16 August 2014

Leighton House.

Let others visit Sherlock Holmes Museum or do the Jack the Ripper midnight walk (I am booking it the minute someone joins me). I headed straight for Leighton House - the former residence and studio of Sir Frederic Leigton, a very succesful victorian painter that was quite the sensation in his time. The house.

sketch of the exterior which gives little clue of the Orientalist phantasy inside
The house  has been lovingly and painstakingly restored, someone might say re-created. Don't let that deter you. Even if you are not a devotee of Leighton's dismayed classicism, there is much to love in this residence. From the Arab Hall and its incredible decoration with Turkish and Sirian tiles to the enormous and well designed studio. All of which is in sheer contrast with Leighton's own spartan bedroom or the green expanse of the garden.  Plenty or artwork to admire, including Leighton's accomplished "natural" sculptures and a beautiful Millais "Shelling peas", a gift from one master to another. Millais succeeded Leighton as president of the Royal Academy of Art.

Narcissus Hall, inspired by Pompeian ruins.
I stayed virtually all day. Since photography wasn't allowed, I asked if I could sketch. They were not only very happy I wanted to sketch in fact but gave me a foldable chair. "Just not on the mosaic please".
Leighton wasn't necessarily an interesting character. Born into great wealth he was free to pursue his artistic career at ease. He stood out as an outsider because he was well traveled and didn't seem particularly  interested in following Victorian or even British (at the time) conduct standards. He never married which gave rise to speculations -well founded ones I'd say but he was very private and never hinted at any passions or private affairs in all his correspondence- and he was quite generous with artists friends and models.

The golden dome from the exterior.

But Leighton the artist is another matter. He certainly conformed to  classical ideals and his artwork emanates a quietude and elevation that keeps it a bit beyond reach. In that sense, he was an artist of the elite. His technique is exquisite as it is his draftsmanship. But again, he very much remains in an Olympic stupor. Even his studies and smaller pieces stay immutable in their perfection. I found his landcapes from Egypt, Venice and Algiers particularly beautiful and there is quite a collection of them in the house-museum.

Sketch of the Arab Hall.

The artist's studio was spectacular as it befits a celebrity artist of Leighton's stature. Very modern in its concept  and design, it would work perfectly well today. On display were his palette and his pigments, the best money could buy. It's pointless to reflect what would Leighton's career had been if it hadn't been softly cushioned by his upbringing.  One suspects his art would have dwelled much less in the ethereal mythologies he created...may be his considerable talent would have seen him through.  Who knows. I'm projecting again...but my suspicion is that he would have joined the pre-rafaelites. He was acquainted with their deeds and Dante Gabriel Rossetti visited the house on occasion.

Snuck a picture of Narcissus Hall
There is a lot I didn't know about this painter, his neighbors (other succesful artists of the Holland Circle -after the name of the street ) and the house. One can easily spend two hours of inspired learning here. Once the Tate Britain and the National Gallery are out of the way, I'd say this is a good use of an afternoon and 8 quid.
Studio. 1890

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