Leighton House, a hidden gem in itself, is displaying the collection of wealthy businessman Pérez Simón until 29th March 2015. The house offers an intimate setting for the display of a well considered and neatly arranged collection, and although Pérez Simón could have, presumably, displayed the paintings elsewhere (perhaps somewhere more central) the collection perfectly complements its surroundings. The house is a veritable feast, as is the exhibition.
Lord Frederic Leighton first acquired the plot for the house in 1864, and immediately began constructing designs with his old friend and architect, George Aitchison. By 1865 the house was inhabitable, although within two years the house was being extended to enlarge Leighton’s studio. A decade later, in 1877, another extension was commissioned which resulted in the beautiful Arab Hall.
The calming harmony of the Islamic tiles replicate the experience of stepping inside a Moroccan riad. Whilst there are obvious architectural references to La Zisa, Palermo, within the Arab Hall, there are also aesthetic dialogues with the pillars of Sienese cathedrals. The arabesque tiles are an important collection of late fifteenth, early sixteenth century Damascus tiles. However, the peacock turquoise tiles which grace the walls outside of the Arab Hall are a colour so rare it is nearly impossible to describe: they glow in a manner that enriches and enlivens the soul so that you feel compelled to dive in and purify yourself in their colour. Leighton was reportedly very involved with the design of the property and the house was a joy to him.
It was also a joy to Leighton’s many society visitors. In fact, Holland Park housed many Victorian artists who would also be found gracing the beautiful interior of Leighton’s home, e.g. Sir Luke Fildes, and William Holman Hunt both lived nearby.
After Leighton, an heirless member of the gentry, died, much of his collection and works were sold off and in the last two decades Pérez Simón has been buying these up. Since 2010 the house has been restored to its former glory, from the careful arrangement of Leighton’s correspondence to his repro desk (which is one of the first objects you see upon entering the house). With the transformation and renovation of the house complete it is the perfect site for Pérez Simón to display his collection, under the title Victorian Obsession.
So now, alongside numerous exemplary nineteenth century paintings several Leighton works return home, e.g. Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by The Sea (1871). This intimate collection of fifty two paintings grace the walls in place of the reproduction Leighton’s usually displayed. The period covered is particularly interesting as it moves through the aestheticism of the 1860s right up until the outbreak of the First World War.
After the entrance, where you see several items of correspondence and sketches from Leighton’s own collection, you are swept into a pool of the most beautiful peacock blue tiles. This is the Narcissus Hall, which you can take a virtual tour of here.
Words nor photographic images can convey the depth and richness of the tiles. The subtle changes in light make the peacock blue seem like water, inviting you to dip your toes in. The turquoise is the most enlivening colour, and a welcome relief from the grey winter sky which lay outside on the day of my visit. William de Morgan was heavily involved with the tiles in the house, and his expertise is clear. Just as his ceramics have a deliberate silver lustre, so these tiles shine with light. The hall, replete with a bronze Narcissus, is essentially a decorative passageway to guide you toward the Arab Hall where further exquisite craftsmanship is evident. The Islamic tiles, sunken fountain, golden cupola, and the Cairene balcony all transport you to another epoch.
It is in the drawing room that the exhibition commences with the 1862 watercolour Fatima, by Edward Burne-Jones. This orange and brown hued work is an odd choice for the first piece of an exhibition, and is certainly not one of Burne-Jones better works (nor is it representative of the quality of the collection). Fatima’s hands are delicately drawn, her face rather tender, albeit tentative, and her orange dress reminiscent of Venetian art, but the overall quality of the painting leaves one wanting.
As does the next work, Rossetti’s pastel work Venus Verticordia (1867 – 1868). Alexa Wilding, in my opinion one of the more beautiful Pre-Raphaelite models, is more successfully rendered in the 1864-8 oil version of the same name. Tucked around the wall from this pastel is the beautiful and rather small 1863 oil, Enid and Geraint by Hughes. Utilising an earlier study held at the Tullie House Museum Art Gallery, Hughes depicts a young man lying next to a beautiful woman (his own wife Tryphena) who, the frame tells us, he loves her ‘as the light of heaven’. The inspiration for the image is Tennyson’s ‘The Marriage of Geraint’ which is concerned with jealousy, misunderstanding, and of course, love. The heavily cropped work adds to the feeling of intense passion which the Tyrian purple and Victorian green serves to exacerbate. The bluebells placed on the lute signify constancy in floriography and for such a small work, there is much for the viewer to consider as you ponder this young couple. The whole design, colour, and theme is more in keeping with early Pre-Raphaelite work, than that of the more aesthetic styled Rossettian images of the 1860s, particularly when you compare it to the Venus Verticordia hanging next to it.
