Filed under: best of week, British art, london museums, top-feature, victorian art
The Leighton House Museum reopens today; one of London’s most intriguing sights – an artist’s house, built by him to house his collections of art and antiquities, and an immensely personal, even eccentric place. Just ignore the word ‘museum’… it’s far more than that suggests.
There are two kinds of artist’s house museums – one I like, and one I don’t. The one I don’t (and this goes for writers’ houses, composers’ houses, and so on) is the one where you can see a perfectly normal Victorian house, or Georgian terrace, with a few books, some manuscripts in a glass case or a couple of sketches in a dark room, and a desk which you are meant to venerate like a holy relic. I just find that boring. Why not go somewhere and read a poem or listen to a symphony instead?
The other kind of artist’s house I love. It’s the kind of place where as soon as you walk in, you can feel the character of that artist – where it’s personal, where every little ornament, every painting on the wall, every choice of wallpaper or table, seems to tell you something about who lived here. I find that in Freud’s house, even though he didn’t live there long, and very definitely in the Soane Museum, one of my favourite museums anywhere in the world; and here at Leighton House, too.
This was Frederic Lord Leighton’s private palace of art. He was a Victorian painter – but if you’re thinking of Landseer’s solid animals, or Holman Hunt’s sentimental soft-focus ‘Light of the World’, think again. Some of his paintings aren’t a hundred miles away from soft porn, at least, if you were a Victorian they were pretty racy; and there’s a love of exoticism that you see sometimes in his painting, but really comes out in the house. That was something he shared with French writers and artists of his time, like Flaubert and Delacroix and Pierre Loti.
This is very much a house for display and enjoyment, not for the boring business of everyday life. Leighton designed the whole building in 1864, and kept extending it and adding to it till his death in 1896. It must have cost a fortune – and has certainly cost a small fortune, £1.6m to be precise, to refurbish.
The Arab Hall is the centre of the house – an exotic fantasy with its silk cushions, gilded dome, lovely tiles, and shady latticework. It always makes me think of Coleridge’s poem – ‘In Xanada did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree’ – but in fact, the design was probably taken from La Zisa in Palermo, Sicily, an Arab-Norman mix. The shutters are real Arab ones which came from Damascus, and the tiles are Middle Eastern antiquities that Leighton had collected over the years. The only thing missing is the harem… though Lord Leighton was a bachelor, we can still speculate.
Leighton was well travelled; he’d worked in Paris for a while, and knew Delacroix and other artists. He’d collected some fascinating works, too; many of them were sold to other museums or collectors, but there are now copies in place, to recreate the mood and atmosphere of this very personal vision. In this particular case, it doesn’t really matter if you’re not seeing the originals – what matters is the setting, the context, the way all the different art works fit together to give you an idea of Leighton’s personal taste.
The thing that seems very un-Victorian and un-museum-like about the whole house is the striking colour. For instance the dining rooms is positively zinging with vivid colour, bright pinks and reds; and the silk room’s cool turquoises, greens and gold create a shimmering sense of relaxation.
Leighton was not a man with a closed mind. You can see how he was open to an incredible variety of different influences – Islamic antiquities, work by William de Morgan and Walter Crane in Arts and Crafts style, William Morris wallpaper, Tintoretto, even a huge copy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But the house isn’t a hodge-podge; everything fits. More than a century after his death, Leighton is still very much alive in this fantastic creation, Leighton House.
Where: 12 Holland Park, W14 8LZ [map]
When: 10-5.30 except Tuesdays
How much: £5
Public domain picture courtesy of Wikipedia: It’s interesting that the picture is now in Puerto Rico – so much did the British hate Victorian art when it was sold in the 1960s.