Saturday, December 30, 2023

A Victorian Oriental Jewel... Leighton House

I learnt of Leighton House due to the commissioned work there realised by the grand ceramacist, William de Morgan and vowed to visit this Victorian'palace to art' that was home and artist's studio to the much-acclaimed Academician, the painter and sculptor Frederick Leighton (1830-1896).
Following considerable early success due to the purchase of his first major painting by Queen Victoria, and buoyed by substantial family wealth, Leighton decided to have Leighton House built specifically to his requirements by architect, George Aitchison (1825-1910) whom he had met during travel to Rome. While numerous studio-houses were constructed and concentrated around Holland Park and Kensington from the latter part of the 19th century, it is fair to say that Leighton's was unique in the genre.
As fitting for an individual of his position - much respected by fellow artists, frequented by royalty, political figures and members of the literary circles alike - Leighton's house is imposing in size and stature. From its conception, in the 1860s until his death over thirty years later, Leighton continued to extend and enhance the original design of its structure in line with aesthetic vision and his practical needs as an artist.
Although born in Yorkshire, Leighton spent much of his youth travelling around Europe due to the ill health of his mother. In this way, his education was cosmopolitan and he was receptive to the artistic and cultural influences that he was exposed to, and would continue to be so throughout his life thanks to his extensive travels. Whilst as an artist he was drawn to classical, historical and biblical themes, his aesthetic interests were widespread but as seen in Leighton House, the Middle East was of particular importance to him.
From his trips to Syria, Egypt, Morocco and more specifically visits to Damascus, Cairo, Istanbul, Granada in Andalucia and Palermo, Sicily, Leighton brought back numerous textiles, rugs and ceramic pieces and more significantly the desire to create a space that would provide him with "something beautiful to look at". To house these items and assimilate aspects of these aesthetic influences, Leighton commissioned Aitchison to create the Arab and Narcissus Halls and staircase.
Work on the two-storey Arab Hall commenced in 1877, with its design and decoration incorporating a variety of sources of inspiration but the main influence is said to have been a Sicilian palace, La Zisa. Many of the ceramic tiles used here and in other parts of the house date back to 16th and 17th century Damascus, whereas others were specifically designed on commission by William de Morgan, and the mural friezes were the work of Walter Crane. The mosaic floors were designed by Aitchison, and surround a water fountain in the centre of the hall.
On the top part of the Arab Hall is the wooden-screen window box that looks down from the upper floor Silk Room containing the picture gallery, which was created in the last years of Leighton's life. It is easy to imagine odalisques, reclining on the cushions, hidden away from sight in an imperial harem. On display is one of Lawrence Alma-Tadema's oriental paintings which seems perfectly fitting
The 'Arab' extension of the house followed the early addition of greater studio space in 1869, providing an extensive light-filled area overlooking the garden, wherein to carry out work in optimal conditions. Leighton was certainly a prodigious painter, but in fact appears to have been proficient in much of what he undertook. Not only did he become President of the Royal Academy in 1878, he was also commander in the Artists Rifles, ready to defend England from attack.
Of his private life, very little is actually known. Despite his great public persona, numerous friends and acquaitances from the privileged social circles, Leighton appears to have lived a discreet existence. Although thought to have been homosexual, that has never been confirmed and there is little personal correspondance nor any journals or diaries to throw any light onto any aspect of his life as a private being.
Of Leighton's art on display in the house, I generally preferred the simple paintings and sketches carried out during his travels to the heavy, rather sterile classical pieces he was famed for. Leighton died just one day after earning the title Lord Leighton, and after his death, the house contents were sold off at Christie's whilst the home was used to exhibit art. For many decades, Leighton House was in a somewhat sorry state, suffering from war damage in the Second World War and then general disinterest and decline over the following years. Since the turn of the century however, it has undergone extensive work due to the Closer to Home restoration project and more recently the Hidden Gem to National Treasure transformation to ensure that it is safeguarded for the future whilst meeting the requirements of the public today.

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