I decided, impulsively, to start with a trip to Leighton House, home of the Victorian artist Frederic Leighton, on Holland Park Road in west Kensington. I didn’t know a thing about Leighton, and I wasn’t at all sure if that was my fault or his. It turns out he was the most famous artist of his age. Who’d have thought? I had walked past the house several times and always thought it looked intriguing – it’s big and has an air of solemn importance, as if this is a house and a person you really ought to know about – so I had put it on my Things to Get Around to Eventually (But Probably Won’t) list. It isn’t often I knock something off this list, so I was rather pleased with myself just for thinking to go there. Besides, it was a rainy day: a good day for a museum.
I liked Leighton House immediately, not least because my ticket price was reduced from £10 to £6 on account of my great age. The house is gloomy and grand, but interestingly eccentric; it has, for instance, just one bedroom. In terms of decor it feels a little like a cross “etween a pasha’s den and a New Orleans bordello. It is full of Arabic tiles, silk wallpapers, colourful ceramics and lots of art, much of it involving bare-breasted young women, which I am always up for.
Leighton isn’t terribly well remembered now, in part because many of his pictures ended up in odd places like the Baroda Museum in Gujarat, India, and Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, where not many of us go to look at pictures, and in part because his paintings are in any case a little overwrought for modern tastes. Most involve a lot of upstretched arms and pleading faces, and have titles like ‘And the Sea Gave Up the Dead Which Were in It’ and ‘Perseus, on Pegasus, Hastening to the Rescue of Andromeda’.
But Leighton was hugely esteemed in his own lifetime. He was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1878, and in the New Year’s honours list of 1896 he became the first – and so far still only – artist to be ennobled. He didn’t get to enjoy the privilege long. He died less than a month later, and was interred in St Paul’s Cathedral as a national treasure, with great pomp. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, always eager to be at least fifty years out of touch, gives him 8,200 words, a thousand more than it gives almost any of his contemporaries.
Leighton lived alone in Leighton House for thirty years. His sexuality was always something of a mystery to those who were interested enough to think about it. After decades of apparent celibacy, he seems to have stirred to frisky life after he discovered a young beauty from the East End named Ada Pullen (who subsequently, for reasons unknown to me, changed her name to Dorothy Dene). Leighton scrubbed her up, bought her a fine wardrobe, schooled her in elocution and other cultural refinements, and introduced her into high society. If all that brings to mind Prof Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, it is no accident. George Bernard Shaw is said to have modelled Pygmalion on their relationship. Whether Leighton knew Ms Dene in the full, biblical sense isn’t known, but he certainly enjoyed painting her without clothes on, as the Leighton House collection enthusiastically attests.
Leighton’s possessions were auctioned off straight after his death and the house itself was knocked about by subsequent owners and then wrecked by a German bomb during the war, so that almost nothing worth seeing was left by the early post-war years, but little by little over a period of decades the house has been put back together so that it is now much as it was in Leighton’s day, and it is quite splendid. I can’t say that a great deal of the artwork was entirely to my taste, but I did enjoy the experience very much and when I stepped outside the rain.
And the Sea Gave Up the Dead Which Were in It, 1892 by Lord Frederick Leighton (1830-1896)