Leighton House, the spectacular studio-home of Victorian artist and former President of the Royal Academy, Frederic Leighton (1830-96), has reopened to the public following a major transformation. Situated on the edge of Holland Park, Kensington, Leighton House is famed for its opulent interiors, including the extraordinary Arab Hall featuring exquisite mosaic floors and tiles acquired through Leighton’s travels to Turkey, Egypt and Syria. The project has focused on the twentieth-century additions made in a new wing at the east end of the original house. This has been completely refurbished revealing original historic features and creating new exhibition spaces and displays, the De Morgan café which opens onto the redesigned garden, a new Learning Centre and a collections store.
Designed by architects, engineers and consultants from BDP, the project also sees the recovery and restoration of parts of Leighton’s house lost in changes made in the twentieth century. Leighton’s Winter Studio, an extension of the original house supported on cast iron columns and built at the end of the 1880s to allow him to work through the winter months, is now fully restored and integrated into the rest of the historic house’s interiors. The Entrance Hall has been reinstated as it was in Leighton’s day, featuring a large painting from the workshop of Domenico Tintoretto, which formed part of Leighton’s original collection. A separate entrance to the house, specifically used by Leighton’s models, is also revealed. This was a common feature of the time, used to signal the professional and official role of the model whilst keeping them separate from families, something not applicable to Leighton but he adhered to anyway in order to follow social etiquette.
Expanding on the major renovation, David Artis, Architect Director at BDP, tells: “This project will have a transformative effect on the museum, allowing it to be accessible to all for the first time, and provide excellent visitor and collection care facilities. This refurbishment supports the museum’s ambitions to safeguard and preserve the integrity of the original house, while meeting the needs of new audiences and cementing it as a unique asset for the borough. Leighton House is one of London’s great houses and we are very much looking forward to seeing it re-open to the public at a time when such places are needed more than ever.” The new wing features a series of commissions that respond to the iconic interiors of the historic house and continue the property’s unique dialogue with artists and craftsmanship from the Middle East and North Africa.
Oneness, the first contemporary artwork on permanent display at the museum, is an 11-metre-high mural hand-painted by the Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari, which envelopes the curved walls of a new helical staircase across three floors. Inspired by a 13th century poem by Rumi exploring cultural unity, its turquoise calligraphic brushstrokes reference the distinctive tiles from the iconic Arab Hall. A suite of specially commissioned furniture handmade by Syrian artisans based in Amman, Jordan, is also featured in the new spaces. The pieces feature marquetry derived from inlaid motifs on a Syrian chest that Lord Leighton acquired on his travels and converted into a seat within the historic house and were created in partnership with Turquoise Mountain – a charity set up to preserve and develop traditional craft practices, originally in Afghanistan, as a means of economic regeneration.
An ambitious exhibition programme runs throughout the year, presented across the two new gallery spaces. Artists and Neighbours: the Holland Park Circle, open now and running until 19 March 2023, features newly acquired artworks by Albert Moore, JJ Shannon and Colin Hunter, and examines the story of the ‘Holland Park Circle’, a unique community of prominent artists whose fashionable, purpose-built studio-houses, many of which still border Leighton House, heralded the era of the artist as celebrity. Simultaneously, A Life of Drawing: Highlights from the Leighton collection showcases a rarely-seen selection of Leighton’s exceptional studies and sketches made within his studio and on his travels.
Feature image: The Arab Hall looking into the Narcissus Hall, Leighton House. Photo: Will Pryce