George Leslie

British, b.1835, d.1921

In the Wizard’s Garden

  • Presented to the Canterbury Society of Arts by W. Harris, 1907; given to the Gallery in 1932
  • Oil on canvas
  • 1536 x 1155 x 80mm
  • 70/44
  • c. 1904

About the artist

Leslie, George Dunlop (British, b.1835, d.1921)

George Dunlop Leslie

by John Watkins
albumen carte-de-visite, 1860s
NPG Ax14829

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 licence

Narrative paintings such as In the Wizard’s Garden were extremely popular with Victorian audiences. Loaded with symbolism that referred to the notion of the fallen woman, the artist provided visual pointers to be unpicked and read by the audience. These include the hitched-up scarlet dress, the fallen leaves in the foreground and the shears which, shown with the blades open, suggest a loss of virtue. Contrasted with the innocence of the young woman, the presence of the silhouetted figure entering the garden adds a sinister element. The stream separating the two figures symbolises a barrier between them – her virtue hangs in the balance. Will she remain pure or will she, through the act of crossing the water, succumb to wantonness?George Dunlop Leslie was a successful, prolific artist who exhibited annually at the Royal Academy from 1859; usually theatrical, symbol-laden paintings of young women from a previous age.

(New Dawn Fades, November 2018)

earlier labels about this work
  • Treasury: a generous legacy, 18 December 2015 - 4 December 2016

    In the Wizard’s Garden was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1904. Attending the opening was Wolf Harris (1833–1926), a Kraków-born, London-based Jewish businessman recorded by The Times as, ‘a great friend of many of the artists’, who had established a hugely successful importing and manufacturing company in New Zealand during the 1850s Otago gold rushes. When Leslie lent this painting for the 1906–07 New Zealand International Exhibition, Wolf Harris purchased it for the Canterbury Society of Arts; it was given to the city in 1932.

  • Brought to light, November 2009- 22 February 2011

    'In the wizard’s garden' is loaded with symbols that refer to the notion of ‘the fallen woman’. These include the hitched-up scarlet dress, the fallen leaves in the foreground and the shears which, shown with the blades open, suggest a loss of virtue. The presence of the silhouetted figure entering the garden adds a sinister element that contrasts strongly with the innocence of the young woman. The stream separating the two figures symbolises a barrier between them – her virtue hangs in the balance. Will she will remain pure or, through the act of crossing the water, succumb to wantonness?

  • The shears with open blades, the red dress and the winter grapevine all have a symbolic role in this painting. They, with the woman’s thoughtful expression, suggest she is debating the possible loss of her virginity. The vaguely menacing wizard is blocking her movement out of the garden to the world of summer and life. George Dunlop Leslie’s work belongs in style to the much earlier paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of English painters active in the 1850s and 60s who insisted on the importance of serious and moral subject matter. Leslie was born in London. He went to the Royal Academy School and began exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1857. He was a member of the St John’s Wood Clique, a small affluent community of artists based in St John’s Wood, London. His standing as an artist in England led to this work being selected for the ‘New Zealand International Exhibition’, in Christchurch, in 1906 and 1907. (Label date, May 2003)

  • This painting contains moralising symbolism that is normally associated with the Victorian era. The artist, George Dunlop Leslie, was a Victorian painter taught by his father, artist Charles Leslie (1794-1859).

    George Leslie had a keen interest in gardens and gardening and the quiet formal English garden, with terraced lawns, clipped hedges, brick walls, and ponds becoming a favourite motif in his painting. Often he painted just the garden as a subject but frequently it was a setting to have acted out a simple moral narrative as in this work. The young woman who stands in the wizard’s garden is surrounded by dying leaves which in Victorian painting symbolised a woman who had lost her virtue.

    In the Wizard’s Garden was exhibited at the Royal Academy. London in 1904 and was brought to New Zealand in 1906 for the New Zealand International Exhibition. It was purchased in 1907 by the Canterbury Society of Arts and presented to this Gallery in 1932. (Label date before 2003)