Early in his career William Leighton Leitch worked as a painter of theatrical stage scenery in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland. This was followed by a stint decorating snuff-boxes before moving to London where he resumed painting stage scenery but also began to produce watercolours and oils for exhibition.
Under the patronage of a stockbroker who appreciated his work, Leitch was able to travel to Italy for several years in 1833, visiting and drawing the principal cities, studying the old masters and teaching drawing to British residents. On his return to London in 1837 he was in demand as a teacher of drawing, and was eventually appointed Queen Victoria’s drawing master in 1846. In 1865 Leitch was given a royal annuity, and at the studio sale after his death (Christie’s, 13–15 March 1884) the Queen acquired many more drawings by ‘dear old Mr Leitch, my kind drawing Master’.
When Leitch’s membership to the Society of Painters in Water Colours was rejected he was shortly thereafter made a member of the Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1862, remaining a solid contributor to their annual exhibitions and serving for many years as vice-president. His finished watercolours were almost invariably attractive Scottish or Italian landscapes, simply constructed, and defined by a delicate but rather homogenised touch. Balwearie, Fifeshire was one of several Scottish landscapes by Leitch shown at the Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1876, and typically depicts a contrived scene, here with the ruin of Balwearie Castle tower and rustic figures building a hayrick.
A posthumous exhibition of Leitch’s work was organised by the Institute of Painters in Water Colours at their new premises in Piccadilly in 1883. The review in The Standard on 21 June explained the painter’s conservative approach in the following terms: ‘Mr Leitch, when he died was not only an old man – his art was an old fashioned art. His work… was a survival from the past. It was unlike such work of our day as is just now most fashionable. It was not that Mr Leitch’s reference to Nature was itself infrequent, but that his reference to the stores and to the traditions of Art was continual. He was not an impulsive, he was a learned painter. The problems of composition in landscape, with which few are now occupied, Mr Leitch habitually solved. His work, therefore, never prided itself on being a transcript from the Nature that inspired it. It was an adaptation for the purposes of art.’
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017