|Leighton House Museum||Kensington & Chelsea|
Leighton House Museum is the former home of Victorian artist Frederic Lord Leighton (1830-1896), a grand house with a large secluded garden. The house with purpose-built painting studio was designed for him in the mid-1860s by architect George Aitchison on a plot adjacent to Holland Farm, part of the Holland Estate. At that time the area to the north was open land, but gradually other grand houses were built, and the area became a centre for artists, writers and politicians. Leighton's immediate neighbour was the painter Val Prinsep, whose house by Philip Webb was built at the same time as Leighton's, and later residents included Sir Luke Fildes. Leighton lived here until his death in 1896, the house then opening as a museum. With funding from the HLF, the garden of Leighton House was restored in 1997 based on a plan of 1896 that showed formal beds immediately in front of the house and a large lawn with perimeter herbaceous borders. A trellis covered part of the path on the west of the garden and two mounds were originally planted with substantial trees.
The information shown above was correct at the time of the last update 01/02/2013
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Rear garden viewed from first floor of Leighton House, February 2013. The sculpture to the foreground is by Julian Wild, part of a temporary exhibition, and the more distant bronze sculpture is by Sir Thomas Brock. Photograph: Sally Williams
Click photo to enlarge.
Frederic Leighton came from a wealthy medical family, whose grandfather was physician to the Russian royal family in St Petersburg. Frederic was born in Yorkshire in 1830, but the family moved to London in 1833. From 1841 they began to travel regularly to Europe for the sake of his mother's health, settling in Frankfurt in 1846 where Frederic studied painting. He then spent 3 years in Rome and began to practice as a painter. His success seemed assured in 1855 when his first major painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and was purchased by Queen Victoria, who later visited him in his studio-house on 12 March 1869. In the autumn of 1855 he took a studio in Paris where he stayed for 3 years, meeting many of the artists of the day. He eventually returned to settle in London in 1859. In 1864 he became an Associate of the Royal Academy, a full Academician in 1868, and in 1878 he was elected President of the Royal Academy and knighted in the same year. He was deemed to be a most effective and energetic President, devoted to enhancing not only the position of the Royal Academy but also the cultural life of the country, while his reputation as a painter continued to grow. In the New Year's Honours List of 1896 he was the first artist to be ennobled to the peerage, becoming Lord Leighton, Baron of Stretton, but he died shortly after this on 25 January 1896. He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, with the approval of Queen Victoria.
In 1866 his purpose-built studio-house at No.2 Holland Park Road was completed, designed for him by his close friend, the architect George Aitchison. He had purchased the plot of land for his new house in 1864 on what was then a lane on the south of the Holland Estate. The estate was owned by Lord and Lady Holland of Holland House (q.v.), who had already begun to sell off parts of their land for development due to their worsening financial circumstances. In 1850 the estate's dower house, Little Holland House, had been leased by Thoby and Sara Prinsep, and writers, politicians and artists soon began to gather here, including Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones and G F Watts (1817-1904), who was a house-guest of the Prinseps. In 1864 the Prinseps' son Valentine, also an artist, purchased a plot for a studio-house to the west of Leighton's plot. Both artists were given permission to build stable blocks and summerhouses at the end of their gardens although neither actually did so. They later enlarged the original sizes of their plots by acquiring additional land, thereby providing more substantial gardens. In 1868 Leighton sublet a strip to the east from the neighbouring farm, and in the mid-1870s both he and Prinsep purchased land to the north when Melbury Road was being constructed and adjacent plots were being sold to other artists for studio-houses.
Leighton moved into his new house in 1866, although work continued into 1867, including laying out the large rear garden. The landscaping was undertaken by Lee & Son of Hammersmith, who continued to maintain it until Leighton's death. The architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell wrote in the 1870s of summer Sunday mornings in the garden: 'The quiet, the sun overhead, the grass under our feet, the green trees around us, and the house visible between them, form an ineffaceable picture of aesthetic contentment it is a delight to recall.' A plan of 1896 showed formal beds immediately in front of the north façade of the house and a large lawn with perimeter herbaceous borders. A trellis covered part of the path on the west of the garden and two mounds were originally planted with substantial trees.
Leighton was closely involved in the design of his house and its interior decoration clearly demonstrates the artist's keen interest in fine and decorative arts, including C19th Middle Eastern art. A few years after the house was completed, an extension to the studio was built in 1869-70 creating an extensive room on the first floor overlooking the garden. In 1877 work began on extending the house to the west, the result of which was the exuberant Arab Hall designed by Aitchison and Leighton. Completed in c.1881, it houses Leighton's fine collection of C13th-C17th tiles, as well as a mosaic frieze by Walter Crane. Further projects on the house include the winter studio, added to the east in 1889-90, and the Silk Room in 1894-5.
After Leighton's death in 1896 the house was initially put up for auction by his sisters, to whom he had left his estate, in order to realise sufficient money to honour his bequests. The sisters were keen to raise funds to set up the house as a museum in his memory. The house, with only one bedroom despite its grandeur, failed to attract an appropriate bid and subsequently most of his collections were then auctioned. In a move to save the house for the nation, a Leighton House Committee was formed in 1897, consisting of many of his friends and influential supporters, and became the tenants of the house. It was formally opened to the public as a museum in 1900. In 1927 the Leighton House Association, which had succeeded the Committee, was wound up and the freehold was purchased by the Borough of Kensington. The house became a venue for cultural activities, but it was later damaged in WWII and badly restored post-war. Although it continued to be used as a venue, with the general decline in interest in all things Victorian, Leighton's legacy was largely ignored until 1969. In that year the Friends of Leighton House was set up, with Sir John Betjeman as President, with the aim to promote and restore the house and develop a permanent collection. Efforts to restore the house accelerated soon after Stephen Jones was appointed as Curator in 1982.
The garden was restored in 1997 with funding from the HLF based on the Plan of House and Grounds that was shown in the auctioneer's brochure produced for the sale of the house in 1896. In 2008 a £1.6m programme of restoration and refurbishment commenced on the house, funded by RB Kensington & Chelsea with support from the HLF, The Art Fund and V&A/MLA Purchase Grant Fund, together with private donations. The work was undertaken by Purcell Miller Tritton and completed in 2010, winning an RIBA Award in 2011.
In the garden is a bronze sculpture by Sir Thomas Brock (1847-1922), 'A Moment of Peril', 1881. Brock had attracted Leighton's attention when his sculpture 'Hercules strangling Antaeus' won Gold Medal at the Royal Academy in 1869, and Leighton became his friend and mentor. Brock was chief assistant to the sculptor John Henry Foley from 1871, and completed many unfinished works after Foley's death in 1874 including the bronze figure of the Prince Consort for the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens (q.v.). He went on to undertake numerous commissions, including the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace (q.v.). Brock was responsible for Leighton's fine memorial in St Paul's Cathedral (1902) in addition to his Diploma bust of Leighton (1881) in the Royal Academy and a later bust (1892) in The Athenaeum Club.
Daniel Robbins 'Leighton House Museum, Holland Park Road, Kensington' (RB Kensington & Chelsea Culture Service, 2005); RBKC Holland Park Conservation Area Proposals Statement, 1989; Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England London 3: North West' (Penguin, 1999 ed) pp481/2