It’s safe to say that Leighton House in Kensington probably houses the most beautiful room in London. This historic house, once owned by celebrity artist of the day, Lord Frederic Leighton, has one of London’s showstopper interior gems, hiding an Arab Hall which looks like a Fabergé egg just had babies with Ali Baba’s cave. And thanks to an 8-million-pound refurbishment, the Victorian house has been restored to its former glittering and resplendent glory.
Lord Frederic Leighton
Leighton House was once home to Lord Frederic Leighton, President of the Royal Academy and BFF to many pre-Raphaelites:. He was one of the most famous Victorian artists of the day – Queen Victoria would buy his first piece of art and she even visited the house in 1859. The artist also represented Britain in the 1900 Paris Exhibition, no less, and designed the tombstone for celebrity poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. He was made a peer in 1896, the only British artist to have been awarded such an honour, but promptly died the following day, thereby making him the most short-lived peer in history.
Leighton was part of the Holland Park Circle, an artistic salon whose playmates included G.F. Watts (who lived in a house at the end of his garden), Whistler, Millais, Millet, Delacroix, Rosetti and Corot. Leighton even commissioned ceramicist William de Morgan to put the finishing touches on his sensational Arab Hall.
Leighton fell out of fashion in the twentieth century, so much so that his masterpiece, Flaming June, disappeared off the radar, only to be found boxed in over a chimney in a Battersea home in the 1960s. Famously, a young Andrew Lloyd Webber once saw the painting in a King’s Road shop, but his grandmother refused to lend him the £50 asking price, calling it a piece of Victorian junk.
Frederic Leighton’s House
Leighton employed the services of architect George Aitchison to construct the first, and only, purpose-built artist studio house in London. The plain, red brick exterior would act as a foil for the extraordinarily eccentric and eclectic interiors that laid within. With its Victorian, Orientalist and Islamic flourishes, the house would become the artist’s pride and joy, one which he filled with paintings and sculptures.
The Arab Hall
This resplendent double-height space was inspired by La Zisa in Palermo. Leighton was fascinated with the Islamic world and he travelled extensively to North Africa and the Middle East, bringing back a hoard of tiles. The artist Walter Crane was commissioned to design the frieze for the Arab Hall. William de Morgan made repairs to many of the damaged tiles and also designed the turquoise tiles in the Narcissus Hall and staircase.
Highlights of the Leighton House renovation
Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari was tasked with designing Oneness, a spiralling staircase, with an 11-metre-high hand-painted mural. Inspired by the colour of the tiles in the Arab Hall, the staircase is the first contemporary work of art in the house. Waiting below is Leighton’s famous An Athlete Wrestling with a Python.
In the late nineteenth century, a community of artists moved into the area. Many of these artists, who were friends with Leighton, would become celebrities and would be referred to as the Holland Park Circle. An exhibition featuring the Holland Park Circle of artists’ studio-houses in on until next year.
The Tavolozza Drawings Gallery is a new purpose-built gallery which displays Leighton’s drawings and other works on paper. This is free to access.
A welcome addition to the re-development of Leighton House is the De Morgan Café with its floor-to-ceiling windows and exposed original brickwork. William de Morgan ceramics are on display opposite the café counter which is designed by Syrian architects – by way of King Charles’ charity, Turquoise Mountain. The café is free to visit.
Leighton House is one of the most captivating house museums in London. Today, it is once more strutting its stuff and fanning its feathers à la Leighton – but with some bloody gorgeous modern touches.
Visiting Leighton House
Leighton House Museum re-opens on 15 October. For more information or to book entry, click here.
The exhibition Artists and Neighbours: The Holland Park Circle is on until 19 March 2023. A Life of Drawing: Highlights from the Leighton House Collection is on until 19 February 2023 and is free to visit. The café is also free to visit. Leighton House also organises free walks: Artists Houses Walking Tours (weekly on Thursday and Sunday).
Feature image: The Arab Hall looking into the Narcissus Hall © Leighton House, RBKC. Image courtesy of Will Pryce