Lord Leighton RA and the Victorian ideal of female beauty

Objects of desire

Published 13 November 2014

The Mexico-based businessman Juan Antonio Pérez Simón has amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of art. He talks to us about his love of Victorian art as his 19th-century masterpieces visit Leighton House Museum, the home of the former RA President.

  • Caroline Bugler: What inspired you to start collecting art?

    Juan Antonio Pérez Simón: I was born in Spain but grew up in Mexico and my first real encounter with the work of the Old Masters – on my initial trip back to Europe from Mexico when I was 22 – was pivotal. During my visit to Madrid I immediately recognised some of the paintings and sculptures I had seen in books as a child. I bought my first piece of art, a reproduction of El Greco’s Tears of Saint Peter (1580-89) in the shop of the Prado Museum; I treasured it as much as I now treasure the masterpieces I have acquired over the years. In the 1960s I bought paintings in various street markets, then in the ’70s I collected paintings and sculpture, first directly from the artists and then from galleries. In the ’80s, at the peak of my financial success, I ventured into auctions and art fairs. Over the following decade I gradually formed a significant collection of works that continues to grow.

  • What drew you to collect Victorian art?

    My interest in Victorian art evolved through the ’80s, when I started to see pictures at affordable prices at auctions alongside art I didn’t consider to be of the same quality. At the end of the ’80s and beginning of the ’90s I acquired a few works, from a small still-life by an unknown copyist called Blyth, to the magnificent Roses of Heliogabalus (1888, pictured) by Alma-Tadema. Works with women as the central subject soon caught my attention, and over the following years I added paintings by Arthur Hughes, Henry Arthur Payne, Burne-Jones, Edwin Long, Rossetti, Millais, John Melhuish Strudwick, Albert Moore, Leighton, John Godward, William Clarke Wontner and William Waterhouse, among others. My most recent acquisition in 2011 was Andromeda (1869, pictured) by Edward Poynter. I feel I have yet to acquire my final piece of Victorian art. My collection is a reflection of my life, as the art reflects my state of mind, impulses, memories, knowledge, tastes and interests. Victorian art particularly allows me to cultivate my passion for mythology, history and literature, as well as to admire the finest examples of ideal beauty.

  • Were there any pictures you couldn’t bear to part with for this exhibition?

    Honestly, no. As a collector and art lover I hold a certain responsibility to myself and society. The collection is constantly on the move, and I’m very pleased that the public, press and scholars can appreciate it and enjoy it as much as I do.

  • Edward John Poynter, Andromeda

    Edward John Poynter, Andromeda, 1869.

    Oil on canvas. 51 x 36 cm. The Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico/ © Studio Sébert Photographs.

  • Several of the pictures coming to Leighton House depict female beauty – beautiful nudes or femmes fatales, set in the mythical past rather than in their day. What do you think these say about Victorian society?

    The depiction of women has been a thread running throughout the history of art generally. But in Victorian paintings women express the canon of beauty that artists aspired to and reflect a feeling of nostalgia for a ‘Golden Age’. The female characters who were beautiful, sensual, passionate, seductive, dangerous or romantic – engaged in their daily activities or personifying figures from legends, myths or literature – represent the level of refinement, intellectual activity and aesthetic creativity that the artists of this period reached. Art in Victorian times was often used to ease the tension and restrictions brought about by the Industrial Revolution. At the end of the Middle Ages artists in Christian countries searched for themes such as ‘Charity’ in order to depict the female nude, so it is not strange that Victorian artists were inclined to present naked female forms alluding to muses and goddesses from Greek and Roman mythology.

  • How do you think the pictures differ from French and other European paintings produced at the same time? Can you see any echoes of Ingres or Gerome in Leighton and Alma-Tadema, for example, or of European Symbolism in other works?

    Victorian artists travelled and trained outside the UK, which allowed them to learn about other cultures, widening their repertoire of themes and offering a new perspective on history painting. Access to literature helped expand their knowledge and stimulate their imagination. Alma-Tadema, for instance, discovered an interest in ancient history and the Middle East during his first visit to Italy in 1863, followed a year later by his encounters with French painter and sculptor Gerome, whose scenes of antiquity were very well regarded. Leighton is another clear example of the fondness British artists had for different cultures and eras; the arrangement of figures and elements in his compositions recall the Italian Renaissance. His painting Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle (c.1880) especially echoes the academic concept of nudity encouraged by the French painter Ingres.

