In these dark damp days of January, many of us would give almost anything to be in another part of the world and to feel the warmth of the sun once again – but what can you do if can’t afford the plane ticket or can’t get the time off work?
A visit to Leighton House must be the next best thing. Almost more than any other building in Middlesex, this hidden treasure in Holland Park has the capacity to transport anyone who crosses it’s threshold to another land – and all for the price of a tube ticket and £10 admission fee.
So it was on a soggy grey Sunday afternoon, that I decided to head down to Leighton House battling against the heavy rain and an umbrella with a habit of turning inside out at even a moderate gust of wind.
I was cursing that I had not worn better shoes for walking as the house was a little off the beaten track for me – as Holland Park Tube was closed on weekend of my visit necessitating a walk from Notting Hill Station.
When I finally arrived I had to admit that the building looked pretty unprepossessing from the outside.
However, the sight that greeted me as I began exploring the floors on the lower level of the house made any effort getting there more than worthwhile.
At this stage I knew little about the former inhabitant of the house not really knowing too much about his work. Being a Victorian gentleman I perhaps expected him to have been a little restrained or prim and proper – a bit of a product of his time. How wrong I was!
After wandering around by myself for the good part of an hour glorying in the splendor of my surroundings I was soon put to rights on all matters connected with the great man’s life taking the opportunity to join one of the regular guided tours of the house.
Frederick Leighton’s early life
Frederick Leighton was an artist, collector and explorer (born 3 December 1830).
He was a man whose passions dominated and defined his living space. Like most travellers Leighton would bring back something of the country he had visited but whereas most people would settle for one or two small objects (be it an snowstorm Eiffel Tower or some Russian dolls) Leighton decided to create a suitable living space that reflected his adventures overseas in one of his favourite regions – The Middle East.
Leighton’s art is considered part of the aesthetic movement. This movement perceived an ugliness in Victorian Britain and wanted to celebrate art for the sense of beauty in itself rather than any greater significance or meaning. He didn’t have any deep interest in the religions of the countries he visited but was more interested in immersing himself in the beauty of their art and culture.
Leighton came from a very wealthy family. His grandfather had been a physician to the Russian royal family, knighted by the Czar in 1830 and rewarded with a sizeable fortune. This money allowed for a comfortable lifestyle for Leighton’s family who spent much time overseas as a warmer climate which helped his mother’s health.
Being interested in art from a young age, Leighton studied for brief periods at the Academy of Art in Berlin and Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. He also lived in Frankfurt, Rome and Paris honing his skills and gradually achieving artistic success.
Leighton creates his ideal home
As Leighton began to achieve greater artistic success he longed for his own home – finding himself living in rented accommodation and with baliffs threatening to remove his furniture to settle his landlord’s unpaid taxes.
In 1864 the opportunity to realise this dream finally presented itself through his friendship with the painter George Frederic Watts – who was lodging with Thoby and Sara Prinsep who had taken the lease on Little Holland House from Lord and Lady Holland. To attempt to alleviate a precarious financial situation, Lord and Lady Holland had been selling off some of their land in the area and Leighton – through his contact with Watts – was in the right place at the right time to acquire some of this land.
Having found suitable land in the Holland Park area (which was just farmland at that time) Leighton developed another powerful friendship with architect George Aitchson. Being a bit of a man about town and a ladies man, Leighton would call at the Aitchson family home and insist on having a dance with Aitchison’s sisters and other girlfriends. Through his friendship, Leighton inspired Aitchison to take on construction of his bachelor pad in 1864 – one of the first studio houses ever built – (and it was Aitchson who worked on continuous improvements and expansions to the property over the years).
The Arab Hall
Leighton aimed to create a unique abode (to be designed with entertaining and work in mind – with The Arab Hall and Studio as its focal points) and engaged the services of the explorer Richard Burton and one of Burton’s friends Dr William Wright. Burton and Wright were responsible for obtaining most of the stunning tiling displayed in The Arab Hall at Leighton House.
The Arab Hall is based on a reception room at the Sicilio-Norman Palace of La Zisa at Palermo in Sicily (which Leighton almost certainly visited); although most of the tiles acquired by Wright and Burton for Leighton came from Syria. Many were not in the best condition, being broken and damaged. Here potter William Morgan was invaluable in recreating suitable replacement tiles to insert into the mosaic. You can see examples of panels (by Morgan) showing the image of a parrot designed to match the original on the right. On the original tiles the birds have a break on their necklines. These authenticate their originality as Islam prohibits the display of images of living creatures in buildings so the break in the neck indicates signifies lack of life but the tile created by Morgan (having no such belief) shows no break.
Blue is the most prevalent colour on the tiling being seen as representative of wealth and believed to have powers to ward off the evil eye.
Arabian Hall with its small fountain (which is apparently very easy to step into if you’re not looking from admiring this startling room) and Syrian titles really is the most beautiful part of the house but unfortunately I have not put photos into this post as Leighton House has strict rules regarding photography of the interior of the building, but I did take the opportunity to do a little (pretty poor) sketching of some tiling – see left.
