The leader of the Victorian classical school of painting, Frederic Leighton was born in Scarborough, the son of a doctor. His grandfather, Sir James Leighton, was court physician to Czar Alexander I of Russia; and Sir James' son was also a doctor. Soon after Nicholas I became Czar in 1825 the Leighton family Leighton received his training in Brussels, Paris and Frankfurt. In 1852 he went to live in Rome, where he moved in a large artistic circle which included Thackeray, Robert Browning and some of the most important French painters of the time.
On his return to England in 1855, his historical painting Cimabue's Madonna Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence was shown at the Royal Academy, where it received a great reception from the critics and was later bought by Queen Victoria.
His decision to abandon historical paintings coincided with a sudden upsurge of interest in Hellenism; even women's evening wear was influenced, Greek gowns that gave women a new-found freedom of movement becoming fashionable.
. He was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1878, and became a baron in 1896 (full title = Baron Leighton of Stretton), the only English artist to receive this honour. But by then he was a sick man who was suffering from angina. He died in 1896 and after lying in state at the RA, he was buried in St Paul's Cathedral. His will included a bequest of £10,000 to the Royal Academy. The poet Algernon Swinburne composed a memorial elegy:
'A light has passed that never shall pass away
A sun has set whose rays are unequalled in might'.
Although at the time of his death Leighton was something of a national institution, his reputation quickly declined and his work and all that he stood for became objects of derision. It was to be another 60-70 years before his work would come into fashion again.