Visit Leighton House (and the Most Beautiful Room in London?!)
Leighton House, tucked away in Holland Park, was home to Lord Frederic Leighton, the Victorian artist.
Leighton sky-rocketed to fame in the mid 19th century when his painting was a stand-out hit at the Royal Academy in 1855. It caught the eye of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria promptly bought it for him.
The painting was “Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna” which now hangs in the National Gallery but happily a small sketch can be found inside Leighton House.
From then Leighton – who’d hopped from Berlin to Florence and Rome to Paris studying his craft – moved back to London and was on the hunt for a suitable home.
Elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy and with his work easily selling for large sums, he needed somewhere to work, host friends and display his ever-growing collection.
In 1864 Leighton settled in Holland Park, having frequently visited the area to see his friend and fellow painter George Frederick Watts. Leighton helped kickstart a trend for other artists to move and build home-studios there and by 1896 there were 10 further artists living nearby.
So let’s head inside!
Leighton House has recently undergone a huge (£8m) renovation and reopened to the public in October 2022. So I was very keen to have another look…
Inside Leighton House
Improving the accessibility and flow of the space, you now start your journey with a front desk and view through the cafe into the garden.
It’s upstairs where you find Leighton’s studio, a huge space painted ‘gallery red’ with large windows allowing natural light to pour in.
But more than being purely functional, it was a space where Leighton could invite his friends and peers for a spot of networking, showing off his latest works and making his home a statement in itself.
I like the detail of this tall, slim door, used for getting huge canvases in and out easily!
Here’s a close up of the chandelier which certainly divided our tour group. What do you reckon? Tacky or brilliant?!
You get a real sense of the artist’s taste and eye for detail and opulence.
However, nothing quite prepares you for the jaw-dropping effect of the Arab Hall…
The Arab Hall
“… for the sake of looking at something beautiful every once in a while.”
The Hall wasn’t based on one particular building (although it has been compared with La Zisa Palace, Sicily) but rather it was a way to incorporate his extensive Islamic tile collection into a coherent space.
As well as antique tiles and furniture, Leighton commissioned William de Morgan to devise the layout and the Salviati Mosaic Company to contribute to the decoration.
A Closer Look
I loved the way the light fell through Mashrabiyya (‘wooden screen’) onto the tiles.
The ceiling, with it’s recessed geometric forms seems to offer a glimpse into eternity
While the the fountain in the centre of the floor gently trickles along.
It wasn’t always so serene though. Apparently the fountain is capable to reaching a whopping 12ft in height and when used as a post-dinner smoking room there’s a humourous account from James Whistler which describes him and Edward Burne-Jones (both successful 19th Century artists) talking so animatedly that they walked into the central pool!
It’s easy to see why Leighton House (and by extension, Holland Park) become an enclave of establishment artists. There were a number of high profile articles interviewing him within the confines of his glamorous home, similar to when you see celebs in Hello! Magazine today. Even Queen Victoria popped by, visiting in 1869!
‘He built the house as it now stands for his own artistic delight. Every stone of it had been the object of his loving care. It was a joy to him until the moment when he lay down to die.’ – Leighton’s sisters in a Letter to The Times, 26 January 1899
Above you can admire details of the Salviati Mosaics and stone capitals carved by Joseph Edgar Boehm.
But there’s one more surprise…
After the senses have been suitably satiated by the Arab Hall, stepping inside the artist’s bedroom comes as quite a shock.
Far starker than the rest of his house, it has a sobering effect when you step inside. Here, away from the showy rooms is a different side of the artist, introverted and modest. There’s some speculation that he purposely chose to have only one small bedroom specifically so there was no question of him ever having people over to stay.
It’s also the very room where he died, aged 65 in 1896. In a way thought, his private nature was the saviour of Leighton House. After his death no one wanted to buy it, perhaps because a house this size was rare for just having one tiny bedroom. So now it’s available for everyone to visit and be enchanted.