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Leighton House Museum

I visited the recently refurbished and extended Leighton House Museum in Holland Park last week.  The building, designed by George Aitchison and built in stages between 1878 and 1896, was the London home and studio of the celebrated Victorian painter and sculptor Sir Frederick Leighton.

It is fine example of late Victorian architectural design with ‘set piece’ interior spaces that reflect the obsession at that time with orientalism and the aesthetic movement.  The Entrance Hall, the Staircase Hall, the Narcissus Hall, the Arab Hall, the Library, the Dining Room, the Drawing Room and the Silk Room are all special in their own way.  As well as these spaces there are two functional first floor workspaces – the Studio and the Winter Studio – where Leighton created most of the paintings of his mature career.

The most impressive of these is the Arab Hall with its domed ceiling and fountain which was built to house Leighton’s collection of tiles collected during visits to the Middle East.  It is hard to see how this space could have been used other than for entertaining.

The Arab Hall and the Narcissus Hall photo: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

The Arab Hall and the Narcissus Hall photo: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

I always say that it is preferable to have a small number of special ‘architectural’ spaces in a house rather than a large number of box-like cellular spaces.  Leighton House takes this approach to extremes with almost all of the space being intended to entertain guests and impress clients.  Leighton remained a bachelor and one slightly odd moment is to visit his rather nondescript bedroom with its little single bed.  Apart from two servant’s rooms in the roof space and a butler’s room in the basement it is the only bedroom accommodation in the house.  Goodness knows where his guests slept if they wanted to stay over.  Perhaps none of them did.

Victorian art fell out of fashion very quickly after World War I and it is only in the last 50 years that there has been renewed interest.  One of the most famous examples of this low point was in 1963 when ‘Flaming June’, one of the most significant among Leighton’s classicist pieces which was painted in Leighton House, went on the market in London in 1963 for just £50.  It is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where it will be on display until February 2024.

Iain Miller