Friday, 16 August 2013

ARABIAN NIGHTS - in Holland Park

Dalziels Illustrated Arabian Nights Entertainments
London: Ward, Lock, and Co. 1870.

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight `twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A visit to London is a rare treat. I always enjoy the hustle bustle of the streets, people watching, window shopping and looking at the architectural delights which reveal themselves unexpectedly. 

Kensington and Holland Park are two of my favourite places because of close proximity to museums, architectural gems and parks. One day is not really long enough to see it all. As the afternoon came to a close I felt a bit like Cinderella as I rushed to take a few last photographs before running for the train back to the countryside. I think I will have many posts to share about this day.

Like most little girls I was fascinated by Tales from the Arabian Nights and I had a modern copy. These dark Princes and exotic settings entranced me. In one very dusty library in a seaside town I once lived in I found a Victorian copy of the tales. I kept it checked out as long as I could and then reluctantly took it back. I have never forgotten it or the way it transported me to far away magical places.

Leighton House Museum

Our main destination lay in an unbelievably quiet little road, just off Kensington High Street. When Frederic Lord Leighton the painter, sculptor and illustrator decided to build himself a home in which to rest his treasures he collected from around the world he chose well. Everything close at hand should one need it and yet very private and peaceful. From the outside you would never suspect what lay inside as the front of the house is unassuming. The back however reveals the wonderful gardens and the building is so much larger and prettier than expected.

Designed by the architect George Aitchison, Leighton House Museum remains the only purpose-built studio-house open to the public in the United Kingdom,  and it is in a neighbourhood rich with artistic names including G.F. Watts, William Burges and Millais. It was created to his precise requirements and extended and embellished over the 30 years in which he lived there. He had a vision of a ‘private palace of art’ which would feature a wondrous Arab Hall with a  golden dome, intricate mosaics and walls lined with beautiful Islamic tiles.

He must have been a very interesting man. And, from the paintings of him, a handsome one too.

Lord Leighton self portrait

Like many Victorians Lord Leighton was clearly enamoured of Gods and Goddesses and climes distant from his England, although he chose to give himself and all of many treasures a home in London. From the moment you enter you notice that the woodwork is painted black and the door frames are carved with the symbol of Turkey, the Tulip. These and other details are picked out in gold.

Black gilded woodwork
Photo by Colour Living
You also cannot help but notice the magical turquoise tiles on the walls, or the stuffed Peacock who sets them off perfectly.

Photo by Tina Bernstein
from Colour Living

The floor in one room is painted a bright rich blue, and another red. Ceilings are gilded. The interior is dark, yet so carefully planned that what light there is serves to embellish and make the interiors even more exquisite.  The carpets are a delight to see and to walk upon. In one room hangs an astounding Murano glass chandelier from Venice, a spun confection of clear, raspberry and turquoise glass.  Fireplace mantles and pieces of inlaid furniture are enlivened by Dragons.

Leighton House Arab Hall.
This view shows the staircase to the upstairs rooms,
the wonderful turquoise tiles and the detailed mosaic floors.
As with most historic homes and museums no photographs were allowed so we cannot share with you through our own eyes what delights thrilled us - but there are some images available which have been taken for official use, and we can share those. We have also shared a few images from the Colour Living blog, who visited the house in January of this year and were allowed to photograph it. The link is at the bottom of this post.

In his travels Lord Leighton had collected over a thousand Islamic tiles and wanted to build a room to display them. In 1864 the Arab Hall, a two story domed courtyard style room which is adorned by a central fountain was designed in the centre of Leighton House.

Photo by Tina Bernstein, Colour Living

You feel as if you are intruding upon some very private scene in The Arab Hall. It reminds me of the Waterhouse painting, a favourite of mine entitled 'dolce far niente'.

John William Waterhouse, dolce far niente
translation literally 'sweet doing nothing'.

There are many influences here, Lord Leighton obviously wanted to evoke a Roman villa, a Turkish palace and some European palatial mansion which he may have come across on a grand tour. 

The decoration is jewel like in all of it's textures, colours and display. The floor in the entry hall is composed of tiny fragments of white and black mosaic and mythical animals and plants swirl their way across it towards the lavish oriental carpets. The walls are covered in turquoise wall tiles, both bright and dark at once, and detailed Turkish tiles depicting art nouveau style flowers. One of the first sights you see as you enter is a stuffed Peacock whose feathers match the colours of the hall. It is hard to take it all in and to appreciate it you need to visit on a quiet day and give each view time.

The Arab Hall showing the seating and the pool.
Photographer: Will Pryce
The domed ceiling in The Arab Hall

Casbah seating at the sides of the pool.
Photo by Tina Bernstein from Colour Living.

The serene pool of water is flanked on two sides by deep Casbah style couches which you want to sink into. The window above is shuttered with intricate lattice blinds just allowing enough light to filter through to cast a dreamy aura over the room. If you look up above the entrance to the room there is a carved balcony, again shuttered and only allowing those ensconced upstairs a glimpse of what is downstairs.

The balcony overlooking the Arab Hall is only revealed once you go upstairs,

It is easy to image incense wafting up and music playing softly.  This is a room which needs to be graced by an Emperor, a rock star, a pre-Raphaelite muse and of course, Lord Leighton himself.

The Arab Hall and fountain fascinated visitors since
Victorian times

The Arab Hall is indeed the biggest jewel in the crown of the house, but the other rooms are full of surprises and delight as well.

The green silk room hung with paintings and lit from the skylight above.
Photographer: Will Pryce

The Dining Room with Pugin like red flocked wallpaper
and a collection of Iznik pottery

One end of the studio
with the fantastically painted bright blue wall.
You can just make out the print of Flaming June

Lord Leighton's studio
For me, although the Arab Hall was opium like in the intensity of it's beauty and yet I found that the room I most wished to linger was his studio. This is where he worked, showed his paintings and held music and art evenings for his friends and fans which included royalty and the art world.

