A glimpse into an artist’s colony in London, and I bet the last place you’ll come is Kensington. But in the 1860s, and into the turn of the century, the respectable backstreets off Kensington High Street—which were still dotted with farms—were filled with artists.
Frederick, Lord Leighton, the most distinguished group of artists in Kensington, who lived at 12 Holland Park Street, was the last reminder of this vanishing world. Now, after an extensive renovation, it is back to its former glory.
Leighton is best known for, among other beloved paintings, Flaming June, and the racy Fisherman and the Syren. He is perhaps less well known for his illustrations for George Eliot’s novel, Romola but they are no less remarkable.
He moved to the most famous artistic circles – he knew Ingres, Delacroix, Corot and Millet; Whistler, Millais, and many more Pre-Raphaelites who were no stranger to his extraordinary home in Kensington.
Leighton House Museum, with its splendid Orientalist interior and iconic halls clad in Arabic and daffodils, reopened on 15 October after an extended but sympathetic £8 million renovation. And it was worth the wait.
To answer many’s first question, yes, there is now the lovely De Morgan Café – displaying ceramics by contemporary Leighton, novelist and potter William de Morgan – and overlooking the gardens, fine luxury and a larger store, with elegant stationery. (Who doesn’t love a flaming June birthday card?)
The project opens up a space below the Leighton studios that overlooks the gardens, revealing the original brickwork, and there is an impressive new reception area. In the basement, the former butler’s residence has been converted to store art activities and children’s workshops. There is Leighton’s archive storage in the basement – the curator, Daniel Robins, shudders to remember the previous ruling (let’s just say it’s a good thing there wasn’t a fire at all).
Even better, there’s an underground viewing room for some of Leighton’s 700 drawings. “They’re from his childhood to the end of his life,” Robbins says. And they are very beautiful too. Some are small, stamp-like drawings where he drew plans for his paintings, which would be neatly transferred to larger squares and then onto canvas. Later he used it as a record of his work. He never did anything on his own, said Robbins. Not to put a good point on it, Leighton seems like a control freak, but then not every artist has to look like Francis Bacon.
The great thing about the new extension is that it frees up the actual Layton house from the administrative and storage clutter and makes it completely itself. The narrow ticket office exits to the new spacious annex; Visitors come to the reception room that Leighton’s guests had entered, where the first thing they see is a beautiful painting by Domenico Tintoretto (son of the famous Tintoretto) – Leighton loved Venetian art.
The new entrance area to the right of the house meant that some of the copper roofs built by Kensington Council, which took ownership of the house in the 1920s, were removed on the exterior, damaging the original fine brickwork in the process.
An old entrance that was once the entrance for the exhibitors opens, allowing them direct access to the studios above, rather than to the house, which may have provoked the suspension of neighbours. “She didn’t want people to see a series of young women coming in and out,” Robbins says.
There is illustrative material about Leighton and a locker to display the things associated with it. One is his ceremonial sword, presented to him as Lieutenant-Colonel in the Volunteer Artists Corps with a rifle, an infantry unit of designs created to fight what was believed to be an imminent French invasion in 1859. Isn’t it? Do you like the idea of Leighton giving marching orders to William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the bickering there must have been about the color of the outfit?
The house is famous for its beautiful nearby oriental tiles, especially Syrian work. There is an echo of that relationship in the new inlaid furniture in the new entrance hall, executed by Syrian craftsmen. The curved staircase is decorated with a mural called Unity by Iranian-born artist Shahrazad Ghafari, in colors reminiscent of the Peacock Hall, with thick paint like the artist’s painting. I’m afraid Layton would have hated it.
One revelation is the restoration of Leighton’s winter studio, where he can work in the dark and foggy months.
The first gallery to follow the gallery’s reopening is Artists and Neighbors, which only recalls what a commotion was there during Layton’s lifetime. The entire street and the street behind it were inhabited by artists, most of them in and out of each other’s homes, and many of them painting near Leighton. Some of these artists are now unfairly neglected but were once incredibly popular.
The area’s first major artist was G.F. Watts who came to live in the Little Holland House (a dowry building for Holland House) in Melbury Road – as his host, Sarah Principe sarcastically noted, he came to stay for three days, and stayed for 30 years – one reason That drove Leighton to gravitate toward the area, but, amazingly, that was bulldozed in the 1960s, and designs long since replaced by investment bankers and the oddball pop star.
Come on, Lytton House, a jewel of Victorian Orientalism five minutes from the Design Museum. We all need a great getaway, right? If you haven’t gone. It is an antidote to our times.
Artists and Neighbors: Holland Park Circle, October 15 – March 19; rbkc.gov.uk/museums