appears to have been undertaken wholly from admiration conceived during the visit to Vichy, perhaps combined with sympathy for Burton’s position as one who appeared undervalued by his compatriots.

Selecting a cabinet-size canvas, he chose to depict Burton slightly from below and in profile, the visual interest concentrating on brow, eye and left cheekbone with its prominent scar. This had been sustained in 1855 in Berbera, Somaliland, when during an attack on his encampment Burton was severely wounded by a javelin that pierced his cheek and mouth. Together with his weatherbeaten complexion and piercing gaze, the disfigurement gave Burton the appearance of a man of adventure, and was indeed, alongside his bold journey to Mecca, perhaps the best-known fact about him among contemporaries.

Although Burton had high self-regard, he was not vain, and his request not to look ugly was surely in jest, for a certain satanic aspect was part of his reputation, in keeping with his maverick attitudes and esoteric interests. According to one commentator, who must have had the information from Leighton

there was nothing of the ideal about Richard Burton – he was a forceful personality with no beauty of feature … Leighton made up his mind – firmly as was his wont – how he meant to paint his subject. Burton’s will was no less inflexible; so, to put Leighton on his mettle, he kept on looking up from the position in which he had been placed, and by violent contortions of the face jeopardised the idea Leighton had formulated. Now and then he interrupted the solemnity of the sitting by remarking with mock gravity ‘Mind you make me nice!’ Leighton responded by hearty laughter; and that laughter was, as Watts calls it, ‘the champagne mixture which Leighton used so sparingly in his work.’[9]

In the manner of much late Victorian male portraiture, a strong shaft of light illuminates the head only, against a dark background. Burton’s hair is shown brushed forward from the crown, his moustache and beard seeming more silky. The scar is subtly delineated in a similar pink to the lips and ear, while the pupil of the visible eye is rendered with a blob of black paint that itself catches the light. Other points of light are the stand-up collar and the barely visible cuff at bottom left, between which the lapels and creases of Burton’s black coat are skilfully rendered. The dark tie with red spots and tie-pin that Burton wished to be visible are slight, deft strokes. Now virtually hidden behind the frame’s lower edge, the red upholstery on which Burton’s left arm rests evokes the sill or parapet often seen in half-length Renaissance profile portraits as well as supporting the subdued blood-red of the cheek scar. As an image of male maturity, it compares with Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of G.F. Watts and Thomas Carlyle, and with several portraits by Watts himself.

At the end of 1872, Burton left for his consular posting in Trieste where, following illness, he began translating the Kama Sutra, a project that would make him infamous. Early in 1875 his wife was in Britain, arranging publication of other writings, and urging all friends to recommend Burton for a knighthood ‘for such an honest list of services without a shadow of a reward’.[10] It is possible that Leighton was one of the 171 friends she approached. In 1873 he had visited Damascus, where as well as studying the architecture of the old city, he made an oil sketch of the Burtons’ former residence.[11] In summer 1875, in London on sick leave, Burton held regular smoking parties, of the kind that Leighton would attend; the invitations read, ‘Hadji Abdullah’s divan from 9.30 to 12. Sunday evening. 36 Manchester St’.[12] In addition, Isabel Burton records breakfasting with Leighton one day and dining with him and others after a Royal Geographical Society meeting.[13]

Such encounters, together with the Burtons’ forthcoming departure from Britain, presumably prompted Leighton to resume work on the portrait, which F.G. Stephens previewed in the Athenaeum, describing it as a ‘striking portrait … marked with strong character and expression, both of personality and painting. This is one of the most vivacious likenesses we have seen. It is extremely solid and vigorous.’[14] While it then appeared finished, further work was undertaken before March 1876 and the heavy dark painting that covers the background and figure probably dates from this period, although the degree of abrasion noted in conservation reports may indicate a reduction in thickness. Together with Leighton’s major work The Daphnephoria,[15] the portrait was sent to the RA in 1876. Burton was not in Britain during its exhibition.[16]

When the periodicals reached them, he and his wife would have been gratified by the picture’s reception. According to the Athenaeum, it was ‘a fine and very masculine portrait of Captain R. Burton, seated, little more than a bust, the head nearly in profile’,[17] while to the Illustrated London News it had ‘a strength of character and impasto that the artist has not accustomed us to look for’.[18] The Times wrote that it ‘is a pleasure to turn to Mr Leighton’s manly portrait of a man. In this head … the dainty painter of the Daphnephoria shows that he can deal with a vigorous subject as vigorously as need be. There is no stronger or more characteristic portrait in the exhibition.’[19] The chief praise came from the Art Journal, hailing a picture worthy of ‘a name that is noble and heroic …’.

