Inside Lord Leighton PRA’s masterpiece-filled home

Published 24 October 2022

One of the most beautiful houses in London has reopened to the public. Here, Simon Wilson writes that the Former President of the Royal Academy’s home is a testament to his artistic vision.

  • From the Autumn 2022 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA

    Simon Wilson is RA Magazine’s columnist and a former Tate curator

    Frederic, Lord Leighton PRA is among the most distinguished of all Royal Academicians, hugely famous in the Victorian age and the only British artist ever raised to the peerage. But history has not been entirely kind to him, and he remains a peculiarly elusive figure both artistically and personally. However, the reopening of the Leighton House Museum in London offers an opportunity to think again about him and his position in the history of art, since the artist’s house he created for himself in Kensington is certainly one of his most original and compelling works.

    After his death in 1896 the contents were sold but the house survived to become a museum in 1929. Its increasing popularity in recent decades has finally led to its loving restoration and expansion under the aegis of senior curator Daniel Robbins. The addition of a new entrance and exhibition facilities, as well as the essential café and shop and lovely new loos, not only enhances the visitor’s experience but enables us to see more clearly what the house has to tell us of Leighton himself.

  • The Arab Hall, Leighton House

    The Arab Hall, Leighton House

    © RBKC, Leighton House. Image courtesy Dirk Lindner

  • A problem in considering a classically based artist like Leighton has been the overwhelming dominance Impressionism has come to have in our view of the art of his time. To put him in perspective we need to be reminded of what was happening in art in England while Impressionism was being unleashed in France. This was, in a nutshell, Pre-Raphaelitism, and it was in fact the other foundational ‘ism’ of Western art in the second half of the 19th century. While Impressionism effectively abolished tradition, Pre-Raphaelitism renewed it, injecting into it a modern consciousness and giving birth to the international movement known as Symbolism, within which Leighton’s painting can be seen to take its place. Then, through William Morris, Pre-Raphaelitism gave birth to the Arts and Crafts Movement, a revolution in architecture and design which again went international, with profound effects, and it is within that development that Leighton House in turn takes its place.

    Leighton built his house between 1864 and 1866, adding what became its most striking feature, the Arab Hall, in 1879-81. The house is an early, outstanding example of the new architecture and design of the era. Its street façade of plain red brick is of modest simplicity. Step inside however, and you enter a sumptuously coloured, darkly luminous magic kingdom. The refurbishment has heightened this initial experience of the house by restoring the original lobby, which had become an untidy reception area, including putting back the Tintoretto (School of) that had occupied one wall. From there you enter a linked sequence of three spaces; the staircase hall, the intermediate Narcissus Hall and the climax of the Arab Hall. These cover the length of the ground floor and together constitute an environment of breathtaking and highly original beauty. A key element in this effect is the contrast of the areas of black provided by the japanned woodwork of the grand staircase and the imposing, unusually wide-framed doors to the drawing and dining rooms, with the startlingly large expanses of monochrome tiles of an unearthly deep peacock blue, by the great Arts and Crafts potter William de Morgan, and the panels of superb antique Islamic tiles which predominate particularly in the Arab Hall. The leading Arts and Crafts artist and designer Walter Crane provided a gold mosaic frieze, and to fully appreciate the significance of the whole scheme I strongly recommend the excellent virtual tour to be found on the museum’s website.

  • The Silk Room, Leighton House

    The Silk Room, Leighton House

    © RBKC, Leighton House. Image courtesy Dirk Lindner

  • The upper floor is dominated by what must be one of the most perfect painter’s studios ever built, combining beauty and functionality in equal measure. The spectacular space is lit by a huge north-facing glass bay in which was placed the model’s throne. At the east end is a minstrels’ gallery, built so that Leighton could paint from it his tallest canvases, although it is also a major decorative feature, now restored with fine reconstructions of the two massive bookcases, designed by Leighton, that were originally at its base. Essentially simple and geometric in structure, black japanned and set with precious lapis lazuli roundels, they possess an austere richness. The sideboard that is a major feature of the dining room is another restored example of Leighton’s artistic furniture, which stands beside the innovatory work of pioneers of modern design such as Christopher Dresser and E.W. Godwin, who were Leighton’s contemporaries.

    When Christopher Wren died he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral with an epitaph, part of which famously reads si monumentum requiris circumspice – if you seek his monument, look around you. Leighton House is more a grand chapel than a cathedral but somewhere on its walls I think those words should be inscribed.

    • Beauty and the beast RA magazine page

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