Will Alsop RA on the architecture of Leighton House

Published 13 November 2014

In this article from the RA Magazine archive, architect Will Alsop discusses Leighton House, and what its architecture says about Frederick Leighton, the Royal Academy President who commissioned it.

  • From the Winter 1995 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    To employ an architect to design a house for you, whether it is built or not, is a form of therapy. The exercise of extracting a brief from a client requires the future occupant to consider ‘how’ they live, and to evaluate qualities such as privacy, expression, relationships and outward appearance, which makes the subject confront issues about themselves that normally need not be addressed. Not only do questions of motive, often couched in purely practical terms, have to be discussed, but behind the discussion is the knowledge that the results might one day be realised in bricks and mortar for all to see.

    So how did Frederic Leighton work with George Aitchison, his friend and architect? The first met in Rome when Aitchison was still a student. The meeting was significant so far as the eventual house is concerned as the building’s external detail owes something to contemporary Roman domestic architecture. There is a blandness to the exterior that is only lifted by minimal ornamentation, making the house externally quite undistinguished. I believe this blandness comes from the complexity of the plan which reveals little relationship between the exterior and interior. It feels as though all outward aesthetic was sacrificed to internal consideration.

  • Leighton House Museum, London. Exterior of The Arab Hall

    Leighton House Museum, London. Exterior of The Arab Hall

    Courtesy of Leighton House Museum and Will Pryce

  • The original house of 1866 was modest. This was fitting for a man who was obviously careful with his money. Leighton did not start the creation of the ‘Palace’ until he had sold his first major picture for 1,000 guineas. Feeling that the expense could be justified he embarked on the project, but with caution. He did after all have Scottish roots. The house of 1866 was intended to be extended at a later date and this was taken into account by Aitchison, thought the expansion when it did occur was not as originally intended.

    The Studio was the major space with everything else subordinate, almost to the point of self-denial. The bedroom was mean, but adequate, with a small bathroom adjacent. There were no guest rooms as anyone staying would be an unnecessary distraction. The main stairs were oversized anticipating the later expansion. Views through to the rear gardens were considered and could, if the internal doors were open, be viewed on entering the front door. This axial transparency was an expression of the occupant’s dislike of interruption: the visitor was immediately shown an exit. To me, this was a plan riddled with guilt. The idea of allowing anything to distract from the essential purpose of the house was excluded.

    A notable concept was the window over the fireplace in the drawing room. The window occupies the wall where we would expect to see a chimney. In itself the idea is not only amusing but also practical, as it allows the occupant to view the garden whilst warming his hands. This charming idea is difficult to see as being a request by Leighton as he seems to have ignored the garden as an art form in itself and as a potential vista from other parts of the house. This is surprising for a man who adored Italy so much. I can find no reference to the garden at all, which only goes to reinforce my belief in the hermetic nature of the house. It was designed as a world apart; a place in which to construct another, and possibly better world that could not be interfered with by external influences.

  • The Arab Hall

    The Arab Hall

    Courtesy of Leighton House Museum and Will Pryce

  • All the various additions and alterations that were executed were all devoid of specific function and were essentially indulgences for a man devoted to art who lived alone, save for his Balkan house-keeper. The one exception is the entrance hall. The rearrangement of the front door, which denied Aitchison the symmetrical plan he had anticipated, resulted in a general entrance hall that was large enough for visitors to wait in. This was important as Leighton was now President of the Academy and conducted business from the library when at home. With this new arrangement it was possible for the visitor to enter the house without ever entering Leighton’s private world, which was obviously an important consideration.

  • The Arab Hall, Leighton House Museum, London

    The Arab Hall, Leighton House Museum, London

    Courtesy of Leighton House Museum and Justin Barton

  • The new spaces included the Arab Hall, the one room that lingers most in people’s memory. This is because it is totally unexpected inside a building with such an austere exterior. Built to exhibit his collection of tiles and artefacts, this space is nothing if not exotic. The play of the fountain moderates the silence of the house, and when no unwanted visitors are present, the double doors can be opened to allow the sound to penetrate through the building. The double height space of the Arab Hall carries up to a ‘balcony’ arrangement, which later extended to the south. This windowless space has no specific function apart from the display of paintings.

    But even this is rather difficult due to the excessive modulation of the plan and the architectural detailing. In other words, it is more believable to consider this space simply as an opportunity to disport oneself in the midst of an illusion. An illusion of another culture – an Arabic culture that Leighton loved and understood. Alternatively, this space could be seen as an ante-room for the performances and soirées that the studio became used for. Yet another denial of the title of a space – not studio but concert hall.

    The library contained almost no books, nor indeed was ever designed to house many volumes, but it does have another fireplace and window arrangement on axis with the drawing room window. In this way, with the doors open the drawing room, the Arab Hall, inner hall and library all become one space, with only the dining room maintaining its separate identity. This indicates that the art of eating was only a necessary interruption to the creation and experience of an aesthetic palace of art, and for that reason we find the room a rather prosaic chamber.

    It is apparent that in Leighton House there is a stronger relationship between the occupant’s desires and those of the architect than we would normally find in a client/architect relationship. This explains why architecturally the building is not particularly noteworthy, but the oddities of the plan and what it suggests about the occupant are fascinating.

    Read Caroline Bugler’s article on Lord Leighton RA and his contemporaries and the Victorian ideal of female beauty they captured in their paintings.

    Will Alsop RA is an architect, and was elected a Royal Academician in 2000.

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