Frederic Leighton & Leighton House
Not all 19th-century artists hightailed it to remote locations to construct their perfect living and working environments. Perhaps underscoring that this “getting away from it all” may have often been for the far more pedestrian reasons of finance than the implicit nature of inspiration is Leighton House Museum, tucked away behind London’s bustling Kensington High Street.
Frederic Leighton had the enviable luck of being both a talented painter and very rich. Ridiculously well educated, well-travelled and with a lifelong private income from his family’s fortune, he really could have afforded to be an unsuccessful artist. Nonetheless he fretted that his industrious family of prominent medics would only accept his choice of an artistic career should he manage to achieve some level of prominence. He probably shouldn’t have worried too much. The collector who bought his first major work in 1855 was Queen Victoria. Pretty much from then onwards, Frederic’s trajectory was ever upwards. By 1878 he was the President of the Royal Academy, no mean feat for an artist associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, some of whose brethren more or less had pitched battles with the powerbrokers of the powerful but conservative Academy.
In 1864, Leighton acquired a plot of land in the then up-and-coming area of Kensington near to Holland Park. It was here, he decided, that he would build himself a suitable home and place to work. His choice of architect raised a few eyebrows. Leighton was a man of consummate taste, a man-about-town with access to all the influential people of his day. So, when it came to light that George Aitchison was to be the architect, the elite circles in which he moved were taken aback. It wasn’t that Aitchison was a bad architect: he was an unknown architect. Or, more accurately, he was an architect who was only known for the railway stations, warehouses and commercial edifices in which the family firm specialised. And even Leighton House didn’t change that: he only ever designed one other private residence in addition to it.
Perhaps this makes it all the more remarkable. It was certainly a long-term project that saw Aitchison engaged in one way or another for almost thirty years after it was first begun in 1865. The first stage, completed relatively quickly, was modest by comparison with what today stands on the site. Alluding to the appearance on an Italian Palazzo – perhaps this goes some way to explaining Aitchison’s appointment since they met in Italy where they were great enthusiasts of the architecture- its picturesque façade did little to conceal that this was fundamentally a building in which Leighton’s studio was paramount. Taking up by far the majority of the structure, even today when you enter this vast first-storey space, it’s hard to imagine that any painter could possibly need this much space to work. The huge windows allowing in maximum light might be self-explanatory. But, should you be in the room during one of the frequent musical recitals that have taken place there since its preservation as a museum, it’s really difficult to envisage it as the solo workspace of a single artist. A grand piano, rotund opera singer and sizeable audience all fit effortlessly into this room hung with large-scale paintings.
To be fair, today’s proportions of the studio are partly as a result of a later extension that saw it grow by some five meters – yep, he wanted it even bigger- and which would also see the house substantially changed. The most dramatic of these are the Arab Hall Extension and the Silk Room, dating from the 1870s and 1890s respectively. Both testify to Leighton’s increasing fascination with the East that started with a trip to Turkey in 1867. Very much at the vanguard of the increasingly visible Orientalist tendencies within both painting and the decorative arts, unlike some, Leighton was not limited to depicting his visions of an imagined mystical East on canvas. He had the financial wherewithal to make it manifest. And he did, at great cost and with enduring impact.
The Arab Hall alone houses a stunning collection of 15th and 16th-century tiles from Damascus in addition to all the commissioned work in tiles and metalwork for its completion. Similarly, the Silk Room, completed shortly before Leighton’s death, is a dramatic jewel case meant to house his own collection of paintings by his contemporaries. It was built on part of the house that had originally functioned as a terrace and its walls lined in green silk were to become home to Leighton’s collection that included works by the likes of Albert Moore, John Everett Millais, George Frederic Watts, John Singer Sargent and Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
Frederic Leighton, one of the few British artists to be ennobled as a baronet, was an enigmatic figure. Many acquainted with him confided that they never really felt they knew the man behind the polished social manners, that it was like trying to engage with someone who was constantly acting out a role. If that were case, then certainly there are few stage sets as impressive as Leighton House. Furthermore, while Pre-Raphaelite painting remains consistently popular with contemporary audiences, relatively few realise exactly what is actually contained behind these Victorian walls. If you’re wondering why some of those famous paintings aren’t on show at august national institutions, then it might just be because they are still here; at home.