Thursday, April 22, 2010

Glamour at Leighton House

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the re-opening of one of the most extraordinary houses in London: Leighton House. Frederic Leighton (1830-96), artist and President of the Royal Academy, was the only person ever to live there and it was built to his personal specifications. It’s function was essentially public; a place to host his famous parties and entertain guests or prospective clients, together with a magnificent studio complete with a separate entrance for his models. By contrast, Leighton’s bedroom is austere and plain, with a single wrought iron bed, bare wooden floor with a bear skin by the bed, and small bathroom next door.

I saw it immediately prior to its closure: shabby, with intrusive modern wiring and pipes, it reminded me of an unloved Victorian aunt – a presence, undoubtedly, but dowdy.

Now, after a 1.6 million pounds restoration, Leighton House is utterly transformed. You step into an exotic middle-eastern harem which has somehow merged with a Victorian artist’s studio. The famous Arab hall has beautiful medieval blue and white tiles, brought back by various friends – including the explorer Sir Richard Burton (with whom, I suspect, most of us would fancy a night). It has a black marble pool in the centre. Leighton’s guests regularly fell into it whilst admiring the tiles.

The newly gold-leafed ceiling glows. The gold mosaic frieze with peacock decoration, designed by Walter Crane, somehow fits perfectly with the Arab tiles, and that, too, glimmers. Even the old shabby stuffed peacock at the turn of the stairs has had a make-over and its jewel-like plumage shines. (How do you dry-clean a peacock?)

The drawing-room wallpaper (pink and gold) has been restored and the floorboards round the central carpet are painted turquoise. The magnificent pink, turquoise and white glass chandelier sparkles. My favourite piece here is the marble fireplace which is directly under the window, which has mirror shutters. Leighton knew just how to give his house that touch of the unexpected.
You would think that Leighton House would need a bevy of servants to run it, together with a vast kitchen. In fact, Leighton lived very simply, with just a man-servant. There is no proper kitchen. Usually, Leighton dined at his club and had caterers in for parties.

It’s all far too classy to be bling but it is still, nevertheless, jaw-dropping. And now is the time to see it whilst it is still pristine and dust and cobwebs have not dulled the splendid colours. It is also immensely cheering and inspiring. Pictures courtesy of Leighton House Museum, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Jan Jones said...

This is beautiful, Elizabeth. I saw another post on the re-opening just recently and thought "I must visit!"

You've now reminded me.

It does look a tad unliveable-in, though.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

You weren't meant to live in it, Jan! Not like a real home. Leighton appears to have had a very restricted private life (though, I have to say, one does wonder about it). He was, above all, a very public man. He entertained hugely, dined out at his club, was at all the best parties etc. You're meant to marvel at Leighton House and, in that, he succeeds admirably.

Jane Jackson said...

What a stunning house. Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth. Your post was a real treat.

kate tremayne said...

A fascinating post Elizabeth. The house must be an absolute gem to visit. The diversity and eccentricity of the great personalities of our past have always intrigued me.

Nicola Cornick said...

This has now gone to the top of my must-see list. What a stunning place, and a marvellous piece of self-promotion!

Alison said...

I visited a few years ago, and I'm glad that they've now done a full restoration, it looked a bit sad.

Monica Fairview said...

I can't wait visit it! Thanks for the photo, Elizabeth!