Leighton's $140 low point ….
As an artist, if you want to be remembered after you’ve gone, a good strategy is to leave your house and studio to the general public. It helps of course if you were once a famous and important artist in your time and Fredrick Lord Leighton (1830-1896) certainly was. President of the Royal Academy and the principal academic artist of his day, he commanded great respect and prices for his classically derived paintings.
Lord Leighton’s House and Studio can be found in an enclave of large Victorian houses many of which were home to successful artists of their day, just off Holland Park in London’s Kensington. Luke Fildes, William Burges, Holman Hunt and George Fredrick Watts were his neighbours and represented the successful stream of high Victorian art. The house, designed by Leighton and his architect George Aitchison, was enlarged and expanded over the years as his fame and wealth grew.
The centrepiece of the house is undoubtedly the Arab Hall, a splendid domed space with a fountain, decorated with ancient Islamic blue and white tiles. The peacock blue William De Morgan tiles that line the grand staircase leading up to the grand north-facing studio compliment the Moorish feel. The use of scantily clad and draped models was an important component of his classical and mythological scenes. That the models entered Leighton’s studio by a side entrance and a back staircase may say something about the Victorian class system.
The house was used to entertain important visitors, to show his high standing in the art world of the day and present him as a cultivated man of taste. The luxurious furnishings that adorn these public rooms are in stark contrast to the bleakness of his single bedroom with its brass iron bedstead washbasin and ‘India’ pattern William Morris wallpaper.
Formidably talented artists of yesteryear do not always survive the passage of time. If their art is based on Greek and Roman myths, the stories they refer to can be a struggle for some people unsure of their Latin declensions. In the days when classical learning was a sign of the educated man, these Olympian artists were well regarded and the academic classicism that they espoused could be seen as corporate art for an aspiring market. This Victorian neo-classical revival was a reaction against the moralising forces of Ruskin and the pre- Raphaelites. His grand paintings may now be considered as high-class decoration but he was a no mean practitioner with a paintbrush and was well educated in visual representation. The education system of the time concentrated on traditional pictorial skills in which Lord Leighton was particularly adept.
His most famous painting is ‘Flaming June’ (1895). In the early 1960s at a time when the appreciation of Victorian art was at its nadir, this now highly popular picture failed to sell for its reserve price of $140. It is hard to believe that no buyer in this country was interested in its purchase and now if you want to see it you will have to go to the Ponce Museum of Art in Puerto Rico.
The house was left to Leighton’s sisters after his death and they in turn passed it on to the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. A recent refurbishment has restored the building and contents and it is now one of the must see small museums in London. For added interest, nearby at 18 Stafford Terrace lived Linley Sambourne, a Victorian illustrator for Punch Magazine. Although not in the same league as his illustrious neighbour this period house, kept as it was since Victorian times, is also open to the general public.