The next work is an absolute gem of the collection, Strudwick’s The Ramparts of God’s House (1889). Despite being nearly thirty years later than the Hughes work, it seems to be more thematically in keeping with early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The endless cycle of angelic bodies in amongst the firmament are fascinatingly drawn; the detail throughout the canvas is precise, and the colouring muted, yet Italianate. Each figures face is beautifully drawn, and not dissimilar to those in Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs (1880, Tate). The theme, derived between the artist and his patron, William Imrie, is taken from a passage in the angelic text ‘The Book of Enoch’ where the prophet described his vision of a celestial house full of angels. Considerations of celestial spaces and immaterial bodies was not just an interest of the Aesthetic period, it was a long running aesthetic interest born from the collisions between Anglicanism, Catholicism, Tractarianism, Church and State politics, and Science. Strudwick’s fascinating depiction of the raqia is a rare and bold aesthetic solution to a Society which was trying to construct a New Jerusalem, scripturally or secularly.
There is an earlier seemingly companion piece which you approach only after this work, The Passing Days (1878). The guidebook describes Strudwick as often having created allegorical subjects, and merely suggests this is referencing ‘Florentine Renaissance art’. Although the book ‘suggests we should live in the present but be aware of the Judgement to come’, the work is clearly deeply rooted within the tradition of Christian theologies – perhaps even Catholic, or Dantean frameworks.
The most beautiful of works, which I suspect Rossetti would have heartened to, is Strudwick’s Elaine (1891). A beautiful Arthurian subject drawn from Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ (1859). Elaine, the very poorly treated lover of Lancelot, gazes despairingly at his shield which is propped up in front of her. The colours are so muted, that you take a moment to settle upon the shield. Her features are exquisite and the pathos is compelling. Strudwick’s attention to detail is, in itself, legendary: the Marian lilies, the dowry chest, the rug, her sandal, the angelic filled walls. As G.B. Shaw wrote in 1891 ‘Holbein, Hogarth, Bellini were not more exact and straightforward than Strudwick.’ The beautifully muted palette of Elaine is so tender and golden, that her forlorn expression feels all the more strained. Her romantic love is displayed for us as having taken on sacramental qualities, as she sits before a pulpit. This painting is a beautifully testimony of all that is wonderful about Pre-Raphaelitism and British art of the nineteenth century. It may, by some, be considered wistful or whimsical, over sentimental, and somehow cloying, but the attention to detail, the mastery of line, colour, and composition is superb.
Strudwick’s line is not dissimilar to John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s which is further evidenced in Song without Words (1875) (also in the exhibition). His themes are consistently Pre-Raphaelite and early Victorian, as exemplified by the Edwardian date of In the Golden Days (1907). Strudwick, an unsung Pre-Raphaelite, is the hidden gem of the exhibition. His name is underrated and certainly under researched and if for no other reason than raising his profile, the Victorian Obsession exhibition has to be considered a success.
Other notable works include Waterhouse’s The Crystal Ball (1903), which is no doubt a work familiar to most people. The young enchantress’s heavy medieval style dress and the rather imprisoning architectural composition provide this work with notions of the embowered woman, not dissimilar to Waterhouse’s most famous work The Lady of Shalott (1888, Tate). Other divergent representations of women occur in this section of the exhibition: Hughes, The Path of True Love Never Did Run Smooth (1896) and Waterhouse’s much later work, A Song of Springtime (1913). The brightness of A Song of Springtime is juxtaposed by the dark rich colours of Hughes’ work, and the display is an interesting one particularly when you also take into account the evocative romantic nocturne that is Song without Words.
It is a little disappointing that there are not more examples of Leighton’s work in the exhibition but such, I presume, is Pérez Simón’s taste. Alongside the paintings, drawings or sketches from the collection of Leighton House are displayed; one particularly sketch of merit is the Male Head (study for ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence’) (1853). The most impressive example of Leighton’s work is Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle (1880). She simply glows, her white drapery drips off her from her milky pale shoulders, down into the water at her toes. Although a small and somewhat private piece, the colours and mastery of light are exceptional. Crenaia is luminous.
