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

15 August 2014


I am in London now. It was actually a bit harder to relocate than I had braced myself for. Nothing is straightforward in a city that just happens to be booming while the rest of the world is still in a slump. I am just one more immigrant (albeit with a job lined up which makes a big difference ). That means I found a skyline dotted with construction cranes, sidewalks lifted and a wall of people everywhere. Every transaction from opening a bank account to  finding a room or adapting to my new whereabouts tested my resolve which was not too iron-clad to start with.

One thing that struck me immediately: There is a LOT to paint in London. And I mean, a LOT. Not only is there  a melange of buildings old and new set against dramatic skies -it's all about the skies in English landscapes- but there is an ocean of people of all colors and creeds and dresses and faces...just heaven for people watching. And the leafy greens, and the grey, and the browns, those dirty muted browns against the summer or the  lurid yellow of construction crews ...and did I mention the skies?

On a separate but essential note: If you plan to come paint plein air in London know this : a) It rains a lot, unpredictably, heavily, and coldly. b)  It'll be windy. c) They do not sell "panel carriers" in UK. People mostly use the "matchstick system, I'm told. d) Standard  board format sizes are both in the  metric system and in inches with 8"x10" a frequent format. Your favorite format from the US might not be available. For some reason they favor square formats.

So I start my blog with some sketches. Done in  a paper not suited for watermedia and hastily but still with the urgency of this new visual buffet.  Just to get acquainted to this new landscape. My palette has steadily but surely started to shift away from warm saturated tones, (reserved now for cloud rims and traffic lights)  and  towards cooler greys (Payne grey has become essential), cooler greens (emerald, I hardly knew yee), and toasty brick  brown.

Shadwell. My chosen neighborhood.

Sketched while taking care of Laundry.

The River Thames

Sketching the hipster crowd in Shoreditch

One of my first stops was to the "Making Colour" exhibit at the National Gallery, a show where you get to explore pigment through the ages. The exhibits include minerals, insects and roots but most importantly, the masterpieces where they ended up. Every room was dedicated to a hue with the notable absence of Black and White but the fascinating incorporation of Gold and Silver instead.

Another stop was the  BP 2014 Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery , an impressive array of wonderful portraits done by a legion of talented artists. Most american artists will recognize awardi David Kassan. Spain was also proudly and magnificently represented.

Leighton's House in Kensington was an obligatory stop. But more about this wonderful place later.