Flicker Of Sunlight

1st December 2007

Fresh from rediscovering Millais at Tate Britain, Jack Watkins looks at the Victorian artist Lord Frederic Leighton, one time bright young thing of British art, and at his sumptuous studio house in Kensington

Frederic Leighton was the first (and, so far, only) British painter to have been made a baronet. He was the doyen of a group of artists who set up residence in close proximity to his home, making West Kensington a well-heeled mini-arts colony in the late Victorian period. Such was the acclaim accorded his masterpiece, Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna, early in his career, that he was regarded as the great new hope in English painting. When he died, he was accorded a funeral and tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral. Yet Leighton has long been deeply unfashionable, cast as the purveyor of a stultifyingly reactionary form of academic classicism, complacently adrift from the fast-changing industrialised world beyond his gilded studio doors.

It all seems somewhat unfair. Leighton was blessed with a magnificent technique. His draughtsmanship bears comparison with Ingres. This was a man who worshipped long at the shrines of Michelangelo, Titian and Tintoretto, and it showed in his rapturous use of light and colour.

If you visit the National Gallery, as you climb the stairs beyond the entrance to enter the main halls, look back over your shoulder. That painting on the wall behind you is Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna. When it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855, it caused such a stir that Queen Victoria (admittedly no great art connoisseur), purchased it for 600 guineas. Anyone with an eye for balance, composition and colour should pause to admire this work, in which the Florentine artist Cimabue leads his pupil Giotto (symbolising the future of painting) in a procession through the city. It is at once a magnificent work of both imagination and observation, with its precise rendering of native vegetation and trees, and the famous hilltop landmark of the Church of San Miniato.

If Leighton is unfashionable, he is not forgotten, not least because he created the grandest studio house that had ever been built in Britain. Today the building is owned and opened to the public by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is perhaps an apt spot to further contemplate the greatness – or otherwise – of Leighton, man and artist.

He was born in 1830, the grandson of a doctor to the Russian royal family. He had a cosmopolitan upbringing, and spent much of his youth and early manhood in Europe. He knew many of the great artists of the day, such as Ingres and Delacroix, and moved with ease amongst the aristocracy. His Cimabue, over which he laboured for months, was painted in Rome, and he led a peripatetic existence travelling from country to country until 1864, when he commissioned his friend, the architect George Aitchison, to design him a residence in London.

The house, just off Kensington High Street, when first viewed from the road, seems modest. There is a noticeable stylistic change in the houses in this vicinity from the pompous, over blown stucco-fronted terraces that you might associate with Kensington, to a more restrained Queen Anne red brick. But Leighton House is different again, having the small-windowed, bare–walled inscrutability of a north Italian merchant’s villa.

The interior, however, is much grander. This was a house designed to impress, with a series of fine rooms, and a broad staircase, leading up to a first floor studio so unprecedentedly large it was also used to stage soirees and musical evenings.

The house was extended and embellished over the following decades, so that it became a virtual palace of art. The great set piece is the Arab Hall, with its tinkling fountain in the centre of the floor, its domed ceiling, Persian-style frieze and walls clad in tiles from Damascus. The windows are shuttered with meshed grids from Cairo, and if you stand back, avoiding absent-mindedly stepping into the fountain as you do so, it is possible to imagine yourself in some eastern mosque. It is certainly one of the most ravishing rooms in London.

All this tells us much about Leighton the aesthete, the man of eclectic taste, but what does the property reveal of his art? Few of his best works reside in the building, it has to be said, though the Royal Borough has been steadily reacquiring many of the furnishings and paintings dispersed at his death. What is apparent from the paintings here is Leighton’s delight and mastery in capturing the visual luxuriance of the folds of drapery and linen clothing, and the sheen on hair caught in a flicker of sunlight. The first floor studio contains his first major history painting, completed in 1852, The Death of Brunelleschi, showing the architect dying within view of his beloved dome of Florence Cathedral. It is a huge work, and the detailed setting encapsulates his feel for the old Lombard city and for history. This room also includes many of his preparatory oil studies, and their names – View on the Nile, Figure with a Turban, Italian Girl – show how relentlessly and how far he travelled in the name of art.

As a portraitist, he seems to have been less effective. A wealthy man, unlike his middle class Kensington associates, such as Marcus Stone and Luke Fildes, he did not accept ‘commissions,’ and simply painted people and things he liked. But this resulted in dozens of sparkless ‘formal’ portraits, womens’ faces rendered in a kind of misty soft-focus, drained of any sense of life beyond the canvas. The deficiency of these works is accentuated by the Borough’s recent acquisition, hanging in the drawing room, of GF Watts’s portrait of Leighton (the two were great friends), which, in its ability to convey a kind of psychological as well as surface reality, seems to have come as close as anyone ever did to uncovering the sensitive essence of this detached, patrician artist. Yet Leighton himself could occasionally break loose from the shackles of respectability. A recently bought portrait of Italian painter Giovanni Costa, hanging in this room, shows a naturalism and immediacy too often absent from his work.

The house does shed more light on the ‘private’ Leighton. Quite at odds with the ostentatious public rooms is his simply furnished bedroom. Leighton was the complete aesthete, living for his art alone, and never marrying. He maintained that art should be derived purely from the imagination, but despite his Olympian style, when he was made president of the Royal Academy, he encouraged many young painters whose approach directly challenged the values he espoused. Like so many Victorians, his dedication was total and he probably worked himself to death, dying in the bedroom here at the premature age of 65 in 1896.

Ultimately, I suppose, your response to Leighton depends on what you consider art should be. His work certainly did not roll back any frontiers: it is hard, looking at some of these canvasses, to remember that they were conceived just a decade away from Picasso’s Blue Period, or that Gauguin was already on the boat to Tahiti. Art, as life, must move forward, and too much reverence for the past cripples both. Yet so much of what he did was of great beauty. And whatever the critics’ scorn, there will always be room for the artists who dedicate themselves to that.

Leighton House, 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 8LZ

Open daily: for hours telephone 020 7602 3316

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