Leighton House Museum is the former home and studio of the leading Victorian artist, Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896). When you arrive the formal red brick exterior leaves you unprepared for the ‘Palace of Art’ inside.
About Leighton House
Designed by his friend, the architect George Aitchison RA (1825–1910), this is the only purpose-built studio-house open to the public in the UK. Leighton was highly ambitious and his home was used as a showcase for artistic taste and to entertain and impress the foremost artists, collectors and celebrities of the day.
The house was built in stages over thirty years. Leighton acquired the plot in 1864 and moved in by 1866 to an initially modest-sized house with six rooms. It expanded to ten rooms; the last addition being the Silk Room, a gallery space lined with green silk to display the collection of contemporary paintings, including pictures by John Everett Millais, George Frederic Watts, and John Singer Sargent.
It evolved into what he described as his ‘House Beautiful’ and became a place where he could live, work, entertain and display his art collections.
About Lord Leighton
Although born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, Leighton spent much of his youth on the continent. As a child, Leighton and his family lived in Europe, spending time in Paris, Rome, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and Germany. When he was fifteen years old, the family settled in Frankfurt where Leighton received formal art training and studied the paintings of European Old Master artists.
Leighton moved to London in 1859 and commissioned this building that year and went on to live here for the rest of his life. He traveled extensively, including trips to North Africa and the Middle East, which were to have a significant impact on the design of his studio-home.
Leighton remained unmarried and little is known of his private life (although he did father a son by one of his models, Lily Mason). He was one of the most famous Victorian artists of the day – Queen Victoria bought his first artwork and she even visited the house in 1869.
He rose to the height of his profession, serving as President of the Royal Academy of Arts for over 18 years and enjoyed considerable wealth from the sale of his works. Leighton is the only British artist to have been made a Lord; becoming Baron Leighton of Stretton shortly before his death in 1896. (He died the following day making him the most short-lived peer in history.) He is buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
After His Death
After his death, his two sisters, Alexandra and Augusta, tried to sell the house but wanted it to become a museum of his works. This made it hard to fid a buyer and they then made the decision to sell all of the contents at auction in the summer of 1896.
The house itself was retained and, with the assistance of Leighton’s neighbor and biographer Emilie Barrington, it was opened as a center for the arts around 1900. Attempts were made to preserve the house through the Leighton House Committee. It was not until 1926 that Kensington Borough Council purchased the freehold for £2,750 and with the support of the local Perrin family, a new wing was constructed to allow for temporary exhibitions.
Over the next 50 years, the appreciation of Victorian art and architecture remained limited. The house was used as a children’s library, theatre museum, music venue and gallery space for local artists. Gradually much of the original decoration and finishes were lost but the Arab Hall and Narcissus Hall survived largely intact.
Leighton fell out of fashion in the twentieth century. So much so that his masterpiece, Flaming June, disappeared off the radar, only to be found boxed in over a chimney in a Battersea home in the 1960s. Famously, a young Andrew Lloyd Webber once saw the painting in a shop on Chelsea’s King’s Road, but his grandmother refused to lend him the £50 asking price, calling it a piece of Victorian junk.
Between 2008 and 2010 Leighton House was closed for extensive refurbishment and restoration to bring it close to the state it was in Leighton’s day. Many pieces of furniture and textiles have been reproduced and original paintings and pieces loaned back for display. Some 550 books of 23.5-carat gold leaf were needed to restore the dome in the Arab Room.
It was after that refurbishment that I last visited so I was well overdue a return trip.
The Museum has recently completed a further major redevelopment. This has provided additional gallery space and a new De Morgan Café. Both the restored wing and the historic house now have step-free access and are interconnected thanks to a lift and a spectacular helical staircase, decorated with a hand-painted contemporary mural.
Leighton’s Winter Studio, an extension of the original house supported on cast iron columns and built at the end of the 1880s to allow him to work through the winter months, is now fully restored and integrated into the rest of the historic house interiors.
There’s a new reception area and a basement-level drawings gallery. The ground-floor De Morgan Café has floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed original brickwork and William de Morgan ceramics on display opposite the café counter.
Oneness is the first contemporary artwork on permanent display at the museum. It is an 11-meter-high mural hand-painted by the Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari. It envelopes the curved walls of the new helical staircase across three floors. Inspired by a 13th-century poem by Rumi exploring cultural unity, its turquoise calligraphic brushstrokes reference the distinctive tiles from the iconic Arab Hall.
There are two new gallery spaces for temporary exhibitions. Artists and Neighbours: the Holland Park Circle (15 October 2022 – 19 March 2023), features newly acquired artworks by Albert Moore, JJ Shannon and Colin Hunter, It examines the story of the ‘Holland Park Circle’ – a unique community of prominent artists whose fashionable, purpose-built studio-houses heralded the era of the artist as celebrity.
Simultaneously, A Life of Drawing: Highlights from the Leighton Collection (15 October 2022 – 19 February 2023) showcases a rarely-seen selection of Leighton’s studies and sketches made within his studio and on his travels.
Leighton’s drawings were among his most prized possessions. The hundreds he preserved in his own archives were lifelong sources of inspiration that he returned to repeatedly as he planned his art.