Other names of interest are Edwin Long and John William Godward. The less said about William Clarke Wontner’s The Saz Player (Dancing Girl) (1903) the better. Long’s Queen Esther (1878) is a striking biblical image, which was originally intended to be hung alongside its later companion piece, Vashti (1879). These type of images invariably draw on collections from the British Museum, and Queen Esther is no exception. The colours are fine although Queen Esther’s expression is awkward and irritating, rather than anxious or courageous. There is a tendency between Long, Godward, and Wontner to lift rather upper class British looking women and place them within Judaic settings. At best this is interesting in terms of scriptural and cultural dialogues during the nineteenth century, at worst it is patronising and embarrassing (I refer you to Wontner’s The Saz Player or if you need further convincing, seek the snow white tan of Goodall’s Pharoah’s daughter in The Finding of Moses (1885)).
Fortunately there are antidotes: Godward’s Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (1912) is a surprising dip into a world we typically associate with Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. The bright southern European light is wonderfully captured, and the styling of marble, drapery, and architecture is exacted. However, despite its Neo-Classical merits, Godward falls shy of Alma Tadema’s standard or even that of some of his other works. The work may be bright and photographic in quality, but it lacks the seductive calm of his own Dolce Far Niente (1904, Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection) or the depths within Nerissa (1906, Private Collection).
There are several Alma Tadema works in the exhibition, but they are of varying quality. One of the most interesting and well executed pieces is An Earthly Paradise (1891). Narratively it is not a particularly exciting piece but ‘Mother and Child’ paintings were fashionable at the end of the nineteenth century. The colours, and the composition are quite curious, although well considered. Alma Tadema has placed the pair within an interior Roman setting and so we are not greeted by his typical bright sunlight. The beautiful green of the mother’s dress and her wonderful Gaelic red hair is an unmistakeable Victorian signature. The mother’s tenderness as she leans over the baby is rather touching, and the infant’s shoe is adorably rendered, and insightfully placed. The actual couch within the painting is on display nearby (although they appear to have placed the buckles up the wrong way).
The major focus of the display is a work that has a room more or less to itself. As you move through Leighton’s studio into the posthumously built Perrin gallery you start to smell roses. The wonderfully sensuous and heady smell of a blend of roses washes over you and prepares you, tantalises and teases you until you stand before Alma Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). This work is not perhaps as large as you may expect, although at over two metres it is a sizeable and most impressive piece. The infinite detail is fascinating and is across every inch of the canvas. Your eye is likely to start at the lower right, where you will greet the soft, uncertain eyes of a female guest. Her eyes betray the beginnings of fear and she stares at us, a little imploringly, but not yet fully aware of her fate. Emperor Heliogabalus and his preferred guests sit above her, symposia like, looking down upon the abundance of rose petals. As we turn to the left hand side of the painting we start to see the beauty of the roses, the wonderfully pink petals which fly through the scene and fall in heavy mountains. Then you realise the truth behind the beauty.
On the left hand side, a figure with a pair of blue eyes is buried beneath the roses, and although he peers out at us with a cold bright stare, he is being engulfed and suffocated by the petals. Nearby a dark haired figure lays, almost in repose, but is weighted down by a blanket of unrelenting roses. The sheer decadence of this work, beautiful as it is, is betrayed by death, and the cold undertone of imperial indifference. Nero in both its historical reference, and hideous glory, the painting is a confusing mix of visual delight and dis-ease. The curators wrap us up in a blanket of rose scent, and we too become mildly suffocated and intoxicated. The display is innovative. Even the supplementary small sketches and studies which line the adjacent walls are well displayed, with simplistic informative use of colour highlighting on the tombstone information.
The exterior of the Leighton House gives no clue as to the treasures which greet you inside. The exterior is awkward, plain, and asymmetrical. But Leighton was interested in the interior, how each part of the house moved from one section to another. How each sense was awakened by colour, or craftsmanship, or the placing of a particular sculpture. The house was supposed to be a sensual delight: it dripped with historical references, with colour, tiles, with actual water, with Renaissance sketches, and Leighton’s own work. The house was densely ornate, exotic, expensive, impressive. Within the walls of his home, Leighton invited you to suspend your grey Victorian industrial reality and to embrace an exotic, historic, and visual landscape. The exhibition invites you to do the same.
 Holman Hunt lived and died in a house round the corner from Leighton’s house, as commemorated by a Blue Plaque.