A Victorian Obsession: Leighton House Museum

Last week I visited the lovely and remarkable Leighton House Museum in High Street Kensington. I’d visited the house before during my undergraduate degree as part of a module on Architecture in London 1837 to present, and I remembered being blown away by the beautiful and exotic interior of the 19th century house. During my recent visit I was once again awestruck by the elaborate designs of the house, and found myself particularly mesmerised by Lord Leighton’s masterpiece of the building, The Arab Hall.

Gold mosaic friezes, deep blue-green tiles and bold marble columns surround the tranquil fountain at the centre of the striking hall, whilst the floor is adorned by Islamic tiles brought over to London from Damascus. The rich decoration and foreign oeuvre of Leighton’s Arab Hall allows for a rare place of calm in the centre of the hustle and bustle of central London. However, I was not visiting the house for the hall albeit beautiful and soothing, but going to see the much talked about exhibition A Victorian Obsession, so popular to have been extended for another week.

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Having seen numerous posters on the underground and reading countless positive reviews about the exhibition, I had high expectations for what The Pérez Simón Collection chose to display in Leighton’s architectural wonder. The vast range of Victorian paintings have been hung throughout the house and can be viewed quietly if you time your trip right. With the whisper of audio guides around me and the faint trickle of water from the fountain in the hall, I worked my way around the exhibition focusing on the strikingly intricate details of each Victorian masterpiece.

There were several paintings I particularly enjoyed during my visit. Talbot Hughes The Path of True Love Never Did Run Smooth (1896) is a work inspired by Shakespeare’s well known play A Midsummer Night’s Dream and depicts a young woman, seemingly tormented by love with her dress hem tangled in a thorny rose bush. This oil painting held a superior reverence in the dining room, with its gold and red detailing on the dress coming to life as though it were a real costume and the subtle, melancholic expression on the subjects face. This work really brought to light the extraordinary talent in painting and romanticism during the Victorian period.

The staircase behaved as though it were a plinth to those more exotic and oriental paintings whose subjects came from Egypt, Syria and Italy. The hang of these works was particularly memorable and replicated the style in which Lord Leighton would have hung many of his own works in the house. In the antechamber one of Leighton’s own works hung dominating the attention of the room. Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle (1880) is an elusive yet powerful painting presenting the model Dorothy Dene in an almost nude posture, with only a thin drape to cover her. The subject is translucent giving the painting saintly and godly characteristics, and is adorned by a striking gold frame, sitting in the heart of the house.

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Several works in the silk room had a surrealist quality to them, particularly Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s works A Question (1877) and Her Eyes are with her Thoughts and they are Far Away (1897) which portray distant seascapes and antique Mediterranean scenes. The principle work of the exhibition is also by Alma-Tadema, and is so significant that it has its own display space in The Upper Perrin Gallery.

Upon entering the space visitors are hit with a strong, sweet smell of roses, a scent Jo Malone London has been commissioned to float around the room to encourage a multi-sensory experience. The lovely smell of red roses accompanies Alma-Tadema’s celebrated painting The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) which stands in the centre wall of the gallery, lit brightly and framed by decadent gold bordering. This work absolutely deserves its ambitious reputation. The Roses of Heliogabalus presents a narrative based on the ancient world where Emperor Heliogabalus suffocates his guests beneath a flood of striking, pink rose petals. Having not been shown in London for over a century, the work celebrates Roman decadence and depictions of beauty which are deceptive of the darker act being played out in this extraordinary painting.

Worth a visit for The Roses of Heliogabalus alone, A Victorian Obsession is an exhibition you will want to see before it closes on 6 April. The illustrious interior of Leighton’s house, parallel to The Pérez Simón Collection’s vast range of romantic, mythological paintings leaves no questions in our obsession with the Victorian period.

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