Benjamin Williams Leader is Worcester’s most famous artist and Worcester City, fittingly, has one of the best collections in the world of his work. He portrayed an idyllic and glorious British landscape celebrating the nature around us.
Leader was born in Worcester in 1831 as Benjamin Leader Williams (he later swapped his names around to avoid confusion with other artists called Williams). His father was a notable civil engineer who designed the River Severn’s Diglis lock; the family lived right next to his work at Diglis House, now the Diglis Hotel. Leader’s father was a keen artist and often took the children out to sketch along the river. When Leader was still a small child, the famous landscape painter John Constable visited Worcester and stayed with the family, no doubt inspiring them all.
Educated at the Royal Grammar School in Worcester, Leader first worked at his father’s office as a draughtsman while studying art in the evenings at the Worcester School of Design. At the age of 23, he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in London and started on a career path to become one of the most celebrated landscape artists of the Victorian age. At the height of his fame he was reputably the most expensive painter in England. He exhibited at the Royal Academy every year from 1857 to 1922, a record-breaking 65 continuous years!
An almost exact contemporary of the Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926), Leader’s painting style is interesting to compare with the French master. Early on in his career, Leader’s landscapes demonstrated studied detail, a style common to most of his Victorian contemporaries. But from around 1880, he started experimenting, with some paintings produced in a broader, looser style. Some art historians have quoted this as the moment British artists started painting with a more ‘modern’ approach in parallel to the French Impressionists.
One of the most lovely of Leader’s paintings Smooth Severn Stream was painted around this time and is now displayed on the staircase of Worcester Art Gallery & Museum on Foregate Street in Worcester.
Smooth Severn Stream pictures the River Severn from a viewpoint just south of the city and looks downstream; you can see the Malvern Hills on the right side. The painting has the sense of real people inhabiting the landscape: on the left side of the picture you can see a parasol and picnic blanket, as if a fashionable lady has just walked out of the painting. As well as the leisured lady in her garden, the view shows the profitable agricultural land of Worcestershire and two barges transporting goods down the river. At this point the Severn was an essential transport link for industry and was as important to Worcestershire as the M5 is today. The painting depicts Worcester as rich and sleek, a powerhouse in the country.
Benjamin Williams Leader’s work, perhaps no longer so fashionable, is still enduring popular.
Smooth Severn Stream, 1886, by BW Leader, Worcester City museum collection