Take a walk through beautiful, leafy Kensington, and you might just stumble upon one of London’s best-kept secrets without even knowing it. Plain and unassuming on the outside, Leighton House is a palace of art and decadence when you step through its front doors. Once home to famous painter Sir Frederic Leighton, this Victorian house is unlike any home you’ll have ever seen, especially right in the middle of busy London. With ornate tile work, priceless art hanging from every wall, and a glorious artist’s studio, Leighton House really does have to be seen to be believed.
Frederic Leighton was one of the most prolific artists of the Victorian era and had an international as well as a national standing. He won a plethora of awards and honours and was well acquainted with members of the Royal Family. He was charming, handsome and had a generous nature, allowing him to move smoothly amidst the highest social circles and forge lasting friendships across the globe.
Leighton acquired the plot for his home in 1864 and immediately started to draw up plans for its construction. Wanting to build a purpose-built studio-house, he approached his friend George Aitchinson to be his architect for this monumental project. Leighton was very specific with what he wanted from his lavish home, and over the following thirty years, the house was extended and embellished to become the “private palace of art” that we see today.
Leighton House is the epitome of what was known as the “house beautiful” style, which promoted the notion of “Art for Art’s sake” and drew heavily on Middle-Eastern and Oriental decorative traditions. Indeed, the most impressive room in the house is without a doubt the Arab Hall. With its golden dome, intricate mosaics and walls lined with stunning Islamic tiles, this Middle Eastern inspired room is breathtaking in its detailed beauty.
Speaking with Senior Curator Daniel Robbins about this impressive but unusual room, he describes how Leighton’s inspiration for this extension came from his extensive travels in North Africa, Turkey and Damascus where he collected tiles and fabrics to bring back to his London home.
“By the end of the 1870s he had over 1000 tiles, and he had the idea of building this extraordinary extension to his house and being able to line the walls with these wonderful tiles,” explains Daniel, “And so he set about creating it based on a building that still stands - a palace in Palermo in Sicily called La Ziza which was a 12th Century palace. So using marbles, tiles and mosaics, he recreated the sense and spirit of that interior to create this so-called Arab Hall.”
The opulence of the Arab Hall continues through to the other richly decorated interiors. Visitors will be awestruck by the incredible vibrancy of the peacock blue tiles that line the ground floor walls leading to the Arab Hall, which still shine and glimmer despite their considerable age. According to Daniel Robbins, William De Morgan, the ceramicist responsible for these stunning tiles, was so obsessed with getting the highest quality of glaze on them that he actually ended up losing money on the job due to redoing so many of the tiles in order to not disappoint his esteemed client Leighton.
With such glamour and extravagance dripping from every wall and ceiling of the house, it would be natural to assume that Leighton’s bedroom would be similarly decorated. This is far from the case, however. In fact, it’s almost comically sober: dark green William Morris wallpaper and a modest single bed are pretty much all that make up his sleeping quarters. Rumours of Leighton’s sexuality have been circulating since before he passed away, but from his sparse bedroom, it is assumed he rarely had company staying in his private room.
While Leighton continues to be a mysterious figure in art history, his work on the other hand continues to be celebrated and recognised globally as an enduring example of neoclassical mastery. Leighton House Museum prides itself on its varied programme of events throughout the year which includes retrospectives of Leighton’s own work as well as exhibitions of Leighton’s contemporaries’ art and current up-and-coming artists whose canvasses can often be seen hanging in this lavish house for special exhibitions.
It is with great excitement that Leighton House Museum has announced its upcoming exhibition starting on 4th November 2016, Flaming June: The Making of an Icon. This landmark exhibition will see the return of Leighton’s most famous and celebrated work, Flaming June, to the artist’s house from the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. The exhibition will explore the extraordinary story of this painting, from its creation in Leighton’s studio, its first critical reception at the Royal Academy, its “disappearance” in the middle of the 20th Century, to its acquisition by Luis A. Ferré, Governor of Puerto Rico for the Museo de Arte de Ponce in 1963 and subsequent rise to international fame as one of the most memorable and reproduced images British art has ever seen.
In the Victorian era, Leighton’s house was at the very centre of the London art world, a hotbed for creativity, debate, and socialising. Today, Leighton House Museum is an opportunity to enter a secret world of bygone decadence, which allows visitors to understand and appreciate Victorian art and architecture. Don’t delay in visiting one of London’s most beautiful little-known gems.
Leighton House Museum is located at 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 8LZ, and is open daily from 10am to 5:30pm, except Tuesdays. Tickets are £7, £5 concessions. Flaming June: The Making of an Icon will run from 4th November 2016–2nd April 2017. For more information and too book tickets, visit Leighton House online.