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Charles Robert Leslie Collection

Call Number: MSS 15

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises sketchbooks, writings, and correspondence by Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859) and his family. Leslie was known best for his paintings of literary subjects, although his oeuvre included portraiture, history paintings, and selected literary works. The collection was compiled by Leslie's son, George Dunlop Leslie, also a celebrated genre painter, and represents the years, 1812 to 1900. The collection includes documents related to Leslie's wife, Harriet, as well as some of his children, Mary, Harriet, George, and Robert Charles. Additional materials include correspondence from Tom Taylor and Peter Powell, representing some of Leslie's most important professional and personal relationships.

The largest portion of correspondence comprises letters from Leslie's wife, Harriet. The letters were originally placed in a paper folder (appearing to date from the time of George Dunlop's selection of these items) with a note reading, "Letters cheifly [sic] from Mrs Leslie to C.R. Leslie RA mostly from different sea-side places. Broadstairs, Benbridge, Brighton, etc. dates between 1836 1850. also some from the children at the same time to their father C.R. Leslie./ also a few answers from CRL/ very amusing & characteristic examined & selected by G.D. Leslie 1898."


  • circa 1812-1900


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


The collection is divided into three series: I. Albums and sketchbooks; II. Writings; III. Correspondence.


2 Linear Feet (1 box + 5 volumes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection comprises sketchbooks, writings, and correspondence by Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859) and his family.

Biographical / Historical

Charles Robert Leslie (19 October 1794- 5 May 1859) was born in London to American parents, Robert Charles (d. 1804) and Lydia Leslie (ca. 1766-1824). His father was a prosperous Philadelphia clockmaker who moved his family to England in 1793 to expand his business. The Leslies' time in America was short-lived, however, and they returned to Philadelphia in 1799. Charles showed an early talent for drawing, which was fostered through classes taken at the University of Pennsylvania at the young age of ten. Upon his father's death in 1804, however, the family encountered financial hardships and there were no funds with which to further Charles's artistic education.

In 1808, he became a publisher's apprentice at the press of Bradford and Inskeep in Philadelphia. A senior partner of the firm, after seeing a promising watercolor that Leslie had made of actor Frederick Cooke, helped him to enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The senior partner, Samuel Bradford, also raised money to help send Charles to London for artistic training. The Academy was impressed with Charles's work and, in addition to accepting him as a student, helped to support his study abroad. Those in America who saw Charles's paintings were struck with their potential and fervently supported his pursuit of a career in painting.

Once he arrived in London in 1811, Charles Robert Leslie was instructed and strongly influenced by Benjamin West, the president of the Royal Academy, as well as Washington Allston and Samuel F.B. Morse (who, although then studying painting, would go on to fame as the inventor of Morse code). Morse and Leslie were students together at the Royal Academy, where Leslie had enrolled in 1813. Although his American-born mentors were history painters, Leslie's longstanding interest in the stage remained a prevalent feature of his work.

Leslie traveled to France in 1817, accompanied by his friend, William Collins (who would become the father of writer Wilkie Collins), and his mentor, Washington Allston. Collins was a close associate of the successful painter, David Wilkie, whose genre paintings were garnering considerable attention and praise. While painting portraits to support himself and to keep his work in public view, Leslie took note of genre painting and began to move into this field. Allston helped to secure work for Leslie as an illustrator of Washington Irving's works, Knickerbocker's History of New York and The Sketch Book. Leslie would carry on his friendship with Washington Irving for the rest of his life.

In 1819, Leslie exhibited his painting, Sir Roger de Coverley Going to Church, a genre piece that received a favorable response. Leslie continued creating literary genre paintings throughout the next several years, becoming a member of the Royal Academy in 1826. By 1820, Leslie, who had been supported by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts throughout his tenure in England, decided to stay in London. He married Harriet Honor Stone (1799-1879) in 1825. Together, they would have six children, including George Dunlop Leslie, who became a celebrated genre painter like his father. Among Leslie's other children, his son Robert Charles and daughter Mary would also follow his footsteps into painting and book illustration.

Leslie's trajectory of success was stymied, to some extent, in 1833, when his brother Tom, who had made a career in the U.S. Army, obtained a position for Leslie at West Point Academy in New York. Leslie was eventually persuaded to travel to the United States to take the post as a drawing teacher, but he and his family remained there only five months, suffering through a bitter winter and various disappointments. They returned to London in 1834.

Despite the hardships of the brief stint at West Point, Leslie would receive his most important commission just a few years later, in 1838. Patrons Baron and Lady Holland arranged for him to attend the coronation of Queen Victoria. The Queen ultimately commissioned Leslie's picture of the event, entitled Queen Victoria Receiving the Sacrament After the Coronation. She would also commission a second piece in 1841, this time depicting the christening of the Princess Royal. The royal commissions were career-making events for Leslie, who went on to paint further genre and literary works on commission for the rest of his life and to become a professor of painting at the Royal Academy in 1847. He moved in influential creative circles, both artistic and literary. Before his death in 1859, Leslie published a biography of Sir John Constable, a Handbook for Young Painters, and began work on his autobiography as well as on a work about Sir Joshua Reynolds. The latter two books were published posthumously. C.R. Leslie was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. His art hangs in museum and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic, testifying to his successful negotiation of the American and British worlds of early nineteenth century painting.

Mary Leslie (1833-1907) was the fifth child of Charles Robert and Harriet Honor Leslie. She showed a keen artistic talent, and became a book illustrator. She remained unmarried throughout her life, living with her mother and sister Harriet after her father's death. Her sister died in 1864, and her mother in 1884. Mary appears to have had some kind of mental or neurological health crisis around this time. In 1891, she is listed as a boarder at a home in Berkshire, near the residence of her brother George. Strikingly, she is recorded as an "imbecile" in this census, and a nurse, Bessie Robertson, is shown in the same household. By 1901, Mary had moved into George's home, Riverside, in Berkshire, and is again listed as an "imbecile" in that year's census. A slightly cryptic note in one of Mary's sketchbooks, penned by her brother George, says that in later life Mary's "balance had gone" and that she only had one eye. Mary Leslie died in 1907, in Lindfield, Sussex, England.


  • Evans, Dorinda. "Charles Robert Leslie." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online.
  • Leslie, R.C. (Robert Charles). A Waterbiography. London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1894.
Guide to the Charles Robert Leslie Collection
compiled by Fiona Robinson and Francis Lapka
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts
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