Meticulous restoration brings Victorian ambience back to Leighton House

By Richard Moss | 24 March 2010
a photo of an ornately decorated room in the Persian style

(Above) The Arab Hall, the centrepiece of Leighton House

Leighton House Museum, the former London abode of Lord Frederick Leighton, has always been an astonishing place. Built to the eminent Victorian artist's own specification, it evolved around him throughout his 30 years in residence to become a lavish one-bedroom studio house and an opulent "Private Palace of Art".

Now, after more than a century as a museum, one of the capital's best-kept secrets is due to re-open to the public following a refurbishment which has restored the ambience it boasted when Leighton died there in his simple bedroom in 1896.

It's been a painstaking task. Floors and walls have been stripped; original decorative schemes have been painstakingly researched and reinstated. Furniture, paintings and objet d'art have been tracked down and either borrowed, bought or reproduced.

a photo of a red themed room with chandelier, round dining table and plates on the walls

The Dining Room has been returned to its original red design

Period features including the backstairs service areas, the butler's pantry and even the downstairs models' entrance with its discreet access to Leighton's spacious upstairs studio have been reinstated and opened up so visitors can immerse themselves fully in the private world of a late Victorian aesthetic adventurer.

Leighton was a man of means and varied tastes. A gentleman traveller with a penchant for North Africa and the Middle East, he was a voracious collector of artistic bric-a-brac. He had an eye for everything from contemporary sculpture and finely bound books to Chinoiserie and Persian rugs. His ever-expanding house soon became the talk of Victorian London.

Its centrepiece was, and remains, the Arab Hall. Leighton created it, like all of the house’s extensions, with his architect and friend George Aitchison to accommodate his growing collection of Persian tiles and glasswork. Like the rest of the house, it's a heady concoction.

a photo of an ornate hallway with a peacock perched by a pillar

A peacock welcomes visitors to the Staircase Hall

The famous adventurer and fellow Orientalist Sir Richard Burton sourced pieces for it and Leighton employed the skills of his many artist friends, including the painter Walter Crane and the ceramicist William De Morgan to create friezes and match the tile work.

This remarkable muddle of elements, in which everything paradoxically fits perfectly together, draws on an assortment of styles from the Middle East and Arts and Crafts to Art Deco and Baroque. It is pure Leighton and has remained more or less intact through the fluctuating fortunes of the rest of the house, which saw its original décor gradually eroded in its hundred-odd years as a museum.

"The Arab Hall had always been opulent," confirms Collections and Research Curator Reena Suleman, "but the introduction of the paintings, soft furnishings and textiles have really transformed the place."

a photograph of a room with golden walls, a chaise longue with a portrait of a seated woman above it

Millais' Shelling peas sits above a chaise longue in the Silk Room

Landscapes, including meticulous copies of Corot's Times of the Day series, hang in a drawing room which now boasts painted blue floors. Isnicware sourced from Turkey once again adorns the red-flocked walls of the adjoining dining room where blood red curtains complement red painted floorboards.

"He used De Morgan and Edgar Boehm to carve the capitals in the Arab Hall and used Walter Crane for the frieze," adds Suleman. "But what's become more evident for us as we have done more research is how much William Morris was used. He must have bought a job lot and put it everywhere."

Textile and wallpaper specialists delved into the Morris archive to reproduce Leighton's taste for off-the-shelf Arts and Crafts wallpaper.

a photograph of a statuette

The alcove in the Silk Room, newly gilded and with Leighton's sculpture Needless Alarms, displayed as Leighton had it

Elsewhere, his tastes were more exotic and researchers have busied themselves recovering and researching everything from sculptures and chairs to paintings sold shortly after Leighton's death in the famous Sotheby's Sale of 1898.

"We own quite a lot of Leightons ourselves, but running parallel to this representation project is the bringing back together of the works that Leighton had as collector," says Suleman. "So we have got works from the National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, the Tate and there are about 24 works in all that we have tried to hang in the places he had them."

A bronze statue of Icarus by Albert Gilbert is back in situ in the reception hall, opposite the open doors of the library where letters and telegrams lie on a leather-inlaid writing desk. A stuffed peacock sits at the bottom of a staircase which boasts portraits of eminent Victorians and a large copy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling painting - one of the pieces that did remain in the house after Leighton's death.

a photograph of a red room with portraits and paintings on the wall

Leighton's Studio was the most written-about and photographed room in the house

In effect a temporary exhibition, Leighton's extraordinary collection – as it was last seen – is mesmerising. In the stunning first floor Silk Room, sketches are placed nonchalantly on a chaise longue, chairs are adorned with contemporary fabrics and silks. The golden walls are again lined with Madonnas, nymphs and a couple of Tintorettos.

Similarly, the magnificent window of Leighton's spacious studio is dressed with his choice of maquettes, sketches and studies. Friezes, paintings and sketches stretch across the dark red walls, getting you as close as possible to the original feel of a Victorian aesthete's place of work.

Effectively restoring the period ambience of an historic house is a meticulous and difficult thing to achieve. At Leighton House they had a head start; it has always retained the allure of a quintessentially Victorian residence. But they have achieved that rare thing of evoking the spirit of the man who once lived there.

Artist, house builder and collector Frederick Leighton would certainly have approved.

All images courtesy Leighton House Museum

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