The artist as celebrity is hardly a new phenomenon – one has only to think of the superstars of the Renaissance. Frederic, Lord Leighton, the high Victorian artist was just such a figure in his day. Much feted for his vast historic paintings, sculptures and portraits, he moved in the loftiest circles, Victoria herself being an ardent admirer of his work.
In April, the Friends were given a fascinating private tour of Leighton House on the edge of fashionable Holland Park. Leighton was possibly the first British painter to build a house that was an artistic statement in its own right, combining living and entertainment spaces and at its heart, a lofty, light-filled studio.
On entering the house from the quiet, residential street you are forced to pause to take breath. The richness of decorative textures and intensity of colours in the peacock blue-tiled Narcissus Hall is overwhelming.
We marvelled at the luminescent stained glass, the exquisite Moorish tiles, the intricate gilded metalwork, delicate mosaic floors, and grand staircase complete with stuffed peacock, its tail on full display.
Moving from room to room on the ground floor, we absorbed the sheer quality of the craftsmanship which flourished in a period when the decorative arts were an integral element of the architect’s palette. Leighton House is not only a great showcase of Islamic tiles but also contains the work of Leighton’s great contemporary, the potter William De Morgan, whose stunning Arab-influenced tiles are interspersed with those collected on Leighton’s extensive travels in the Middle East. The pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the domed Arab Hall, a later addition, with its dazzling array of tiled surfaces and pool with tinkling fountain as its centrepiece.
It came as a surprise to learn that this imposing mansion has only one bedroom. Leighton may have been a highly sociable bachelor host but clearly valued his privacy at breakfast. To his credit, the “deserving poor” were admitted for free on Sundays to marvel at the extravagance of his showpiece. In the vast studio hung with his work, we were shown the discreet entrance used by his models and the hidden ceiling-to-floor door, enabling Leighton’s huge canvases to be moved in and out. The only modern touch was the expressive abstract mural recently added by Iranian-born artist, Shahrzad Ghaffari, wrapped around a circular staircase.
If Leighton House resembles a High Victorian stage set, a shrine to beauty of the most ornate kind, then our next visit was to an intensely ‘theatrical’ house of the modern era, created within the shell of a mid-Victorian Kensington house. Between 1979 and 1983, Charles Jencks, the influential architectural theorist, writer and designer, created Cosmic House together with the architect (Sir) Terry Farrell, best known for the MI6 headquarters on the Thames. Cosmic House was to become a richly-layered expression of Jencks’ passion for Post-Modernist architecture with all its symbolist touches, self-aware playfulness and amusing juxtapositions of allusions to former eras and styles.
Jencks, who died in 2019, was a prime advocator of the Po Mo style and Cosmic House, now a charitable foundation, remains as the apotheosis of his devotion to the movement, combining his eclectic cultural and scientific interests and ideas, including of course, cosmology itself. The Friends were able to wander at will through the labyrinthine spaces and confusion of levels spilling off the eye-popping spiral staircase.
Having absorbed the echoes of Rennie Mackintosh and Art Deco in the master bedroom, some hankered after a dip in the inverted dome-shaped jacuzzi, while others braved the chilly conditions to experience the garden with its symbolic gateway labelled ‘The Future’.
On the coach home after this stimulating West London day we debated whether Post-Modernism will come to be regarded as little more than a playful interlude – a reaction to pared-down Modernism. As the visit to Leighton House also revealed, there is much delight to be gained from the appreciation of decorative ‘excess’ as a genuine form of artistic and architectural expression.