Independent Magazine 6th January 1996
This is the year of Lord Leighton. In the centenary of his death there will be exhibitions of his work at the Royal Academy and the V&A. And here, a tribute, in our fashion, to Dorothy Dene, his last inspiration.
When Frederick Leighton, the most eminent and widely-admired artist in Victorian public life, died on 3 February, 1896, his last reported words were “Give my love to all at the Academy”. One of his last acts was to write a will leaving money to Dorothy Dene and setting up a trust for the benefit of her and her sisters.
His work, including the pictures for which she sat, was famous then and is famous now. His beautiful house in Kensington is there to visit, but scholars say that his personality remains elusive. His attitude to Dorothy Dene is probably less mysterious. She became the inspiration and consolation of his last years. When she posed for his portrayal of Antigone she was 25, an aspiring actress from a poor background. Leighton educated her and tried to mould her acting career, though it never got very far.
Our Dorothy, Carla Kandinji, flame-haired like the original, was, also like the original, discovered in the street – by the photographer, Noelle Hoeppe.
Ours are not slavish copies of the draped gowns seen on canvas, any more than the pictures are slavish copies of Leighton paintings. Instead, both are inspired by work that has long been out of fashion, and is now being enthusiastically rediscovered. In any case, Dorothy was often wearing little but artfully-draped sheets of muslin, stiffened with Plaster of Paris to enable Leighton to manipulate the folds.
Dorothy’s clothes for the piece have been created by Charles and Patricia Lester, whom enthusiasts of sumptuous velvets and vivid plisse silks will know from Liberty, Regent Street, a shop where Lord Leighton himself was a regular customer. Much of Leighton House was furnished from the arts, crafts and orientalist furniture and fittings on sale at Liberty at the end of the last century. Now, Liberty is reforging its Leighton links: the Lesters’ Leighton-inspired garments will go on sale at the store.
Lord Leighton’s death predated Dorothy’s by only three years. Her fate was not a lustrous one. Her family frittered all the money and she was victim of a botched abortion.