Friday, 20 February 2015

Leighton House Museum

12 Holland Park Road 
London W8 4PX
Wednesday February 18th 2015

After three weeks spent  underground courtesy of Brunel, Florence Nightingale and Churchill it was good to be above ground even though conservation levels of lighting mean daylight is only permitted in one or two rooms. Jo and her friend Pam had arrived via the Overground to Kensington Olympia, whereas I had finished my Jubilee Line trip with a ride on the Roastmaster Route 9 which takes a scenic line from Green Park. No photography allowed so you will have to make do with what is available via links and my purple prose. Here is the Museum’s own  website.

The outside of the house is less than exciting and is that typical red brick with white stone trimming favoured in this part of Kensington. Lord Leighton, with a substantial private income as well as what the art earned him, had it built specifically to his designs (underground swimming pool anyone?) which included a tower, studio and library. He was president of the Royal Academy and entertained the like-minded and influential of his day. Unlike many properties nowadays there is little mention of the army of servants needed to keep the ceramic collection dust-free.  

It is run by Kensington & Chelsea who do make a charge to visit but with the usual concessions  plus those for Art Pass holders  and National Trust members. The information and booklets provided – large and small print – is exemplary.

Our visit also coincided with a special exhibition showcasing the Perez Simon  Collection a Spanish born,  Mexico resident,  telecommunications Billionaire connoisseur collector (phew)  and thanks to him many works of art whose painters would have been frequent visitors to the house are now exhibited again in the UK. If you are an aficionado of the Pre-Raphaelites (so there’s a Rossetti, a Millais and a Burne-Jones and the latter’s pupil, John Melhuish Strudwick whose work we quite rated) and the later Aesthetic movement painters then this is the place for you though by the end Jo and I were somewhat saturated with too many damsels in diaphanous dresses dancing around in a variety of ‘exotic’ locations, usually Biblical, Classical or occasionally Arthurian. Sometimes they came with their own poems, the artists having been inspired by the works of Tennyson and Meredith. The flimsy clothes that Leighton in particular painted have a gauzy, and not quite tawdry magnificence which in the end earned him a lot of money, popularity and a peerage, and doubtless hung over the mantels of eminent Victorians; not that they thought of themselves as such.   Though as Jo said while Leighton and some of his followers were painting ladies, France had moved on to Impressionism and in the early 20th Century saw the rise of other UK artists such as Nash perhaps.

Without photos I will not dwell on  the paintings  other than to tell you the strange story of the ‘Roses of Heliogabolus’ which is showcased in a room of its own, honoured with a bespoke perfume devised by Jo Malone for the occasion so the experience becomes a multi-sense one.  Heliogabolous was a young debauched Roman emperor, who ascended to power thanks to the machinations of his mother and behaved much like a combination of Nero and Caligula – the picture shows him entertaining some ‘ladies of the night’ (not unlike some disgraced French politicians) and other guests and then smothering them – to death – in flowers. The story cites violets but Alma-Tadema chose roses and had a supply imported from the South of France so he could paint them accurately.

It’s very pink.

The painting was originally bought by Sir John Aird, founder of the Scottish engineering firm who (apart from a musical quartet of rather embarrassed musicians) is one of the few males to feature in the exhibition.  

The real joy of this visit is the house itself, and specifically the downstairs Arab Hall and upstairs Studio complete with a huge North facing window – having worried that  Dorothy Dene should have somewhere warm to change into and out of her gauzy garments – she was the long time muse of Lord Leighton and was at least rewarded with a substantial legacy on his death – I was relieved to learn from this Guardian Article that indeed she did, as well as her own “discreet” (i.e. don’t scandalise the other visitors ) staircase.

The main glory of the house is the downstairs – though Arab/Moorish inspired with possibly a Pompeii type floor Lord Leighton had clearly collected an impressive number of Iznik tiles and you will know how fond I am of those from our visit to the Florence Nightingale Museum , where they were used as ‘set-dressing’ . Apart from the floral ones there are beautifully calligraphed tablets (scripts from the Qu’ran) set over the doors. Here you find the real thing in abundance. Each fireplace and door frame is unique and halfway up the stairs a glass cabinet with a series of antique Iznik plates each more lovely than the next. To complete the suite of downstairs rooms there is additional tiling from Walter Crane and William de Morgan – reminding us we need to visit ‘his’ museum in Wandsworth.

There is a modest bedroom and the Silk Room also. Some other curioisites include a replica of the couch used in many of the paintings, with classical legs one end and Egyptian ones the other, and the papers pertaining to Lord Leighton’s commission in the Artists’ Rifles – fellow members included Millais – and hard to believe this – Rossetti: not one for taking orders I would have thought.

In need of something more robust we left after an interesting two hours; a worthwhile visit but
something of an ‘acquired taste’ we did not entirely share…


  1. in the same area, don't forget to visit Linley Sambourne's Hose :
    I love your blog, I read it for years !

  2. This is an incredible house. It blew me away.Thanks for reminding me how great it is.