It’s often the case with London’s museums or galleries that the buildings can leave you as much in awe as the contents therein. When it comes to Leighton House, however, there can be no doubt that the house is the star. To step inside this overlooked museum in Holland Park is to step directly inside the artistic vision of its former resident. A painter and sculptor, Leighton was one of the most famous British artists of the Victorian era, and the first and only painter to be given a peerage — although this was the shortest peerage in British history, with Leighton dying suddenly just a day after the honour was bestowed upon him.
Born in Scarborough in 1830, Leighton was educated in the arts on the European continent, before moving to London aged 30 — but not before his first major painting, Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna, had been purchased by Queen Victoria on the first day of its unveiling at the 1855 summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. While in London, Leighton became associated with the pre-Raphaelites, specialising in paintings of classical, biblical or historical subject matters, while his prominent sculptures were described as signalling a renaissance in British sculpture by his contemporaries— among his more famous works is the tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which he designed for Robert Browning in 1861. In 1864 he became an associate of the Royal Academy, before becoming its president in 1878.
Just four years after moving to London, Leighton purchased the plot for his house; he had met architect George Aitchison in Rome in the early 1850s, and had for years contemplated commissioning him to create a purpose-built studio house, despite the fact that he had never worked on a house before. In 1865, the pair began construction on the house, which was originally rather plain, particularly in its external appearance, but would be subject to a long series of extensions and alterations over the next 30 years. Though Leighton would live alone in the house’s solitary bedroom until his death, his painting studio (filled with both completed works and those in progress) and the house at large became a place to be seen in London society — even Queen Victoria was known to drop by.
One of the most beautiful and ornate of the many extensions was the construction of the Arab Hall, a two-storey pseudo-Islamic court, which began in 1877, following Leighton’s travels to the Middle East and extended Arab world in the ten years prior, including Egypt, Syria and Turkey. During these trips, Leighton had amassed a collection of textiles, pottery and other artifacts, beginning an extraordinary collection of tiles in Damascus, 1873, which can be seen lining the walls of the hall — the tiles typically date from the end of the 15th to the beginning of the 16th centuries, and are of huge historical importance. The hall itself was modeled on part of the La Zisa at Palermo in Sicily, a 12th century Sicilio-Norman palace, and was the product of a number of collaborations with Leighton’s contemporary artists, from potters to sculptors to illustrators. These collaborations lead to a richly-textured overall aesthetic, which blends Orientalist, Islamic and Victorian styles, with intricate carvings and lattice work, opulent gilding, mosaics and marble, a sultry sunken fountain in the centre of the floor and a magnificent domed ceiling adorned with intricate paintings.
Another of Leighton’s extensions to the building was the Silk Room, completed just prior to his death. Built on what had previously been a roof terrace, this room was designed as a picture gallery; on its walls, which were lined with green silk, Leighton hung paintings from a plethora of his leading contemporaries and Old Masters, taken from his growing collection. Although almost all of the vast personal collection that filled Leighton’s house were sold upon his death in 1896, today the museum honours this connoisseur spirit. In 1900, the house was converted to a museum, and the Leighton House Association set about with a campaign to create a collection of the artist’s own work to be put on display within its walls, with these remaining the core of the museum’s collection to this day.
Among the pieces by Leighton that can be found in the museum today are The Death of Brunelleschi, his final work as a student at the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut in Germany in 1852, and Clytie, the unfinished masterpiece that he was working on at the time of his death, neatly bookending his extraordinary career. There are 76 of Leighton’s oil paintings in total, alongside 700 drawings, casts of his sculptures and items of personal memorabilia. Also among the permanent displays are pieces by Leighton’s contemporaries, including prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, such as George Frederick Watts, John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones.
A trip to Leighton House museum does not just stop with the house itself. Having been originally built in a semi-rural area, the surrounding area was built up by other artists looking to emulate Leighton’s vision for themselves, with ‘Paradise Row’ and the Holland Park area in general becoming home to a unique colony of artists known as the Holland Park Circle, a hugely successful group of establishment-endorsed figures. After exploring Leighton’s beautiful home and the remarkable collection of paintings within it, take a stroll around this unique group of former 19th century studio-houses, for an invaluable insight into the splendor of successful, high-society artists of the Victorian era.
Open daily, 10.00am – 5.30pm, except Tuesdays.
Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road London, W14 8LZ, UK, +44 20 7602 3316