Pooky's search for the most beautiful, jaw-dropping interiors in the country begins very close to home, at the Leighton House Museum in Holland Park. Guest writer Nigel Andrew gawps in wonder...
The interiors of Leighton House Museum in Holland Park are not only some of the most spectacularly beautiful in London; they are also the most completely unexpected. It’s one of those houses where the exterior gives absolutely no clue to what is inside, and walking in for the first time is an unforgettably thrilling experience.
Leighton House Museum's unassuming exterior gives no clue to what's inside...
The house was built (by the architect George Aitchison) for the painter and sculptor Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton, President of the Royal Academy, a towering giant of the high Victorian art world. (Perhaps his best-known painting now is the radiant Flaming June – but if you look up from the grand staircase of the National Gallery, you’ll see his mighty Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence.) He intended Leighton House to serve at once as a grand showcase for his art and taste, a personal gallery, library and workplace, and (almost as an afterthought) a home.
Flaming June - by Frederic Lord Leighton
Inspired by his travels in Italy and the Levant, he wanted to strike a dramatic contrast between a plain, even forbidding exterior and a sumptuous, richly coloured, textured and patterned interior – and he and Aitchison certainly pulled it off. Leighton House from the outside is a plain, blank Italianate building, oddly reminiscent of a Christian Science temple, or a rather uninviting museum, but inside… well, inside is another world. The high point of the interior is the breath-taking Arab Hall , a room like no other in England, its walls covered with richly coloured antique tiles from Damascus and elsewhere, and pierced with windows of delicate wooden latticework and jewel-coloured glass. Under a high golden dome, from which hangs an ornate brass gasolier (since converted to electric light), a fountain plays in a square pool, providing an unexpected soundtrack of peaceful tinkling water.
The Arab Hall - 'a room like no other in England'. Photo © Will Pryce
The Arab Hall, modelled on a 12th-century palazzo in Palermo, Sicily, was designed at once to impress visitors, show off Leighton’s prized Middle Eastern collection, and offer a relaxing space. For today’s visitor, it’s a room to linger in, drinking in the detail, enjoying the play of glimmering light on the glorious array of tiles and on the beautiful mosaic frieze above, of animals and plants on a gold background - this designed by Walter Crane and made by the great Venetian glass-making firm of Salviati.
The Narcissus Hall © Will Pryce
Adjoining the Arab Hall is Leighton House’s other great showpiece interior, the Narcissus Hall, named for the bronze statue of Narcissus that stands at its centre, under a gilded ceiling. The walls are lined with tiles of gorgeously intense blue by William de Morgan, and the floor is of Roman-style mosaic; in designing the Narcissus Hall, Leighton had in mind the ‘Narcissus room’ of a house excavated at Pompeii in the 1740s. So these two grand interiors – the Arab and Narcissus Halls – between them demonstrate, as intended, the range of Leighton’s aesthetic inspiration, from the Middle East to ancient Rome and across the whole range of contemporary arts and crafts.
The staircase hall - © Will Pryce
In the staircase hall are Japanese pots and a 17th-century Turkish wedding chest – and a stuffed peacock, the very emblem of Aestheticism, stands at the foot of the stairs. After all this splendour, the dining room and drawing room seem almost ordinary, though the walls of the former are a sumptuous red, designed to show off Leighton’s ceramics to optimum effect. The drawing room was designed around four painted panels by Corot, showing the Times of Day (the present panels are not the originals), and it contains a seemingly impossible fireplace, with a window above it and no chimney breast. The flue is in fact cunningly concealed to the left of the fireplace; apparently it worked.
The Silk Room - © Will Pryce
The Silk Room upstairs is lined in green silk, the better to show off Leighton’s most prized paintings. It also has an echo of the Arab Hall – a projecting Egyptian latticework window known as a Mashrabiya. Leighton House’s other grand interior is, as you might expect, the artist’s studio, a vast, airy, well-lit space that was the powerhouse of Leighton’s great artistic enterprise (indeed you could fit a small turbine hall into it).
The Artist's Studio - © Will Pryce
Successful artists of the high Victorian period made big money and lived accordingly – several of the grandest houses in this part of Holland Park belonged to artists - but Leighton was the grandest of them all, and his palatial studio reflects his status. It also reflects the huge scale on which he often worked; the monumental screen at one end, with a flight of stairs behind it, acted as a gallery from which Leighton could work on the upper reaches of his larger canvases. Behind the screen is a preparation space for his models, with a fire to warm them in preparation for a stint of (often nude) posing. They came and went discreetly by the back stairs. Much of Leighton’s life was lived in the studio, working and mingling with artistic colleagues and friends, his more eminent sitters and a stream of visitors, among them all the great and good of Victorian England, up to and including the Queen herself. Leighton seems to have been the epitome of the public man, with little in the way of a private life, and that little largely hidden. Even now, the best efforts of researchers and biographers have uncovered little of the private man – if there was one.
Leighton's simple bedroom. Photo: Justin Barton
For all his eminence, Leighton was, in a sense, the invisible man of the Victorian art world. Amid all this splendour, his bedroom comes a shock. Small, bare and anonymous, it is the room of a man whose life was all on the outside, all in public - the mirror image of his house, where all is on the inside. As I made my way back through the rooms, I was drawn irresistibly to the Arab Hall for one last look. A man was sitting by the fountain in the lotus position, meditating. There aren’t many London interiors where you’d find that.
At Pooky we make lovely lamps to make your interiors more beautiful. See our collection of table lamps, floor lamps and more here - and if you happen to be visiting Leighton House Museum, our showroom is a short hop away in Chelsea, so do pop in and say hello! Nigel Andrew is a writer and the curator of the renowned Nigeness blog. Photo (top) of the Arab Hall - copyright Will Pyrce. Thanks to the team at Leighton House Museum for providing the interior images.