London: Leighton House Museum

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Leighton House is the subject of this post solely because it was right by Holland Park, where I ended up last weekend, and not because it was really somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit.  In fact, I didn’t even know much about its former owner,  Frederic Leighton, who was evidently one of the most famous artists of the 19th century; not being very into art, I’d only heard him mentioned in passing, and couldn’t have told you the name of any of his works.  His house is now owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and managed by the Friends of Leighton House, who also run 18 Stafford Terrace, which was Linley Sambourne’s home (Victorian cartoonist for Punch, therefore probably someone I would have been more interested in than Leighton, but alas, his home is open by guided tour only).

I feel like I come across on here as being quite cantankerous, and this post isn’t going to do anything to dispel that notion. Leighton House irked me straightaway because of the snobby demeanor of the woman working the admissions desk.  There was really no need for her to sneer at us because we don’t have a National Trust membership (apparently English Heritage membership isn’t good enough, though honestly I think they’re both equally middle class things to have), and I was even more annoyed when she asked if we wanted a “guidebook” for 50p extra, I said, “no,’ and she charged us for it anyway.  As we’d paid by card, it wasn’t worth demanding a refund for a lousy 50p, but it was the principle of the thing, particularly as the guidebook was awfully crappy – basically just a brochure that would have been free anywhere else.

So after paying £5 each (plus the unwanted guidebook charge), my boyfriend and I were dismayed to discover that the house only consisted of about 6 rooms (and you’re not allowed to take pictures).  Fortunately, there were at least free information sheets in each room, so that we could learn a little bit about the objects inside, as well as Frederic Leighton (since I knew almost nothing about him).  Unfortunately, the information on Leighton himself was scanty, and assumed a fair bit of background knowledge on the part of the visitor, so that whilst I now know basic facts about his life (dates of birth and death, names of siblings, etc.), and that he had a favourite model called Dorothy Dene, with whom he may or may not have been having an affair (or he might have been gay, no one really knows), I still don’t really get why he was important and beloved by the Victorian establishment.

To be fair, some of the downstairs rooms were really neat.  The most famous room is the Arab Hall, which has a fountain in the middle, and is adorned with antique Islamic tiles and stained glass. Very peaceful, and would lend itself well to contemplation, assuming one doesn’t need a wee.  I was unimpressed with the library since it only contained about 50 books, which I feel made the room frankly undeserving of its title.  Presumably the books there were only a part of Leighton’s collection, but still, if I had a library, that room would be crammed floor to ceiling with books (except for the hidden passageway, and the spiral staircases to the upper floor, of course). Poor effort on Leighton’s part.  However, I loved the Narcissus Hall, which was lined with gorgeous blue tiles, and had an excellent bench seat built into the staircase with a stuffed peacock next to it, where I would probably spend all my time curled up with a book from my obviously far more extensive collection, if it were my house (my boyfriend said I would probably talk to the stuffed peacock too, and he’s not wrong, but I reckon it’s marginally better than talking to myself).  There was also a dining room that Queen Victoria visited at one point, and a garden that wasn’t open to the public, though you could peek at it from the window.

Upstairs, there was Leighton’s “monastic-style bedroom” (he lived alone all his adult life, bar a few servants, which is why there is much speculation about his sexuality), and the Silk Room, which was really more of a nook – it had walls papered in green silk, hence the name (William Morris wallpaper was in the supposedly “spartan” bedroom), and was hung with lots of artwork by Leighton and his friends, including a large portrait by Millais of a girl shelling peas.  His studio was massive, and dominated that floor of the house, but there wasn’t much in it except for paintings and a creaky wooden floor. Leighton’s own artwork, at least, the pieces in his house, seemed to consist mainly of sculpture and portraiture; they weren’t really my style, which is perhaps why I wasn’t hugely in love with his house.

That was basically all there was to the place, though his bathroom and a few other areas were closed off to the public (there were public toilets, you just couldn’t look inside Leighton’s loo; disappointing); it took less than half an hour to look around, which made me fairly unhappy about the 5 quid entrance fee, but it is a high-rent area, after all, and I’m sure there is a fair deal of upkeep.  I was very partial to the Arab and Narcissus Halls, but the rest of the house really wasn’t anything special.  Probably worth popping in if you’re a National Trust member, as they get half price entry (which I guess was the reason for the snobbiness of the staff, though why would you cop an attitude about someone paying full price?!), or if you are a fan of Leighton, but not great for those of us who didn’t know anything about him before visiting, and aren’t particular fans of Victorian art.  2.5/5

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