Tuesday 9 December 2014

Leighton House is a Box of Chocolates

by Caroline Lawrence 

One of the most maddening museums in London is Leighton House. The former mansion of Victorian artist Frederick, Lord Leighton, it is an exotic hidden gem in the leafy streets near Holland Park in Kensington but they won't let you take photos inside. Yes, there is an amusing  YouTube tour of the house, but it focuses on actors playing the part of Leighton and his staff and does a poor job of showing the extraordinary interior of the house itself. Leighton House is one of London's best-kept secrets and this is wrong; it should be better-known.

There are a thousand details there that should be captured in high-resolution for the millions who will never come to London: sandalwood screens, glazed tiles from Damascus, a bubbling fountain in the famous Arab Hall, a hidden alcove, a trick fireplace, a skylight, a dome, a secret door for posting oversized paintings from inside to outside, secret entrances for the models to use, stained glass windows, silk divans, chandeliers, Turkish carpets, velvet drapes, sculptures, statues, plaster casts and peacock feathers galore. 

Actor playing Lord Leighton for the YouTube tour
Oh, and there are some paintings, too: quasi-historical compositions depicting Greek myths, Old Testament stories and the world of imperial Rome. The paintings are great fun, but only a few are by Leighton himself and they are a bit thin on the walls. I am always left wanting more of them. It is the house itself that never fails to satisfy me.  

Cover of the exhibition guide
However, for the next few months – until 29 March 2015 – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have beefed up the wall decoration with fifty paintings generously loaned by wealthy art-lover Juan Antonio Pérez Simón. The exhibition is called A Victorian Obsession. Victorian because the artists represented are Victorian, like Lord Leighton. Obsession because (and I’m guessing here) the painters seem obsessed with beautiful women in erotic poses and exotic settings.  

Godward Study 1913
Critics and academics like to sneer at Victorian artists like Alma-Tadema, Godward and Leighton himself for being purveyors of soft-pornish Roman confections. They are partly right. Buttocks strain against diaphanous silks and nipples can be glimpsed through filmy drapery. Women are usually nymphs, maenads or bathing. In a couple of instances, the artist drapes a little gauze on the model for the study, but then whips it off for a totally nude finished product. It put me in mind of the hilarious bit about 6 minutes into the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore comedy sketch set in the National Gallery

Pete: ‘There was a lot of gauze in the air in those days… a tiny little wisp of gauze that always lands on the appropriate place. Always the wind blows a little bit of gauze over you-know-where…’ 

Dud: ‘Course it must be a million to once chance that the gauze lands in the right place at the right time. I'll bet there's thousands of paintings that we're not allowed to see because the gauze hadn't landed on the right place.’ 

Well, Pete and Dud, A Victorian Obsession at Leighton House is the place to go if you want to see some of the paintings sans gauze. In fact, according to the audio guide the first actual public glimpse of female pubic hair in British art is flaunted by Poynter’s Andromeda writhing on her rock in 1869. 

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1888
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a giant chocolate box lid of a painting called The Roses of Heliogabalus. It shows a depraved Roman Emperor (the best kind) about to smother his dinner guests with rose petals. Far from looking terrified, the diners look like they are having a Herbal Essence flowergasm. This effect is heightened by the room being scented with Jo Malone rose essence, a nice touch that they could have taken further. I’m thinking some Ylang Ylang in the upstairs ‘zenana’ (harem area) and frankincense in the Arab Hall downstairs. 

I'd love to know who this guy is...
In fairness to Alma-Tadema, he was meticulous in his research. Around the walls of the Roses Room are a dozen research photos of landscapes and artefacts that he used to give the painting authenticity: a tripod from Pompeii; a bronze sculpture of Bacchus and one of his pals; a photographic view of the mountains of Albano as they would be seen from Rome; details of Roman couches; a bunch of grapes and various roses & peonies. Apparently he had a collection of over 5000 photographs of real Roman artefacts, not to mention the real works of art he acquired on his travels. This is the sort of attention to detail that thrills the heart of an historian or author of historical fiction. 