I loved the way that he collected bits and pieces of ancient artefacts and they are displayed casually here. A citrine coloured scrap of fraying velvet fabric accents the ivory plaster of a relic. Letters to and from friends are left half read, a ladies silk shawl is draped over the back of a delicate looking chair as if a Goddess has just departed. Not everything here is valuable, you can tell that he did not chose what he collected because of what it would fetch at market but because he loved them. They were probably all priceless to him but upon one wall hangs a real treasure, an ancient carved piece of the Parthenon.

Following the death of Lord Leighton most of his belongings were removed from his home and the curators of this museum have done a remarkable job is getting so many of them returned to their rightful place, and recreating the look the house would have had when he owned it.

In the dome of the Arab Hall and in his studio are little bejewelled windows which are heartbreakingly exquisite. Although they evoke Arabian Nights they are also Elizabethan in their intensity.


Of all the items which we saw I most wanted to take a picture of them even though I knew no photograph would be able to really capture the quality of light through this glass. But I am grateful to have found these two.
One of the stained glass windows
Photo by Tina Bernstein of Colour Living

There were not as many works of art displayed as I expected but those that were did not disappoint.  Some by Lord Leighton, others by his peers. Though he lived in their time Lord Leighton, like Alma Tadema, was not a pre-Raphaelite and he preferred Gods and Goddesses with a more Heavenly aspect and less sultriness than those immortalised by the pre-Raphaelites.

Clytie, by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896)

Lord Leighton by G.F. Watts
His studies for some of his masterpieces show how adept he was at capturing the folds and the sheer quality of the dresses his Goddess like women wore in his paintings. His use of colour is remarkable as is the way that he could paint light into the sky or his subject's hair and clothes.

We did miss his best known painting, Flaming June, and we were cruelly reminded of our loss when we came upon a print of it in his studio. What a triumph she was and it is a shame that she is not here in his house. But works of art of this calibre, whether they be the Parthenon, or a Goddess captured on a canvas are always in demand by all who appreciate beauty and it will remain impossible to keep them all where they belong.

Flaming June herself
I have posted about her previously

Lord Leighton's small, austere bedroom
Although it is impossible to imagine a more splendid interior there was a sad note. His home has just the one small and austere bedroom. Beautiful wallpaper and prints cannot disguise the fact that this is a bedroom for one. He expected no guests to come to stay and Lord Leighton never married. No dalliances are known. It appears that this romantic man who built a pleasure palace and painted Goddesses lived his whole life bereft of love. He never found his own Venus. 

Perhaps like us he had given his heart to Flaming June. 

Queen Victoria raised him to the peerage just three weeks before his death and it was only issued the day before he died. I really hope that he was well enough to know he had finally received the honour so richly deserved. Lord Leighton died on January 25 1896 and he left his home and all the contents to his two sisters. They cared not and sold everything, even the furniture that had been made for the house at a Christie’s sale which lasted for eight days. By the 1920s, ownership of the house had passed to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, who opened it as a museum.

If you have the chance visit Leighton House. It seems to me that those who have been entrusted with it's care not only wish to preserve the house for future art lovers but also the memory of a remarkable man. It is so very sad that his own family did not.


Leighton House Museum is HERE:

Colour Living, the blog of house hunter, designer and writer Tina Bernstein is  HERE:

Lord Leighton Wiki page is HERE:


  1. Fabulous post - look like a place I would really like to visit! Amazing photographs - he sounds like an incredible man with fabulous taste. Thanks for bringing him to our attention.
    Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

  2. what a fascinating tour this must have been. i always enjoy seeing what wonderful book you will come up with. arabian nights -- one of my favorites and makes me think of Scheherazade .. the wonderful music. i would love to see the leighton house museum. Thanks for sharing your adventure!

  3. I am scandalized by his sisters selling off everything. It was such a treasure house, and how beautifully so much of the interior has been brought back. I love his painting style, and his embrace of Turkish tiles. I spent many hours admiring the tile work in Istanbul, as a college student there. Thanks for this tour; now I want to fly in from California and visit this home.

  4. Thanks for this lovely tour of Leighton House. I went there a couple of years ago in London Architecture Week, had not been for years. I once lived nearby and in those days it was more scruffy and old (well, less renovated I suppose) but still wonderful. How awful that his sisters didn't appreciate his work and life. I wonder if anyone has written a biography of him. You have rather piqued my interest in him!

  5. Thank you for the post. I will definitely visit there. Look forward to more of London report. : )

  6. Dear Minerva,
    I've been to Leighton House when I spent my month in London and liked it very much. How did you manage to be allowed to take so many photographs? (I was allowed to take a few through the windows out into the garden - which was opened then on the "Square Gardens Opening" too - but not inside).
    So thank you very much for giving me so many beautiful reminders of my visit there! Britta xxx

  7. It was so good there were people who went to all the trouble to get most of his belongings back to his place. "Flaming June" is perfectly beautiful and gorgeous! I like its flaming orange. I can't stand this terrible flaming August here, though.
    Thank you for another great post, Mrs. Black.

  8. It would have been lovely to have visited London to see the Leighton Museum!
    Wow! Stunning rooms and art which are full of eastern inspiration. Love that art studio, so wish it was mine with the big windows. ;-)
    I'm also a fan of the "Flaming June" painting and have given birthday cards to friends with that image on the front.
    Paul and I are off to Kelmscott manor today as he wants to see the house!
    Best wishes to you Minerva.


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