Leighton House Museum Location: Holland Park Road, Kensington W14 8LZ [map] Open: 10am - 5.30pm (closed Tuesdays) Admission: £9 (free for Art Pass holders) Five word summary: a Victorian artist's studio/house Website:rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum Time to set aside: about an hour
Most London boroughs have neither the opportunity nor the funds to open up a historic house to the public. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea supports two, both in well-to-do streets off Kensington High Street, and both intrinsically Victorian. One is 18 Stafford Terrace, the home of Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne, and the other's a leading artist's showhome. I've been back to the latter.
Frederic Leighton was born in Scarborough in 1830, and by mingling with all the right pre-Raphaelites rose to prominence as a painter and sculptor. Much of his work had a romantic or classical slant, and so great was his reputation that he became President of the Royal Academy for eighteen years. With fame came wealth, so he asked a friendly architect to build him a combined home and studio in Kensington grand enough to dazzle prospective clients. Leighton House is the result, its interior very much a reflection of his artistic character.
First of all you'll notice they've got the builders in. A stack of scaffolding covers much of the frontage, all part of Hidden Gem To National Treasure, an £8m project designed to restore and open underused parts of the building. This also means the garden's closed at present (which is no great loss), and is why the museum will only open at weekends throughout 2020.
As was Frederic's intention, stepping inside is liable to make you gasp. The main hall is ostentatiously tiled and mosaic-floored, with marble columns to the left and an open staircase whirling to the right. The blues are rich and deep, offset with flashes of gold, courtesy of tiles by William De Morgan. A chandelier blazes at the far end, and if you venture up to the Arab Hall the wow factor increases. Every surface is smothered with genuine Persian, Syrian and Turkish tiles, shipped in for authenticity. A fountain burbles in a central pool, discreetly roped off for health and safety reasons. High above is an ornate bulbous dome, whose silhouette gives the exterior some additional oomph. This is the spectacle you'll be drawn back to revisit before you leave.
Three further ground floor rooms are accessible, if less dressed up. The study boasts books and letters, the drawing room spoonback chairs and the dining room ebony dressers. You can read about these on the full colour information sheets propped up in the corner of each room, some a little ripped through regular use. This is how you learn that much of what you're seeing are modern recreations, beautifully hand-crafted, for example the collections of botanical ceramics and the red flock wallpaper. Reading through may also be the moment you spot how unusual it is to have a fireplace beneath a window (Frederic had the flue diverted up the left-hand wall to optimise his garden view).
Upstairs is the Silk Room, built as a picture gallery, with an opulent recess you can imagine Lawrence of Arabia reclining in. Most of the walls are hung with works by Leighton himself, with titles like Desdemona, Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestes and Boy Saving A Baby From The Clutches Of An Eagle. Alongside is the largest room of all, the Studio, with its tall north-facing window and plenty of room for easels. A Steinway at one end helps the museum to raise funds by hosting concerts and recitals, it's quite the entertainment space. I was particularly touched by Clytie, the oil painting Leighton left unfinished on his death. The poor bloke became Baron Leighton on 24th January 1896 and died the next day, taking his hereditary peerage with him.
And a very special hello to the miserable bloke behind the ticket desk. After I wielded my Art Pass to gain free admittance he inspected it, printed me a receipt, then looked up with a straight face and asked for £20. I assumed it must be a joke, so asked "really?", but he maintained his straight face and asked for £20 again. Yes it had indeed been a joke, but pushed that bit too far, especially when another couple paying full price and considering buying the guide book enjoyed some much more congenial repartee. It put me right off nipping round to 18 Stafford Terrace afterwards anyway. Don't let it deter you.