Leighton was an unconventional man who never settled down, claiming he was married to his work. There were rumours that he was homosexual, fathered a child with one of his models and was actually in a partnership with his long-time muse Dorothy Dene (all very scandalous considering the straight-laced nature of Victorian English society at that time).
Dene had a great impact on Leighton’s life and work. At one time it was rumoured that she was actually his partner being referred to in letters from Italian painter Giovanni Costal as his “wife”. Dene gained much by her association with Leighton. A Cockney, originally from Clapham, Leighton paid for her education and through his contacts she landed some substantial roles. One of the productions she starred in was revised by George Bernard Shaw and it was said that she inspired him to write Pygmalion which was later adapted to the musical “My Fair Lady” – it may have came from the words “Mayfair Lady” (well to do Lady) as pronounced by Dene in a strong Cockney accent.
Dene never lived with Leighton, and the references in Costal’s letters are confusing and may come from some sort of misunderstanding, or even playfulness. Leighton left no diaries and his correspondence is telling in it’s lack of reference to his personal circumstances. No definite primary evidence has yet come to light that effectively dispels the secrecy that Leighton built up around himself.
Leighton’s best known paintings and work from his collection
Dorothy was just one of many models used by Leighton – who always painted his models from nude – but there is no doubt that she was one of his favourites and inspired the creation of one of his greatest masterpieces “Flaming June” which was sold (for $140) to Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico and remains there to this day.
There is also quite a bit of original art on show from Leighton’s collection and well known works such as Portrait of an Elderly Gentleman painted by the great Italian Renaissance artist Tintoretto and Shelling Peas by John Everett Millais are on display.
A Royal admirer and other interests
Finding favour with royalty came easily to Leighton, with one of his paintings (Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence) being purchased by Queen Victoria who visited the address in private on 12 March 1869 and noted in her journal “He is most agreeable and gentlemanlike; his house and studio charmingly arranged…”
Leighton was one of the first to join the 38th Middlesex (Artist) Volunteers – along with other well known artists of the time such as George Frederic Watts, Val Prinsep, William Morris and William Holman Hunt. This unlikely band of artistic warriors were far from natural soldier material and many dropped out along the way, but Leighton made a long term commitment to the volunteers formed in 1860 out of patriotic fever due to the threat of invasion by Napoleon III of France rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Upon Leighton’s death in 1896 from angina, the estate was left to his two sisters. In his will Leighton stipulated that he wanted to make a large donation to the Royal Academy (Leighton was made President of the Academy in 1878) and to settle substantial sums on certain individuals. To raise money, the family decided to try to sell the house and contents but no buyers could be enticed to bid for this rather individualistic bachelor pad. Eventually, the contents were sold at auction and largely dispersed worldwide.
Leighton’s sisters formed the Leighton House Committee and proposed to sell the House to London County Council for public use but a variety of disagreements ensued particularly between the Committee and Val Prinsep, who was present at Leighton’s death, and believed that Committee’s intentions were not in line with Leighton’s final wishes.
Eventually, the house was sold to The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Sadly bombing during the Second World War and later unsympathetic renovations did much damage, but work conducted in 2010 restored the house (from use of records and photographs) to something closer to it’s appearance in Leighton’s day.
Whilst I have never been to Syria or to Sicilio-Norman Palace of La Zisa at Palermo in Sicily, something about the atmosphere of the Arab Hall reminds me of a trip I did in 2003 Samarkand in Uzbekistan – particularly the buildings of Registan Square – Madrassa of Ulugh Beg, Sher-Dor Madrash and Tilla-Kora Madrasa – see pics below.
These beautiful buildings were built during the time of Emperor Timur (who made the city his capital in 1370) (founder and ruler of the Timurid Empire).
If Timur and Leighton had met would they have got on? On the surface a brutal 14th century Emperor and a Victorian Artist would have little in common. Though it seems likely that had Leighton been around during Timur’s rule he would have spared his life as he is on record as being merciful towards those with artistic abilities that he could use to work on buildings. During his time in Samarkand, Timir rebuilt most of the city and populated it with the great artisans and craftsmen from across the empire and would think of nothing of knocking down buildings he was unhappy with and starting again. Being a bit of a radical and not afraid to try new things makes me suspect that they would have had a fair bit in common as well as the fact that Timur like Leighton could be said to be an admirer of the female form – keeping many concubines and marrying 6 times!
Leighton House is a great building to spend a couple of hours exploring and there is also the option on 19 February to visit in the evening and listen to some jazz at the same time. To find out more visit the The Leighton House website.
Nearest Tube Stations: Kensington Oympia, Shepherds Bush, Holland Park
Address: 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 8LZ
Leighton House Museum is open daily from 10.00 am to 5.30 pm, except Tuesdays.