Confession: I love Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Born in Holland in 1836, Lourens Alma Tadema was passionate about drawing from the time he could hold a pencil. He spent every free moment sketching, used his pocket money to buy art books and got his mother to wake him at five in the morning so he could draw before school. His family wanted him to be a lawyer, but when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis aged fifteen and given two years to live, they said he could spend those last years doing whatever he liked. He took up painting, conquered his affliction and lived to the ripe old age of 76. For a while he made Merovingian Gaul (don’t ask) his specialist subject but a visit to the ruins of Pompeii in 1863 changed everything. He was there at the perfect moment just when Fiorelli was electrifying the world with his world-famous plaster casts made from the cavities left by dead and decayed Pompeians. 

Returning Home from Market by Alma-Tadema 1865
Later the artist moved to London, anglicised his first name Lourens to Lawrence and made his middle name the first part of a new double-barreled surname to ensure he would be at the front of all the catalogues. He knew and admired Leighton and his fabulous house and bought a mansion of his own in St John’s Wood. When a hazelnut barge exploded on Regent canal and a rain of nut shrapnel blew out the windows of his children’s bedroom, he commissioned Leighton’s architect to rebuild parts of his house in an equally exotic fashion. 

When I was writing my Roman Mysteries series I would pore over reproductions of Alma-Tadema’s densely detailed paintings in a beautifully written and illustrated book by Rosemary J. Barrow, (from which I got the facts of his upbringing and the hazelnut explosion.)
Two paintings by Alma-Tadema not usually seen
So I was thrilled to see two of his paintings not known to me. The first, Agrippina Visiting the Ashes of Germanicus, shows a scene inspired by Tacitus Annals. The second, Returning Home from Market, was painted soon after his return from Pompeii. It shows a Roman matron returning home flanked by her son and daughter, with a slave following behind, laden with her purchases. A monkish looking door slave stands with key, humbly looking down. He has just opened the double doors of the entryway and we catch a glimpse of the bright atrium inside. Best of all is the mosaic on the threshold combining two real Roman mosaics from Pompeii: SALVE and CAVE CANEM. 

An Exedra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1871
Another small painting by Alma-Tadema, An Exedra, is clearly set on the outskirts of Pompeii and shows several Roman citizens enjoying a view while a shaven-headed slave, his one-shouldered tunic labeled property of Holconius, sits resignedly with a parasol on his lap and his bare feet in the gutter. 

A Victorian Obsession is like a gorgeous box of chocolate liqueurs. Some of the bon-bons are overpowering, a few cloying, and one is a giant chocolate covered piece of rose-flavoured Turkish Delight, but plenty are truly delicious and will make a visit worth your while. Don’t gulp them down. Stand in front of the ones you like and nibble at them, letting them dissolve on your tongue. And if you really don’t like Victorian chocolates, I can guarantee you will love the box they come in. 

A Victorian Obsession is on until 29 March 2014. Open every day from 10.00am - 5.30pm except Tuesdays; the cost is about £10 unless you can claim concessions.

UPDATE! A new exhibition, Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity will show from 7 July - 29 October 2017.

Caroline Lawrence writes history-mystery books for kids. 


Susan Price said...

A hazelnut barge explosion? Nut shrapnel blowing the windows out? - That just has to be true. Who would make it up?
Thank you, Caroline - a lovely post.

Christina Koning said...

i loved this post, which made me want to visit the house immediately! I'd heard of it, but never been - what great chance to see it in its glory... As for Alma Tadema, I have to confess to a sneaking liking for his work, overblown as it may seem to modern tastes. I actually have a signed print of one of his Roman ladies, gazing into a pool of goldfish, which my mother bought me as a 'passing my 'O' levels' present (which shows how long ago it was). Thanks for this enjoyable piece, Caroline.

Clare Mulley said...

I covered my walls in Alma Tadema posters when young, but never found out much about him. I love the TB, alphabetical name selection, and exploding nut barge stories! Thank you.

Lydia Syson said...

I will never look at a hazelnut the same way again. Brilliant stuff.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, everybody! :-)

michelle lovric said...

Must go back to Leighton House! The last time was a private memorial service for a friend who worked in the decorative arts. She would have revelled in the exhibition as you describe it, Caroline.

Marjorie said...

Oh my. I didn't know about this lace. I shall have to try to visit next time I'm in London.
Thank you !

Essie Fox said...

I adore Leighton House - and Alma-Tadema!

Thank you!

Marjorie said...

I managed to visit last week - loved the Arab hall and the wonderful tiles. Enjoyed the pictures, too, (although not the scent!) but the tiles were the highlight, for me.
Very grateful to you as I hadn't heard of the museum before your blog!