Think of an artist’s colony in London, and I bet the last place you’d come up with is Kensington. But in the 1860s, to the end of the century, the respectable backstreets off Kensington High Street – then still dotted with farms - were awash with artists.
The most distinguished of the Kensington artist set was Frederic, Lord Leighton, who lived at 12 Holland Park Road, the last reminder of that vanished world. Now, following an extensive refurbishment, it has been returned to its former glory.
Leighton was famous for, among other much-loved paintings, Flaming June, and the rather racy The Fisherman and the Syren. He was perhaps less well-known for the illustrations he drew for George Elliot’s novel, Romola but they are no less exquisite.
He moved in the most elevated artistic circles – he knew Ingres, Delacroix, Corot and Millet; Whistler and Millais and numerous Pre-Raphaelites who would have been no stranger to his extraordinary house in Kensington.
Leighton House museum, with its exquisite Orientalist interior and its famous tiled Arab and Narcissus Halls, is re-opening on October 15 after an extended, but sympathetic, £8 million refurbishment. And it was worth the wait.
To answer many people’s first question, yes, it now has the nice De Morgan café – showing off ceramics by Leighton’s contemporary, the novelist and potter William de Morgan – looking out onto the gardens, good loos and a larger shop, with tasteful stationery. (Who doesn’t like a Flaming June birthday card?)
The development opens up space beneath Leighton’s studios looking out onto the gardens, revealing the original brickwork, and there’s a handsome new reception area. Downstairs, the former butler’s quarters have been converted for art activities and children’s workshops in the pantry. There’s storage for the Leighton archive in the basement – the curator, Daniel Robbins, shudders to recall the former provision (let’s just say that it’s a good thing there was never a fire).
Better still, there’s a subterranean exhibition room for some of Leighton’s 700 drawings. “They’re from his childhood to the very end of his life”, says Robbins. And very lovely they are too. Some are the little stamp-like drawings where he sketched out plans for his paintings, which would be transferred meticulously onto larger squares then onto canvas. Later he’d use these as a record of his work. “He never did anything spontaneously”, said Robbins. Not to put too fine a point on it, Leighton seems like a control freak, but then not every artist has to resemble Francis Bacon.
The great thing about the new extension is that it liberates Leighton’s actual house from administrative clutter and storage and makes it more fully itself. Out goes the cramped ticket office into the new spacious annexe; in come visitors to the very reception room that Leighton’s guests would have entered, where the first thing they see is a handsome painting by Domenico Tintoretto (son of the famous Tintoretto) – Leighton adored Venetian art.
The new entrance area to the right of the house meant removing some of the crass surfacing that Kensington council, which took over ownership of the house in the 1920s, had built over the exterior, damaging fine original brickwork in the process.
It opens up the old doorway which was once the models’ entrance, allowing them direct access to the studios above, rather than into the house, which might have occasioned comment from the neighbours. “You didn’t want people to see a succession of young women coming in and out”, says Robbins.
There’s explanatory material about Leighton and a cabinet to showcase objects associated with him. One is his ceremonial sword, presented to him in his capacity as the lieutenant colonel of the Artists’ Rifle Volunteer Corps, an infantry unit of creatives set up to combat what was thought to be an imminent French invasion in 1859. Don’t you just love the notion of Leighton giving marching orders to William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the squabbles there must have been over the colour of the uniform?
The house is famous for its beautiful near-Eastern tiles, chiefly Syrian work. There’s an echo of that association in the fine new inlaid furniture in the new entrance hall, executed by Syrian craftsmen. The curving stairwell is decorated with a mural, called Oneness, by an Iranian-born artist, Shahrzad Ghaffari, in colours reminiscent of the peacock hall, with paint thickly applied, like an artist’s palette; Leighton, I fear, would have hated it.
One revelation is the restoration of Leighton’s winter studio, where he could work in the dark and smoggy months.
The first exhibition following the reopening of the gallery is Artists and Neighbours, which recalls just what a buzz there must have been here during Leighton’s lifetime. The entire street and the one behind was inhabited by artists, most of them nipping in and out of each other’s houses, and many drawn by the proximity of Leighton. Some of those artists are unfairly neglected now but were once terrifically fashionable.
The first big artist in the area was GF Watts who came to live at Little Holland House (the dower building for Holland House) in Melbury road – as his hostess, Sara Prinsep, wryly observed, he came to stay for three days, and remained for 30 years – one reason why Leighton gravitated to the area, but damnably, that was bulldozed in the 1960s, and the creatives have long been replaced by investment bankers and the odd pop star.
So hurrah for Leighton House, a gem of Victorian orientalism five minutes from the Design Museum. We all need an exquisite retreat, do we not? If you haven’t been, go. It is an antidote to our times.
Artists and Neighbours: the Holland Park Circleâ¯, October 15 to March 19; rbkc.gov.uk/museums