Leighton House, Kensington, England – an artist’s studio and home…….
On a leafy street in Kensington, close to Holland Park, there is a 19th century house that is a true Victorian folly. I’m talking about Leighton House, home to the artist and sculptor Frederic, Lord Leighton. A bizarre mixture of Arabic architecture, Egyptian woodwork and Turkish hand-decorated ceramic tiles. The house is a monument to the man and to the artist. A Victorian gentleman’s home and studio.
Climbing the steps of the red brick building from the street I notice the domed turret at the western end of the property – mosque-like in appearance. Inside the house this dome creates a lofty ceiling in the Arabian or Narcissus Hall. A shallow reflecting pool is surrounded by elaborate, hand-painted tiles, carved wooden panels and engraved ceramics bearing quotations from the Koran. Daylight trickles in through the intricate trellis work that covers the windows. This is an entrance hall designed to impress and amaze the visitor. It suggests an owner who is well-travelled, erudite and bold.
In fact Frederic Leighton was one of the most well-known painters of his day. His Studio was designed to welcome visitors and to impress potential patrons. Over the years Queen Victoria, Robert Browning, John Millais, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and William Morris all visited. The Queen herself was an early customer! Leighton became President of the Royal Academy in 1878. This was the pinnacle of his career. He was passionate about art and very importantly he was independently wealthy – so he was able to live in an elegant style befitting his status as a successful artist. When you step into Leighton House it is the chance to step into the world of this wealthy, successful, Victorian artist.
Leighton was a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites. He knew most of these painters and was influenced by their work. The PRB as they were known wanted to take art back to the days before Raphael (pre-Raphaelite). They focused on classical art, beauty and nature. They also favoured a type of fairy-tale realism which fascinated the viewer. I’m thinking here particularly of Holman Hunt’s incredible painting ‘The Scapegoat’. A graphically honest and disturbing painting of a goat cast into the desert loaded up with the pains, sins and evil deeds of the villagers. By casting the goat out into the desert the villagers believed they could metaphorically shed and abandon their evil deeds. The picture is shown below. You can see this painfully realistic painting at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.
The Pre-Raphaelite artists were hugely popular in Britain. There were many, newly wealthy industrialists, factory owners and business men anxious to build up private art collections. Lord Lever, owner of Lever Brothers, a major producer and importer of palm oil from West Africa was one of them. Leighton was commissioned to paint an epic painting of a procession in classical Greece that was purchased by Lord Lever. In fact Lever started his art collection in the 1880s and collected many works from artists of the day – Leighton was always a firm favourite.
Today this painting hangs in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. If you’d like to see this epic painting in real life head up to the Wirral Peninsula just south of Liverpool. The Lady Lever Art Gallery has a wonderful collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. For more on the Pre-Raphaelites, Leighton and Victorian England head to Leighton House, Kensington or to the Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington.
Now until the end of March there is a temporary exhibition at Leighton House ‘A Victorian Obsession’ which features the romantic and classical paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The highlight of the exhibition is Tadema’s ‘Roses of Heliogabalus’ painted in 1888. This spectacular canvas depicts a decadent feast held by the Roman Emperor – he has invited his guests to an orgy of sensory pleasures where the guests drown in pink rose petals. The painting is magnificently displayed in a room that is scented for the occasion with an elegant and evocative Jo Malone rose-perfume. The result is an assault on the senses of this vibrant, sensual, evocative painting, the profusion of colours and the mingling of the rose scent coming from each corner of the room.
Note – the photos of Leighton House, London are copyright Will Pryce. Other photos are my own or in the public domain. The Roses of Heliogabalus is now part of the ‘Simon Perez Collection’ (Mexico). The photo is c. Studio Sebert Photographers.