From the outside, London’s Leighton House blends in with its posh Holland Park neighbours and probably doesn’t turn many heads apart from those who sneak a peek at its blue plaque. It says “Lord Leighton 1830-1896 Painter lived and died here.”
Inside, it is nothing short of spectacular. Your head will turn in every direction multiple times in an attempt to take in all of the rich colours, the incredible history and the smallest of details in everything from the beautiful rugs to the texture of the patterned velvet wallpaper.
Image: “Flaming June”
We were invited one evening for a tour and to see one of the most iconic 19th Century British artworks, which was painted by Lord Leighton himself the year before he died. Because of the spot lighting and winter evening darkness, my photos aren’t amazing, but even though they don’t do it justice, I hope they show off some of the beauty of this place and encourage you to visit if you’re in London!
The story of this famous painting, “Flaming Fune” – a masterpiece really – is pretty incredible. It was lost and found a number of times over the years. First it was owned by Graphic magazine, bought by the owners to be reproduced as a Christmas gift. Some time after, Victorian art fell out of fashion and the painting fell off the radar. A builder found it in the 1960s boxed away over a chimney in a house in Battersea, set in a frame. Because of the frame, he took it to sell to a framer who bought it for next to nothing. Eventually it changed hands a number of times and found its way to a collector before finally being housed in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico where it permanently resides.
Flaming June is now called “The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere” and is on loan from the gallery in Puerto Rico until the beginning of April 2017 along with a number of other paintings and drawings by Lord Leighton, temporarily gathered in their original Holland Park home. It really is a special opportunity to see them all together as research and effort has gone into tracking and borrowing them from private collections, the Royal Academy, the Medici Chapel in Florence, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and other places.
In photos and reproductions, “Flaming June” is impressive, but it’s not quite as jaw dropping as standing in front of the original piece. It was the last stop on our tour and the best word I can think of to describe it is luminous. It just seems to glow. Plus, the attention to detail is incredible. The painting is of a woman draped in thin sensual orange fabric (a subject that was a specialty of Lord Leighton), see-through as she lounges in the simmering mid-summer heat. Fabric is, no doubt, difficult to depict in a painting and his skill in doing so combined with the affects of the light is, in my opinion, what makes it such a well-loved and admired piece of art.
But the art is only half of the reason Leighton House is worth a visit. The interior of the house itself is the rest. Leighton was a traveler and a collector. He spoke Spanish, French, Italian and German and saw much of Europe, Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Pieces he picked up around the world were shipped back to London to decorate the house to his taste.
When you enter, the first main room is the Arab Hall. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s full of Islamic tiles, mostly brought back from Damascus, Syria, gold mosaics, marble columns and the richest of peacock blue colour, all of which surround a small fountain in the centre of the room. This was where he entertained. He did so often and with prominent members of society. He was known to mingle with royalty and with some of the most well respected artists, poets and authors of his time. Queen Victoria bought his first painting in 1855 and, in 1878, he was honoured to become the President of the Royal Academy of Arts where his circles in the art world expanded even more.
Guests would wait in the reception room next to the Arab Hall. Here, there was a fireplace below a window – an interesting feature in itself – and a mirror that pulled out of the wall across the window for more privacy at night. Lights were hung strategically low in the adjacent room so they reflected throughout. His guests also spent time in the dining room next to this, which is painted a vibrant red and hung with blue and white ceramics plates. Rumour has it that Lord Leighton always sat so he was a few inches higher than everyone else at the table.
Upstairs – a peacock at the base of the staircase, paintings hung on the walls the whole way up – was a massive studio space. A private staircase on the side was useful for both servants bringing cups of tea and for the models that he would invite in for nude life-drawing sessions – the basis of much of his work. There’s also the silk room with walls covered in the greenish-yellow fabric and a cosy little nook with an elaborately decorated window overlooking the Arab Hall. There’s also his very modest bedroom with a narrow single bed.
We spent a few enlightening hours at Leighton House, wandering from room to room. We were treated to the care of a very knowledgeable guide who spent an hour telling stories of the past, uncovering room by room the fascinating history of one of London’s hidden gems.