  • Do you think the artists enjoyed painting subjects from the Classical world because of their decorative possibilities rather than the historical references?

    Victorian artists cherished characters and episodes of the ancient world perhaps because of a nostalgia for the Golden Age; however, their minute knowledge of that period, the attentive study of their own era and the creative freedom they defended all helped them to create artworks rich in detail – from clothes to furniture, architecture or nature. Leighton and Alma-Tadema are prime examples.

  • , Collector Juan Antonio Pérez Simón in his Mexico City apartment

    Collector Juan Antonio Pérez Simón in his Mexico City apartment

    Sebastian Micke/ Paris Match/ Contour by Getty Images.

  • Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heliogabalus has a particularly odd and gruesome narrative. Do you think the image convincingly conveys the story?

    I think that an artwork which alludes to a story from mythology is precisely that – a reference or an allusion – and it is the job of the spectator to look at each one of the figures and elements of the composition in order to interpret the story based on their own knowledge. In The Roses of Heliogabalus there is a balance between the cruel story taking place – the Emperor Heliogabalus drowning courtesans with flowers dropped from above – and the audacity of the formal treatment. Alma-Tadema worked on this painting for an extended period of time and he chose to execute it in a large format not only because of his own financial security at that time but more importantly because of his fascination with the most atrocious episodes of ancient Rome. I think it was also a pretext to exploit his exhaustive knowledge of landscapes, flowers, fruits, furniture, different types of marble, jewellery and so forth, and his virtuosity when representing them. At first glance it seems that the narrative is overshadowed by the finest attention to detail; however if we look closely, we see that the artist has deliberately placed characters suffering the horror of death in the foreground.

  • Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA, The Roses of Heliogabalus

    Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA, The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888.

    Oil on canvas. 133 x 214 cm. The Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico/ © Studio Sébert Photographs.

  • Do you have any particular favourites among the paintings that we will see?

    There are some works that I linger in front of for longer and value above others. Some stand out for the power of the composition and the place they occupy in the history of British art. This is the case with The Roses of Heliogabalus, Leighton’s Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea (1871, pictured) and A Quartet (1868) by Albert Moore. However, I have a connection with all of the works and I treasure each one dearly. They were all acquired in response to a particular impulse, state of mind or personal interest on my part. To name just a few examples, I greatly enjoy the serenity of the landscape in Bay Scene, Island of Rhodes (1867) by Leighton; the tribute of the youth in Classical Beauty (1908) by John William Godward; the feminine beauty depicted by William Clarke Wontner in Valeria (1916), and the loving gesture from mother to son immortalised by Alma-Tadema in An Earthly Paradise (1891).

  • Frederic, Lord Leighton PRA, Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea

    Frederic, Lord Leighton PRA, Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea, 1871.

    84 x 130 cm. The Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico/ © Studio Sébert Photographs.

  • There can hardly be a better setting for your paintings than Leighton House. How do you think the displays there will differ from those in Paris and Rome, where the exhibition has been shown previously?

    At Leighton House, part of the permanent collection will sit alongside the work brought together for this exhibition, which will heighten the appreciation not only of the paintings but also the architecture, furniture and decoration of the house. What is also appealing is the fact that some of the works by Leighton are returning to the place in which they were created, and works by other artists are being presented here in London after many years outside of the country. Each museum has employed different methods to enable the public to enjoy the exhibition in an intimate manner.

  • What do you hope the public will gain from their experience of seeing the pictures at Leighton House?

    I hope that the exhibition helps to provide people with a better understanding and appreciation of Victorian art and its defence of pure beauty, and that the public discover, or rediscover, the splendour of British art from the 19th century.

    A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection is at the Leighton House Museum until 29 March 2015.
    Read Will Alsop RA’s discussion of the architecture of Leighton House.

    Caroline Bugler is a writer and editor.