That’s enough background information. Let me tell you what it’s like to visit the Leighton House Museum.
The Entrance Hall is an understated introduction to the wonder about to appear. There are folders available in each room so you can find out more about the furniture and artworks.
And then, boom! The interior becomes quite extraordinary.
The worst thing you can do here is to rush your visit. There is always a keenness to reach the Arab Hall but slow down and take in the wonder. The staircase was always a place to impress visitors and display large paintings. The 17th-century Iznik tiles were installed in 1867 and the peacock is a 2021 addition although Leighton did own a peacock. The mosaic floor was designed by Aitchinson who was the house’s architect.
OK, turn left and be dazzled. The Narcissus Hall connects the Staircase Hall and the Arab Hall. The vibrant blue tiles were produced by the ceramicist William De Morgan (1839–1917) and were installed as part of the Arab Hall extension.
William De Morgan began his career designing stained glass with the encouragement of William Morris. In 1872 he established a pottery in Chelsea. De Morgan quickly became the leading potter of the Arts & Crafts movement, producing ceramics inspired by medieval and Islamic designs. He was best known for his revival of luster.
And then, wow. The highlight of any visit is the extraordinary Arab Hall. Completed in 1882, it was more expensive to build than the whole of the original house. The Arab Hall reflects Leighton’s fascination with the Middle East and was inspired by La Zisa, the twelfth-century Arab-Norman castle at Zisa, near Palermo, Sicily.
The double-height space is adorned with Leighton’s collection of tiles. Most are late 16th-century tiles from Damascus, Syria, but he also acquired tiles on his travels to Turkey and Egypt. The artist Walter Crane was commissioned to design the frieze for the Arab Hall and William de Morgan made repairs to many of the damaged tiles. The extravagance is completed with a pool with a fountain set into a Victorian mosaic floor.
Also on the ground floor, The Library is the front-of-the-house room Leighton used as his study. Unusually, there is a fireplace under the window. The smoke travelled horizontally within the wall before rising to conventional chimneys. The same design trick appears at the back of the house in the Drawing Room. While the Drawing Room has a seating area that is more like a conventional Victorian parlour, do look at the walls as there are paintings by artists Leighton admired including Constable, Millais and Corot.
The Dining Room was well-used as Leighton entertained generously. The table could seat 18 diners and he reportedly used a chair that was slightly higher than those of his guests. I enjoyed seeing more paintings by Leighton here as well as the display of ceramics.
Moving to the first floor, do take the time to admire the staircase.
The Antechamber and Silk Room were added over the Narcissus Hall when the Arab Hall extension was done. The Silk Room acted as a picture gallery containing works by contemporary artists who were also friends, such as John Everett Millais.
Off to the left is Leighton’s Bedroom which was the only accommodation in the house. It’s a modest room with a small single bed. The wallpaper looks like a Morris & Co (William Morris) pattern but was actually designed by George Gilbert Scott Jnr, son of the great Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott.
This is where Leighton died in January 1896.
From an unassuming room, you cross the landing to the impressive artist’s Studio. The largest room in the house, this was a showroom and a functional workspace. Take your time to admire the many paintings on the walls.
Every spring, musical soirées were held in the large studio. Some of the most prominent international musicians of the day performed here for a select group of Leighton’s friends.
Continuing through, you pass the back stairs leading to the models’ entrance. Victorian convention dictated that family and work life should be kept separate. While this didn’t apply to the single artist, Leighton still chose to follow social etiquette with this arrangement. There was a fireplace here to warm the models who posed nude in the studio.
You then enter the conservatory-like Winter Studio which had enough natural light to allow Leighton to work all year round. And you then reach the top of the new helical staircase to move down to the ground floor or basement.
Hollard Park Circle
Leighton’s status encouraged several other artists of the time to create their own prestigious studio-houses close by combining domestic accommodation with studio space. This created the ‘Holland Park Circle’ artistic community. G.F. Watts was the first artist to move into the area in 1851. By the end of the 19th century, nine artists had commissioned purpose-built studio-houses in the area. G.F. Watts’s house was at the end of Leighton’s garden. Nearby there was also Whistler, Millais, Millet, Delacroix, Rossetti and Corot.
Some made alterations to existing houses to create their studios while others rented small studio cottages. They worked with the most progressive architects of the day and decorated and furnished in a consciously artistic manner. The most remarkable of these studio-houses though was Leighton’s house, which came to be seen as a model for how a great artist should live.
The Museum has a booklet with a map and further information so you can explore the neighbourhood after your visit.
When Leighton was alive, the house was sometimes opened to the public. As he travelled so often, the housekeeper could sell tickets when he was away. Leighton was proud of his ‘Palace of Art’ and wanted others to see and enjoy it. I’m very glad the opportunity to visit is back again for all.
Leighton House Visitor Information
Address: Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Avenue, London W14 8LZ
Opening times: Wednesdays to Mondays, 10am – 5:30pm
Ticket information: Adults £11, Concessions £9, Children aged 6-18 years £5, Children under 6 years and carers admitted for free.
Official Website: www.rbkc.gov.uk/museums
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