Leighton House is a masterpiece of the Victorian Aesthetic Movement with its stunning interiors and intriguing architecture.
Located on an attractive back street in fashionable Kensington, this jewel of Victorian houses has a surprisingly eclectic mix of Middle Eastern, African and Roman influences.
Stepping into the lobby I was struck by the familiarity of the lush interior, perhaps because of its starring role in countless fashion shoots and films over the decades.
Walking inside is like walking back to a time when high art equated with beauty and decadence.
Just a few steps through the door the Narcissus and Staircase Halls await.
Both are visual treats with their stunning peacock blue colours, simple Roman style classical columns and large Japanese ceramic plant pots.
The blue ceramic tiles, designed by Arts and Crafts designer William De Morgan, are one of the most striking features with their dazzling, vibrant colours.
The hall is named after the bronze statue of Narcissus which stands in the centre of the room.
The gorgeous youth, who fell in love with his own reflection, sets the aesthetic tone of the house.
This is very much the house of an art lover, the ultimate connoisseur.
The Victorian artist Lord Frederic Leighton lived here at the height of his fame and fortune till his death in the late 1800s.
Leighton was associated with the fashionable Aesthetic Movement which rejected what they thought was the ugliness of Victorian Britain in favour of aestheticism and a sense of beauty.
Oscar Wilde was a fellow aesthete as were the artists JM Whistler (famous for his Peacock Room), GF Watts and Albert Moore.
Sadly almost all of Leighton’s original art collection and furniture were sold by Christie’s shortly after his death, leaving only a small number of paintings and objet’s d’art.
Worse still, the house was damaged by bombing in the Second World War and an unsympathetic restoration scheme which destroyed the ambience of the interiors.
Only the Narcissus and Arab Halls remained relatively untouched, and even they were in a state of decay for many years.
So it’s remarkable that the house today has been restored to something of its former glory, thanks to the efforts of Leighton’s sisters and subsequent conservationists, working with photographs, documents and illustrations from the period.
The Arab Hall
The Arab Hall is – without question – the star attraction with its sensational mixture of world cultures ranging from Middle Eastern ornaments to Japanese ceramics and Turkish furnishings.
Leighton was fascinated by Roman art so there’s also a splendid mosaic floor and a central pond inspired by a house in Pompeii which had its own ‘Narcissus Room’.
The Arabic style looks almost Moorish and reminded me of Granada’s Alhambra Palace on a smaller, domestic scale. Leighton had the space designed as a relaxation area for his lucky visitors and guests.
The gorgeous latticed windows were brought from Cairo whilst the 17th Century tiles were acquired from Damascus in Syria.
Look up to the dome for the full impact of this beautiful space which really does take your breath away with its sumptuous colours and fine objects.
It couldn’t be further from the dusty, cluttered Victorian interiors of the time.
This is art for art’s sake writ large.
It’s also one of the most impressive entrance halls ever built with an astonishing amount of decoration – many of the textiles, woodworks, ceramics and craft works were acquired by Leighton on his Middle Eastern travels.
Just off the main hall, there’s a small library which acted as Leighton’s study. It’s a complete contrast to the ornate entrance halls with its collection of books, writing desk and small portraits.
Who was the real Lord Leighton?
So who was Lord Leighton?
This was a question that stuck with me as I walked through the various rooms of his house from the Drawing Room overlooking the rear garden to the opulent red-coloured Dining Room with its Middle Eastern ceramics.
The Dining Room hosted the greatest artists of the age from William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to the poet Robert Browning. Even Queen Victoria dropped in for dinner in 1869!
Lord Leighton was born in Scarborough in Yorkshire and his family had amassed a sizeable fortune which enabled him to indulge his artistic interests.
Queen Victoria bought his first major painting in 1855 and he became President of the Royal Academy in 1878, cementing his role of one of the Victorian establishment’s most eminent artists.
Just before his death, he was given the title of Lord Leighton, Baron of Stretton, the only British artist to be awarded this honour, and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Relatively little is known about his private life. He never married but is rumoured to have fathered an illegitimate child but other sources suggest that he may have been gay.
Sadly a trip to his London home, however beautiful, fails to throw much light on the man himself.
Perhaps this is a little harsh because Leighton left no diaries and his private life is shrouded in an air of mystery.
Love of beauty
What is absolutely sure is that he was a man who loved beautiful objects and travel, an artist dedicated to his art.
On the upper floor there’s the opulent Silk Room with a mix of European, Middle Eastern and Egyptian influences. Leighton certainly knew how to relax – the furnishings in this room veer on the edge of decadence.
There’s also a sense that Lord Leighton knew how to work as well as play hard.
Next door, his artist’s studio is a vast space which takes over almost the whole of the upper floor of the house. It was here that he spent countless days working on commissions and oil paintings.
This rather cheesy video gives an idea of how Lord Leighton worked in this studio space.
A big surprise for me is that the house has only one small bedroom which is simple and sparsely decorated compared to the rest of the house. It’s almost an apology for a bedroom.
Goodness knows what Leighton would have done if Queen Victoria had decided to stay over with her entourage after her famous dinner!
It’s a great pity that the house has lost so many of its art works and only a few lesser works remain, but there are some notable works by Millais and Tintoretto.
But the big attraction of any trip to Leighton House is the house’s sumptuous interiors.
The peacock motif, one of the symbols of the Aesthetic Movement, appears time and time again including this fireplace design in the Silk Room.
Despite the tour I came out little better informed about the Aesthetic Movement – the information boards were a little dry and didn’t really bring the house or its art to life for me. Just as well I have a degree in Art History!
There’s also certainly something very elusive and unknowable about Lord Leighton, this most private of Victorian artists.
When you leave, take a good look at the architecture of Leighton House – it has something of the feel of a Roman villa which is perhaps no surprise when you discover that its architect George Aitchison met Leighton on his travels in Rome.
It’s a mixture of Pompeian house, Italianate villa and European mansion.
The house is a revelation and well worth the trip even if the atmosphere feels a little too reverend and precious at times.
And then there’s still that puzzling question – just who was the enigmatic Lord Leighton?
That is one mystery yet to be unravelled…
Visiting Leighton House
Leighton House is located at 12 Holland Park Road, a short walk from Kensington High Street.
The closest Tube/rail stations are High Street Kensington or Olympia – and buses run along the main Kensington High Street, a short walk away.
The house is open daily 10-17:30 except on Tuesdays. There’s a small entrance charge – and guided tours are available, although the one I heard was so dull that I nearly nodded off.
Look around the gardens in spring and summer.
During my visit the gardens were closed, despite a sign saying they were supposed to be open – really frustrating because it was a glorious sunny day.
If you’re interested in Leighton’s art works, some of the best examples are at the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight in North West England, and London’s National Gallery.
Leave time to explore the wider neighbourhood. On exiting Leighton House turn left and then left again – and walk in a circular loop that takes you past many historic houses.
Look out for the former home of Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt just round the corner (pictured below).
There are many houses lived in by famous artists and writers to be seen from the exterior on this interesting and walkable route.