Leighton House: The Middle East in Kensington
I’m not an art buff, and so it was perhaps with some horror that, when asked what I was doing this weekend, I naively replied, “I am going to see a house where some Victorian artist lived”. I apologise if you balk at my ignorance at never hearing of Frederic Leighton, one of the most famous British artists of the nineteenth century.
Lord Frederick Leighton (he was enobled in 1896, just before he died), was the son of a doctor and the grandson of the once primary physician to the Russian Royal family. He was in the enviable position of being brought up in wealth and receiving throughout his father’s lifetime an allowance. It was this fortune, as well as the high fees he demanded for his paintings, that financed the building of 2 Holland Park Road, or Leighton House as it quickly became know. A home and studio that Leighton could design in his own style and global influence.
I’ve been to a lot of Victorian houses, and although they can be very beautiful, sometimes I feel that once you have seen one, you have seen them all. But not in this case. Leighton House is famed for its halls; the staircase hall, the Narcissus Hall and the Arab hall, all decorated in spectacular Middle Eastern fashion.
As you enter Leighton House and after you pay (£7), you walk into the cool haven of the staircase hall, with walls of tiled turquoise, a peacock keeping watch on those who enter and a Turkish wedding chest that was, on Leighton’s instructions, turned into sumptuous seating.
Adjacent is the Narcissus Hall. Being Greek and biased , I love anything Greek and I still find the myths and tales fascinating and full of timeless genius (we told the best stories). Narcissus, the son of the river god, Cephisus and the nymph Lyriope, was very beautiful. A young man named Aminias, fell in love with Narcissus and was rejected. Along with the rejection, Narcissus also gave him a sword (why would you do that?) and, as us Greeks can be very dramatic, Aminias prayed to the gods to teach Narcissus a lesson and killed himself. And the gods granted him that wish in typical cunning Greek fashion.
During a walk, Narcissus stopped for drink. As he lowered his head towards the water, he saw a man (him) looking back and was stunned but the beauty he saw. Not realising it was just his reflection, he became besotted with this exquisite face. He persisted at trying to get this person that did not exist, and eventually died at the banks of the river.
In the centre of this hallway is a statue of Narcissus. The turquoise tiles throughout the staircase and Narcissus hall are presumed to mimic the water that Narcissus was staring into until his death. A rich turquoise, shimmering in the light, these tiles are perhaps almost as mesmerising as Narcissus own reflection was to himself.
Turn to your left and you see the splendour of the Arab Hall.
Both an area to relax and an area to show off his prized collection of Middle Eastern art, the Arab hall is modest in size but grand in ability to inspire awe. Collected during his travels in the region, the Arab hall is decked out in tiles from Damascus, Syria (c. 17th century), wooden windows from Cairo and other ceramics and mosaics from these regions.
As you leave the exoticism of these halls, you walk into areas typical of a Victorian home, which I won’t be devoting much of my time here to. Upstairs, many of the rooms are decorated with art produced, acquired and gifted to Leighton. Wonder up to the enormous studio (the largest room in the house by far), and marvel not only at the work of a remarkable artist, but at the canvas door; a door just over half the width of a standard door but over twice the height!
Leighton House is certainly worth a visit for the halls alone and will leave you returning to your own abode, no matter how brilliantly designed, seeming a little less dazzling in comparison.
If these images leave you a little disappointed in your interiors, here is a selection of fabrics for you to drool over, all available through Cocoon Home. If you would like to change your window dressing and are after made-to-measure curtains or a bespoke Roman blind, or would just like a couple of scatter cushions to take you away to a far off land, then do get in contact.