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.

All Things Bright and Beautiful... The Goldfinch.

I recently came across two Renaissance altarpiece paintings representing the Virgin and the Child, the one above by a Florentine master in the early 14th century, and the one below by a Mantuan master in the 16th century. Despite the two centuries that separate these works, and the differences in painterly approach and technique that are apparent, the one key feature that is common to both is the enigmatic presence of a goldfinch. Although I had seen these beautiful birds as details or conversely the main subject of a piece of art, I had never associated them with any specific religious significance.
Of course, I am referring to the rather menacing giant finch in Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1400), with its glinting eye and pointed beak near the vulnerable, nude forms of carnal pleasure-seekers, followed by The Goldfinch of 1654 by another Dutch painter, Carel Fabritius (image: Wikimedia Commons). Both birds are striking with their boldly-coloured plumage and are intriguing too as they lead us to puzzle over their significance or perhaps lack of one... Was there a shared meaning at work, over the centuries, in these pieces and furthermore how does this tie in with the altarpieces?
Apparently, the goldfinch is not cited in the Bible, and yet this particular bird is repeatedly portrayed in Renaissance religious paintings, for the large part of Italian origin or influence. In most cases, the goldfinch is held in the hand of the child Jesus, or is held out to Him by his mother, Mary. In this manner, the bird thus symbolizes Christ's Passion (derived from the Latin passus "to suffer"), since like the red-breasted robin, the goldfinch is stained by the blood of the Saviour with its distinctive scarlet facial markings. These wounds were earned as the valiant songbirds attempted to pluck away the spines from the crown of thorns. Along with suffering and death, there is also the image of ressurrection, with the finch's golden flight feathers, offset by dramatic black, as symbols of hope and salvation. Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Zurbaran and Tiepolo all included the finch in their Madonna and Child works; below is da Vinci's Madonna Litta (circa 1490).
The goldfinch was also considered to be a protection against illness, acting as a caladrius; a bird with restorative and healing powers, should the sick person stare into its eyes. Even in Ancient Greece, the yellow eyes of a bird were held to possess curative qualities, especially in the case of jaundice. Since the Black Death had decimated a large proportion of the inhabitants across Europe in the mid 14th century, individuals were prepared to cling to any remedy, however implausible (or unsavioury)! Leonardi de Vinci observed "The gold-finch is a bird of which it is related that, when it is carried into the presence of a sick person, if the sick man is going to die, the bird turns away its head and never looks at him; but if the sick man is to be saved the bird never loses sight of him but is the cause of curing him of all his sickness". Thistles - the vegetation of predilection for the goldfinch - were believed to combat the plague and were largely considered to be sacred plants. Apart from these presumed attributes, the goldfinch has always been valued as household pet - not merely for its appearance and captivating bird song, but also its ability to perform tricks... such as filling up a thimble of water. As such, the goldfinch was kept in a cage or attached by a string, as was the case of Carel Fabritius' fine specimen, and as an imprisioned being, deprived of free flight, was the subject of many poems, perhaps the most famous of which is The Caged Goldfinch by Thomas Hardy. Finally, although I live in a rather ugly street that accommodates a tramline, I am graced with the presence of many goldfinches each spring, all gathering in the scrubby trees that punctuate the pavement below my flat. The first time I made out the birdsong above the constant noise of road traffic and trams, I wondered which hardy little creature could sing like that, until I saw the elusive goldfinches, hidden away in the branches. It just goes to show how the beauty and enchantment of Nature can be found anywhere...

Art Nouveau Hair Adornment...

This little sprig of Art Nouveau mistletoe that is beautifully intertwined around the carved horn of the hair comb above is not, as I had assumed, by the hand of René Lalique (1860-1945) but is in fact one of the creations of the Vever brothers; Paul and Henri. Having taken over the family business in 1881, they went on to experiment in new materials for their creations, exploring the possibilities afforded by horn, ivory, pâte de verre, enamel and semi-precious stones as opposed to the more standard approach offered by noble gold, silver and fine gems .
As many Art Nouveau artists, the Vever brothers were inspired by the Japanese themes and techniques that were visible in France in the latter part of the 19th century. The influence of Japonisme is clear in the delicate studies of the three 'F's which were key to their work; la Femme, la Flore and La Faune. The furled petals of the Cyclamen hair comb above (1900) are offset by the fine opal facettes that catch the light with their bright colours in a way that is stunning, yet not gaudy or vulgar.
Similarly, the Owl comb (1900)is bright and bold yet the intricate cloisonné feather features create another level of delicateness, whilst the curved forms, piercing emerald-green eyes and prominent beak provide an edginess to the whole. The Vevers met with success in the Expositions Universelles of 1889 and 1900 and their clients included emperesses, tsars and actresses...
The troubling beauty of natural forms that swirl, curl and engulf us in the process in a rather hypnotic manner are characteristic of Art Nouveau. Similar features are to be found in this Sycamore comb (1906) by Lucien Gaillard (1861-1942), where the papery, feather-like samaras are in contrast to the slightly menacing wood-like spines of the structure.
The same qualities can be found in Gaillard's Honesty pod hairpin and the Bee comb below. Gaillard was a contemporary of Lalique and was likewise linked to Japonisme and the experimentation of new materials, technical approaches and later, different objects acting as supports for his art, with walking stick handles and perfume bottles, for example. He too was lauded at the Exposition Universelle of 1900...
Many of the Art Nouveau artists, whatever their medium, would rely on similar subject material. Birds, insects, beetles, flowers and foliage emerge in varying beautiful forms, with a slightly different slant but with a common essence of disquiet, animated by a strange energy.
Henri Hamm's Butterfly pin (1906), offers a rather menacing representation in all its simplicity with an almost palpable tension in the wings, leading to spiked tips. Even Lalique's Lily-of-the-valley comb possesses the same unnerving qualities...
René Lalique is of course the best known of the Art Nouveau artists - principally for his pendants, brooches and necklaces. Emile Gallé – the French glassmaker, ceramist and cabinetmaker - referred to him as “the inventor of modern jewellery”. The same approach was employed in his hair combs and pins but it was interesting to see his work set alongside that of the others; Gaillard and the Vever brothers being just a few of the names.
Naturally, the peacock (here by René Lalique) is closely associated with Art Nouveau, but another typical symbol of the style is the dragonfly, as seen below in the comb by Paul Frédéric Follot (1877-1942).
And of course, the moth, here below by Gaillard... The combs were all on display alongside many items of jewellery, timepieces and equipages (chatelaines) from different periods of history up to relatively recent times in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Looking at the great beauty of these hair adornments dating back to over a hundred years ago, and glancing at what is coveted by many people today in terms of attire, accessories, jewellery etc, I cannot help but lament what has gone.