F. Leighton RA has exerted all his power to call up from the canvas the scar-furrowed countenance of this wonderful man, swordsman and shot, linguist and traveller, politician, administrator and philosopher. To the keenness of his glance, to the intense individuality of his face Mr Leighton has, we think, done ample justice; but in fixing these the artist has, in some measure, sacrificed the intellectual character of the hero’s head by not modelling it in its entirety. Not the face only, but the head as a whole – especially a head of this character – ought to have stood out from the canvas all round. Notwithstanding this, however, Mr Leighton has produced a portrait which would be remarkable anywhere and under any circumstances of time or place. [20]

The stress laid in these notices on the masculinity of the portrait indirectly illustrates the contemporary view of the Aesthetic style with which Leighton was identified as essentially decorative and feminized. To these critics, Burton’s portrait aligned Leighton more acceptably in a male tradition.

From the RA, the portrait proceeded to the Liverpool autumn exhibition, and thence to the International Exhibition in Paris in 1878, the year Leighton became PRA and was knighted, eight years before Burton. In Paris, critic Edmond Duranty recalled Burton’s dinner with members of the Geographical Society of France, when he had given a terrifying description of carving a man like a chicken, with swordstrokes. ‘Mais si j’ai insisté sur un certain trait presque cruel et farouche de la physionomie anglaise, c’est qu’elle a un correctif dans la beauté et l’élévation du front, la noblesse du nez et la fermeté pénétrante du regard,’ Duranty added (a remark that would surely have pleased Burton), going on to link the portrait with Millais’s exhibit, The North-West Passage.[21]

As Burton’s widow recorded, Leighton retained the work, which hung on the staircase in his house, with the intention of bequeathing it to the nation, just as G.F. Watts proposed with his Hall of Fame portraits. However, when Leighton died, some six years after Burton, no mention of this bequest was in his will, drawn up on the day of his death. National Portrait Gallery director Lionel Cust wrote giving his own account of Leighton’s intention:

He was so very warm about it, when we were talking about it at Venice last October. I will put down what I remember of the conversation, which took place in the Modern Art Exhibition in the Giardini Pubblici, where my wife and I met him.

We were talking of Mr Watts’s offer to present his portraits to the nation at once, an offer which was chiefly due to the instigation of Leighton, who was very keen about it. ‘By the way, my dear fellow’ Leighton said (I am trying to quote his words) ‘you are to have my portrait of Burton some day.’ I made some evasive answer about our not being in a hurry. ‘No’, said Leighton, ‘I am afraid that you will have to wait some time first, as I don’t think that I can bear to part with it.’ This is, as far as I can remember, what he said, and as there was no one else at the moment, not even my wife, I can offer no corroborative evidence.

I was talking to W.B. Richmond at his house on the Sunday before Leighton’s death, and I am almost sure that I mentioned to him, while talking of Leighton, this episode of his intention to bequeath the portrait of Burton to this gallery. I only mention this to show that the idea was not put into my head by the fact of Leighton’s death.

Of course as the bequest has not been made, we are dependent on the goodwill of his legatees and the exigencies of the situation. Should the portrait be offered for sale, it would, I fear, be impossible for the Trustees, with their limited grant, to come anywhere near to purchasing it. This is only a statement of my position in this matter as Director of this Gallery. You may assess it at whatever value you like and use it or not according to your own discretion. I should however feel gratified, if in the interest of the Trustees and the public at large, the matter could receive consideration, which I have little doubt really but that his executors and representatives will readily give to it.[22]


Leighton’s executor replied that he had shown Cust’s letter to Leighton’s sisters and was confident they would do ‘all they can to carry out their brother’s wishes’.[23] Subsequently, Leighton’s sister Alexandra, Mrs Sutherland Orr, wrote on behalf of herself and her sister Mrs Matthews confirming this: ‘My brother’s portrait of Sir Richard Burton has returned from the continent, and is now in its packing case at 2 Holland Park Road. We understand that it was destined for the National Portrait Gallery and should think this in any case the most fitting home for it. Will you tell me whether it is for you to send for or us to forward it?’[24]

In response, Cust expressed his ‘greatest possible satisfaction’, and his belief that the acquisition would give ‘the greatest possible pleasure to the Trustees not only for the subject and the merits of the painting, but as a memorial of their colleague, whose interest in the Gallery was unabated to the last’. He foresaw that the work would feature in the RA’s forthcoming memorial exhibition, and concluded with his own tribute to Leighton, ‘who was to me in the position of both master and friend’.[25]

There followed correspondence between the NPG and the RA regarding the loan of the picture, formally accessioned in November 1896, to the RA 1897 Winter Exhibition of works by the late Lord Leighton. It remains in its original oil-gilt ‘Watts’ frame.

