Tag Archives: Lord Leighton

London Slant: An exotic evening at Leighton House

An oriental crescent moon was shining as I arrived at Leighton House and entered its bejewelled Arab Hall. Ever since this One Thousand and One Nights fantasy was unveiled in 1879 by its artist/owner, Lord Leighton, it has dazzled visitors with its panels of Islamic tiles, golden dome and mosaic floors. Queen Victoria was one of many who have come to marvel at what he built “for the sake of something beautiful to look at once in a while”—and to showcase paintings that included his own, executed in his upstairs studio.

Leighton House Arab Hall

A fountain, fabulous tiles and a golden dome: the Arab Hall at Leighton House.

But not since Leighton died in 1896 and his collection was dispersed has there been a better time to soak up its atmosphere. Its silk-clad walls are currently hung with 52 rarely seen paintings owned by Mexico’s Pérez Simón, the largest collection of Victorian art outside Britain. These include four works by Lord Leighton that have returned for the first time since he painted them here.

Greek Girls picking up Pebbles by the Sea by Frederic, Lord Leighton

Back after a long absence: Greek Girls picking up Pebbles by the Sea painted by Lord Leighton in his vast studio upstairs.

Roaming around these sensual rooms I felt as if I were being drawn into a dream. A fountain lazily trickled and Moorish lanterns illuminated lustrous friezes of fantasy creatures and calligraphy. Many of the paintings feature women draped in flimsy robes and I could imagine them descending from the walls to perform the dance of the seven veils.

A cruel Roman emperor drowns his dinner guests in petals: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

A cruel Roman emperor drowns his dinner guests in petals: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Adding to the mystique was the heady scent of roses that billows from the room with the stand-out painting: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This unsettling depiction of the depraved eponymous Roman emperor drowning his dinner guests in a sea of sumptuous petals is particularly strange for the lack of expression on the guests’ faces: neither horror nor blind pleasure as they suffocate in this exquisitely rendered onslaught.

Inspired by the Pre-Raphealites: Song without Words by John Melhuish Strudwick.

Inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites: Song without Words by John Melhuish Strudwick.

Indeed many of the works feature wistful subjects gazing as if in a reverie. Don’t come here for psychological insight: this show is about entering a magic kingdom of myth and romance. I drifted through rooms with paintings such as Alma-Tadema’s woman on a Neapolitan terrace: Her Eyes are with her Thoughts and they are Far Away, Henry Arthur Payne’s princess sailing on a shell: The Enchanted Sea, and John William Waterhouse’s woman gazing into her future: The Crystal Ball.

I looked at works by painters who often visited Leighton in his house—Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais—and imagined the artists sprawling on the ottoman divans.

Fabulous Iznik and William de Morgan tiles and ceramics catch the light at Leighton House.

Fabulous Iznik and William De Morgan tiles and ceramics catch the light at Leighton House.

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum, near Holland Park, London, continues until 29 March 2015. It is both a chance to view art and a piece of “immersive theatre”, where the setting is part of the show.

My tip for maximum atmosphere is to attend one of the many upcoming evening events. There are regular late night openings and curator tours plus debates, music, poetry, film and theatre evenings. I especially like the idea of the Aesthetic Soirée on 25 February. I’m only sorry that Lord Leighton, known for his “princely manner”, won’t be there to act as host.

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London Slant: Bournemouth—art, fantasy and haddock by the beach

Art is now as much a part of the English seaside as fish and chips on the beach. Margate has Turner Contemporary, Hastings has The Jerwood Gallery and then there’s Bournemouth—with the granddaddy of them all. So, one sunny Saturday found me heading out of London Waterloo bound for a splash of culture on the south coast.

Russell-Cotes Museum

The Russell-Cotes Museum, set in beautiful gardens.

Jumping down from the train, I made straight for Bournemouth Pier—then turned to look back inland at what I’d come to see. Perched high above the promenade was the flamboyant former East Cliff Hall—now the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum—the treasure-stuffed extravaganza of wealthy Victorian entrepreneur Merton Russell-Cotes. Owner of an adjacent grand hotel, he built the mansion in 1901 as a gift for his wife, Annie.

Russell-Cotes Museum

The Dining Room of the Russell-Cotes Museum.

If I was impressed by the turrets and balustrades of its fanciful exterior I was even more dazzled when I went inside. This was once home to a couple who travelled the world and brought back curiosities from every continent. When they went to Japan in 1885 they returned with 100 packing cases stuffed with objets d’art, many now displayed in The Mikado’s Room.

Russell-Cotes manga

Page from a “manga” produced by the museum, based on Annie Russell-Cotes’ travel journal of the couple’s trip to Japan.

The couple’s enthusiasm for culture and life itself pours out of every artefact and architectural flourish. Golden peacocks strut around the wood-panelled dining room ceiling. A fountain surrounded by torchères sits at the centre of the Main Hall, its walls hung with lavish paintings including Rossetti’s sultry Venus Verticorda. There’s a Moorish alcove inspired by their visit to the Alhambra, a fanciful boudoir where Annie had tea with Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Beatrice and a room full of memorabilia associated with Shakespearean actor Henry Irving whom Merton greatly admired.

Russell-Cotes Museum

The grand staircase leads down to the Main Hall, with its exotic pool.

Victorian portraits, landscapes and genre scenes cover every surface; four art galleries unfold one after another, with sculptures, ceramics and works by artists like Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton. Ethnographic pieces range from a Norwegian sleigh the couple brought back for their children to an Ashanti wisdom stool and an impressive model of a Maori canoe. It’s a heady mix, but there are seats among the palms in the conservatory to take a break and admire the sea views.

Russelll-Cotes Museum

The Upper Gallery, crammed with art.

Russelll-Cotes Museum

Even the elaborate ladies’ loo is a work of art.

As if the permanent collection was not reason itself to visit, the Russell-Cotes is currently hosting an exhibition of works by William and Evelyn De Morgan: The De Morgans and the Sea.  This display of paintings and ravishing Arts and Crafts ceramics is every inch as exuberant and colourful as the house in which they currently find themselves.

Russell-Cotes Museum

William De Morgan: sea snake tile panel.

 

Rusell-Cotes Museum

Evelyn De Morgan: The Sea Maidens.

The Russell-Cotes sits in beautiful grounds that include a small Japanese garden and a grotto. I sat there in the sun, then wandered down to the beach below. And there, right on cue, was a Harry Ramsden’s fish and chips shop offering haddock in crunchy batter to complete my classic day out beside the sea.

 

Journey from London Waterloo to Bournemouth takes just under 2 hours, then 15 minutes’ walk. The De Morgans and the Sea continues until 28 September 2014.