In a quiet tree-lined residential road, a stone’s throw from Kensington High Street, is Leighton House, former home and studio of leading Victorian painter Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896). The house was built to designs by George Aitchison, and extended and embellished over a period of 30 years to create a “private palace of art” to house Leighton’s fine collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts, as well as a cultural hub for other artists and collectors. Stepping into the house, the visitor is offered a unique glimpse into the life of Lord Leighton, and is an important record of artistic taste and aesthetics during the latter part of the 19th century.
The house is a testament not simply to one man and his vision, but also to a significant moment in British cultural history. In the second half of the 19th century, the Victorian art market was booming, and the middle classes were becoming more conscious of and interested in good taste in art and design. Leighton desired not just a place to live and paint, but also a space where he could parade his position as both president of the Royal Academy and a major exponent of a new aestheticism in painting and design. Leighton House was his personal “calling card” to a society which, until recently, still tended to regard artists on a par with tradesmen.
The house needed to be spectacular, and thanks to increased fees for his paintings, and family money, Leighton was able to indulge his vision and his fancies in a home that represented him to society as an artist, collector, supporter of the arts, and a gentleman.
The modest entrance vestibule barely hints at what lies beyond. The opulent two-storey Arab Hall, the most striking part of the house, was added when the house was extended in 1877–9, and was based on a palace in Palermo. It was built to house Leighton’s extensive collection of tiles, and is striking for its colour scheme (the tiles are a rich lapis lazuli blue) and Arab details, including latticework windows from Damascus, a central pool and fountain (into which guests were liable to tumble during lively soirées), and a gilded domed ceiling. The room also contains displays of Leighton’s Turkish iznik ceramics, tiles by William de Morgan, textiles designed by Gertrude Jekyll, and a frieze commissioned from Walter Crane.
By contrast, the rest of the house is modest in scale, though no less beautiful, with fine furnishings, many paintings and photographs, textiles and decorative arts. At the rear of the house is Leighton’s huge studio, which also doubled as an assembly room for receptions and parties, and is still used for concerts and lectures today. The clear northern light, which streams into the room, provides the ideal working space for the artist; there are preliminary drawings and sketches on display of Leighton’s most iconic work Flaming June, notebooks and other memorabilia. A new extension off the studio provides a sleek exhibition space.
The house is crammed with art by Leighton’s friends and colleagues – Millais, Watts, Singer Sargent and Alma-Tadema – and photographs in the Silk Room show that when Leighton ran out of wall space for all his art, he simply propped paintings against chairbacks, a manner in which pictures are still displayed in the house today.
Leighton House is a curious mish-mash of styles, from Arab through Gothic and Baroque to Arts and Crafts. Yet taken all together, it is a wonderful feast for the eyes, with rich colour palettes of furnishings, ceramics and wallpapers. Neither showy nor pretentious, it is simply an indication of Leighton’s wide cultural tastes and interests, his generosity as a host, and his artistic integrity. Extensively restored in 2010, the house remains a fine example of a Victorian artist’s studio, and is a wonderful resource for anyone with any interest in this period of art history and English culture.