Leighton’s reputation waned in the twentieth century, only to rise again from the 1970s. In their major monograph published in 1975, Leonée and Richard Ormond detailed Leighton’s ongoing relationship with Burton in respect of Islamic tiles, and describe the portrait as ‘his one undoubted masterpiece as a portraitist’, adding:

The slightly foreshortened perspective makes Burton appear larger than he was in life, but the compelling quality of the characterization depends on a power of analysis and a painterly force of which many people would think Leighton incapable. It is not only the glinting eye, and jagged duelling [sic] scar, that express Burton’s demonic and electrifying personality, but the drama of light against dark, the severity and cohesion of the forms as a whole, and the firm, inquisitive brush strokes.[26]

This was amplified by Richard Ormond in 1978:

Though very different in temperament and outlook, there seems to have been a remarkable affinity between artist and sitter, which comes out strongly in the portrait. Leighton has painted Burton in profile, seen from below in steep perspective. The head is of exceptional power, and it conveys a sense of Burton’s ‘demonic’ personality. The scar on his left cheek and the short, cropped hair accentuate the effect of the dominant, arching brows, and the fiery, almost threatening eyes. Tonally it is much darker than other portraits by Leighton, the highlights of the collar and cuffs standing out sharply. Burton is seated in a red chair, but this is barely visible in the prevailing gloom. Everything has been subordinated to the face, which stands out in strong relief.[27]

On the centenary of Leighton’s death in 1996, Stephen Jones observed that ‘The portrait is as remarkable as was the sitter’, noting that it possessed a purity of outline comparable to that on Renaissance profile portrait medals and discussing the prominence of the scar:

The brutal depth of the gouge has an almost geological character. It offered Leighton the opportunity to provide a bravura note of red against the flesh tones, literally marking Burton as a man of action. It is surprising to find Leighton, of all artists, painting such an uncompromisingly realistic and virile likeness. But his friendship with Burton, and the portrait itself, both evidence the kind of bond sometimes established by the attraction of polar opposites.[28]

Most recently, Paul Barlow assessed the picture in relation to Leighton’s portraits of young girls:

Its differences epitomise the ways in which masculine identity transforms the conditions for the depiction of body and physiognomy … Burton’s body is cropped and contracted in space by massing of black, creating the effect that Burton’s head is emerging from a surrounding void. This is quite different from Lavinia l’Anson [1865] who was caught between pictorial integration and bodily substance … Likewise, the strip of red upholstery … has a very different function from the carpet fringe in Ruth Stewart Hodgson [1878]. It marks Burton’s physical density, as the foreshortened elbow juts out, merging with the trunk of the body to produce the central compact mass … Burton’s head itself … is the centre of visual disturbance … The scumbled paint surface here constitutes the physiognomy of the sitter. The composition expands out from the scar … Pigment is deliberately accumulated around the scar, a strip of red running under paler layers. The grey layer marking the cheekbone is dragged over it.… Leighton’s Burton is in the character of the male hero, where a troubled surface centring on the head marks uniqueness of a character formed by strife. The scar is, in a sense, the principal subject of the painting. Like Oliver Cromwell’s warts, it marks the heroic honesty that characterises the encounter between portraitist and sitter.[29]

A fine etching after the portrait was made by Léopold Flameng, of which one print is in the NPG Archive (NPG D38802);[30] and a mezzotint engraving by Sydney M. Litten was exhibited at the RA 1923 (1080). An undated print after a pen-and-ink drawing by Charles Albert Waltner is recorded in the NPG Portrait Index (Burton).

A number of copies or studies after Leighton’s portrait were made at the NPG, as listed in the Register of applications to copy portraits, NPG 77/5. These include an oil, 610 x 500mm, by Herbert Oakes-Jones, inscribed on the back ‘copied by H. Oakes Jones at National Portrait Gallery’ (Royal Anthropological Inst., London, 2732 [transferred from the Royal Borough of Kensington 1955]). The portrait was executed between 18 June and 3 December 1903. Other applicants in the register for the period 1896–1954 include A. Reynolds, 1909; J.L. Reilly, 1911; J.G. Pollock-Smith, 1920; and M. Bruce, 1935.

A number of copies by unidentified artists are recorded (see ‘All known portraits, Portraits, drawings, sculptures and prints, 1872–5’).

