2 Holland Park Road could be called unremarkable if seen from the street, and in its original 1866 form, perhaps it was. However, the Leighton House Museum, as it is now, is astonishing inside and out. It belonged to artist and celebrity of the 1800s Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), whose art is still scattered across not only the walls of the house, but also the globe.
On a leafy residential road, walking into this celebration of beauty, travel and Victorian eccentricity from the sweltering street outside felt, to me, like entering the Pantheon from the midsummer heat of Rome. It makes its visitor feel just as small, just as insignificant because of its grandeur and cultural variety, but provides a distinctly personal experience nonetheless. The serenity of the peacock-coloured entrance hall (with a stuffed peacock to match) pacifies what could have been a chaotic clash of the cultures that are represented through the house. Every object, from the ceramic tiles on the walls to the sign for the ladies’ loos seems like a well-chosen work of art, and as I moved through the museum I found that with every room came a new approach to the formal beauty of the Victorian age.
This is where the magic of Frederic Leighton’s house comes in. The rooms each have huge integrity and variation from one another. The graceful studio with huge windows onto the garden feels like a performance space, whereas the bedroom opposite is superbly private. The classical and Middle Eastern blend with more traditional English and colonial ideas of design, and the mixing of these ingredients leads to a different experience in each room. Frederic Leighton was a great traveller, and although the house was built before he owned it, the way the East had influenced him also influenced the house.
Leighton’s work itself is rich and some of it truly beautiful: the museum’s collection has works of the prolific artist himself and some of his contemporaries. However, it is by no means just a gallery, and has been organised so that visitors might enjoy more than the art alone. Pictures are crammed on some of the walls of less significant rooms, but by no means is the art secondary. The paintings propped against the backs of chairs and positioned with seemingly little order add to show that this museum is to be viewed with every room as a great work of design and decoration.
Photos courtesy of the Bridgeman Art Library and rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum1.aspx
Leighton House Museum,
12 Holland Park Road
London W14 8LX