Nestled down a lazy side street, behind Holland Park, sits Leighton House. To the passer-by, this redbrick building looks like a fairly humble, nondescript Victorian townhouse, but its exterior belies what’s hidden inside. Staid, stuffy stately home this is not, it’s more like wandering around a Victorian jewellery box. Leighton House is truly one of London’s best-kept secrets. If we travelled into this gallery/museum/home through the keyhole and had to guess the owner’s identity, we would be right in assuming that this Victorian owner was well travelled and was beguiled by the art and exoticism of the Arabian Orient.
Entering into the house, visitors uncover a treasure trove of beautiful art and stunning interiors. There’s an almost palatial ambience to the entire building with its opulent friezes and impressive columns. Vibrant cerulean, vivid reds and shimmering golds line the walls and the ceilings in a true feast for the eyes. Particularly awe-inspiring is the Arab Hall with its Islamic tiles from Damascus, intricate mosaics and imposing golden dome. It was a privilege to be able to travel in these times, to visit and gain inspiration from not only the Europeans but further afield. To witness the scale of the Egyptian temples at Abu Simbel or Karnak or even to visit Istanbul’s grand mosques for the first time must have been humbling and at the same time, amazing. In our Instagram society, we enjoy taking pictures for posterity, however, Victorian travellers would have brought home artefacts, tales and inspiration. The impact of this travel is clear on the owner of this house, the artist, Frederic Lord Leighton.
Leighton’s house was built in 1866 as both a studio and private art gallery. People would have heard about this amazing home studio and wanted to visit to see his eclectic home and they did; even Queen Victoria dropped by for a viewing. Today, the walls are adorned with Leighton’s most celebrated watercolours and oil paintings, along with work by other artists of the era, such as G.F. Watts, and also Renaissance artist and sculptor, Antonio Gamberelli.
The house is a wonderful gallery but as a home, it gives an important glimpse into the life of Lord Leighton. Sketches and letters are displayed in his personal studio as well as some personal artefacts in the surprisingly modest and simplistic bedroom. It’s a home that tells the story of a man with an exquisite taste and a cosmopolitan savoir-faire, yet a peculiarly eccentric and solitary life. The opulent beauty of this hidden gem has been used a filming location for TV shows, such as Spooks, films, including Nicholas Nickleby and even the music video ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet. I wonder what Lord Leighton would have made of the New Romantics?