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) Burton 1893, vol.1, p.596.
2) MS ‘Painting Processes 1876’, RA, London. Italics denote the printed sections on the form.
3) M.H.S., ‘The Royal Academy’, MA, May 1889, pp.226–7.
4) Burton 1893, vol.1, p.459.
5) Ormond & Ormond 1975, p.70.
6) Letter from R.F. Burton to F. Leighton, 22 Mar. 1871, Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Archive. In this letter Burton refers to the long delay in answering Leighton’s letter of 14 Apr. 1871, which is presumably a mistake for 1870.
7) Birmingham MAG, 1885P2468.
8) Thompson 2004.
9) Staley 1906, pp.106–7.
10) Letter from I. Burton to Lord Houghton, 11 Feb. 1875, quoted Lovell 1998, p.608.
11) South London G., 691, on loan to Orleans House G., Twickenham.
12) Cited Lovell 1998, p.613. Hadji Abdullah was the name Burton affected following his visit to Mecca.
13) Burton 1893, vol.2, pp.50–51.
14) [F.G. Stephens], ‘Fine Art Gossip’, Athenaeum, 31 July 1875, p.157. Stephens later corrected himself, saying he had seen the work twice in Leighton’s studio, ‘not quite finished’ on the first occasion and complete on the second, Mar. 1876 (letter from F.G. Stephens to Lionel Cust, 14 Dec. 1896, NPG RP 1070).
15) Lady Lever AG, Port Sunlight, LL3632.
16) Lovell 1998 erroneously gives 1875 as the date of exhibition.
17) Athenaeum, 29 Apr. 1876, p.601. This notice was also by F.G. Stephens, hence its brevity.
18) ILN, 29 Apr. 1876, p.418.
19) The Times, 22 May 1876, p.6.
[n20 AJ, May 1876, p.230.
21) E. Duranty, ‘Exposition Universelle’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol.18, 1878, p.307.
22) Letter from L. Cust to S.P. Cockerell, 12 Feb. 1896, NPG Press Copy Book vol.i, pp.449–50, NPG RP 1070.
23) S.P.Cockerell to L. Cust, 15 Feb. 1896, NPG RP 1070.
24) Letter from A. Orr to L. Cust, 24 Sept. 1896, NPG RP 1070. The location from which the work had returned is as yet undiscovered; no overseas exhibitions for 1895–6 are listed in the literature.
25) Letter from L. Cust to A. Orr, 29 Sept. 1896, NPG RP 1070.
26) Ormond & Ormond 1975, p.98; see also cat. no.231 and pl.140.
27) Minneapolis 1978, pp.113–14.
28) Jones et al. 1996, pp.174–5.
29) P. Barlow, ‘Transparent Bodies …’, in Barringer & Prettejohn 1999, pp.213–14.
30) Repr. Muther 1895–6, vol.3, 1896, p.113.

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length, profile to left, left arm along lower edge.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1970.

Provenanceback to top

The artist; his heirs Mrs Matthews and Mrs Orr, by whom presented in accordance with his wish, 1896.

Exhibitionsback to top

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, London, 1876 (128).

Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, Walker Art Gallery, 1876 (289).

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1878.

Melbourne, 1888.

Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Annual Exhibition, London, 1892 (132).

Leighton Memorial Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1897 (47).

Leighton House, London, 1930 (1).

Royal Academy, London, 1968–9 (331).

Victorian High Renaissance, Manchester City Art Gallery, Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1978–9 (51).

Visions of the Ottoman Empire, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1994.

Frederic Lord Leighton, Royal Academy, London, 1996 (68).

The Life of Sir Richard and Isabel Burton, Leighton House, London, 1998.

Burton: The Case For and Against, Orleans House Gallery, Richmond, 2005.

Leighton House, London, 2010.

Reproductionsback to top

Etching by Léopold Flameng, c.1872–5.

Wood-engraving, Magazine of Art, 1878, p.126; and Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1878, p.298.

The Portfolio, 1879, p.1.

Rhys 1898, facing p.68 (as halftone).

Etching by F. Jenkins, Burton 1898, frontispiece.

Wright 1906, vol.1, p.257 (photo credit Augustin Richgitz).

The Bookman, May 1906, supplement (as ?photogravure by Crout Eng. Co.).

Mezzotint engraving by Sydney M. Litten, exh. RA 1923 (1080).

Brodie 1967, p.15.

Spink & Co., ‘Valuable Books etc.’, 1976, cover.

Minneapolis 1978, p.113, no.51.

Foister et al. 1988, p.135.

Jones et al. 1996, p.174, no.68.

Barringer & Prettejohn 1999, fig.75.

Undated print after a pen-and-ink drawing by Charles Albert Waltner (recorded in the NPG Portrait Index [Burton]).

View all known portraits for Sir Richard Francis Burton

View all known portraits for Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton