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The Daphnephoria, by Lord Frederic Leighton


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About the artwork

The Daphnephoria was a festival held every nine years in ancient Thebes in honour of the sun god, Apollo. Daphnephoros is Greek for ‘bearer of laurel’. Laurel was Apollo’s special plant and he was often depicted as ‘Apollo Daphnephoros’ carrying a laurel branch or crowned with a laurel wreath.

Leighton’s painting of the festival shows a procession, led by a priest of Apollo. He and all the participants wear laurel crowns or bear laurel branches.

The Thebans' victory over the Aeolians

The festival commemorated the victory of the Thebans over the Aeolians. The story comes from the Chrestomathia by the Greek writer Proclus. During an attack on the city of Thebes, the Theban general Polymates dreamed that he was given a suit of armour and was ordered to celebrate a festival to Apollo every nine years. The next day the Thebans won the battle and Polymates then founded the festival of the Daphnephoria in honour of the god who granted the victory.

No images of this festival survive from ancient times so Leighton has reconstructed the procession imaginatively, from both written and visual sources including Greek vases. In preparation for the painting he made many drawings and also studied some of the figures in three dimensions by modelling them in clay.

The Procession

In his picture, a beautiful young man, dressed as Apollo Daphnephoros, leads the procession. He is a priest of Apollo, dressed like the god in a white and gold robe, wearing a laurel wreath and a golden crown, and holding a bronze laurel branch. He is preceded by a young man holding a standard with at the top a copper globe with a crown representing the sun, and with smaller globes for the moon, the stars and the planets.

Behind the Daphnephoros are three young men, one holding up a suit of amour, to commemorate the dream of Polymates, and behind them is the leader of the choir, carrying a golden lyre. After that comes the choir of young girls and women singing, with youths carrying tripods at the rear.

Between the Daphnephoros and the armour carrier is a stone column with at the top a bronze statue of Apollo and his lyre. Doves perch on the monument, and flowers are strewn along the route of the procession, which has come from the city of Thebes, seen in the distance on the left. The procession passes past a grove of magnificent trees, and will eventually end at the temple of Apollo.

A celebration of art and beauty

The Daphnephoria was a festival that celebrated art and beauty. Apollo, the sun god, was also the god of art, music and poetry, and the painting can itself be seen as a celebration of art and beauty. Leighton depicts the festival involving not just those in the procession, but the whole of society, represented in the picture by the groups of spectators, the women carrying vases of water on the left, the crowd in the centre behind the procession and the mother and child sitting on the wall at the right.

Why did Leighton choose this subject? Because it expresses his belief that art was of central importance to society. Leighton’s mission was to improve and elevate the lives of ordinary people by exposing them to great art.

In the age of industrialisation and materialism, with cities, factories and railways expanding, Leighton wanted to counter what he saw as the ugliness and dreariness of daily life by looking back to previous eras where art was more highly valued.

Leighton had studied deeply the art of ancient Greece and the art of the Italian Renaissance, the two great ages of art he admired above all others. The motif of a procession moving across the picture from one side to another comes from the Greek frieze, in particular the marble frieze from the Parthenon in Athens, showing a procession dedicated to Athene.

The row of figures with their mouths open, singing, rapturously, looks back to another great sculptural monument, the frieze of singers on the chorister’s gallery in the cathedral of Florence, by the Renaissance sculptor Luca della Robbia.

The aesthetic movement

But there is a third more modern artistic influence on Leighton’s picture, the aesthetic movement a feature of British art of the 1870 and 80s. This was a reaction to late Victorian realism. Artists moved away from literal scenes of daily life, to create an ideal world, emphasising in their pictures a sense of beauty and harmony.

Leighton fills his picture with sumptuous accessories, beautiful fabrics and flowers; by carefully positioning the figures he sets up visual rhythms between them, creating a trance-like mood of slow-motion, and by subtle yet rich combinations of colour he brings the white marble Greek frieze up to date for the Victorian age. The Daphnephoria is one of four large-sized processional pictures by Leighton, based on the motif of the frieze.

Stuart Hodgson and George McCullough

How did this painting come to be in the Lady Lever Art Gallery?  It was painted for a wealthy Victorian banker, Stuart Hodgson, for his house at Haslemere. It must have been an enormous house to accommodate the picture, which is 19 feet long. The house also contained other paintings by Leighton and many other Victorian artists.

Before being hung there, the Daphnephoria was shown in London at the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1876. Hodgson was a partner in Baring’s Bank, which collapsed in 1890 and he had to sell. The painting was then bought by George McCullough, a British millionaire art collector who had made a fortune in the Australian gold mines.

His collection was sold in 1913 which was when Lever bought Leighton’s picture as well as other works from McCullough’s collection.  It was about this time that the designs for the Lady Lever Art Gallery were being finalised, and it is very likely that the width of the central hall was calculated to fit this painting.

Death of Lord Leverhulme

When Lord Leverhulme died in 1925, he was buried in Port Sunlight church, but before the burial, his coffin lay in state beneath the Daphnephoria, surrounded by flowers, as if in tribute to the view, shared by Leighton and Leverhulme, of the importance of art in everyday life.