Leighton House


12 Holland Park Road, Kensington, W14 8LZ


020-7602 3316



Opening times:

Daily 10:00–17:30 except Tues (last entry 17.00)

How to get there:

Tube: High Street Kensington/Olympia

Entry fee:

Admission charge

Additional information:


With this purpose-built studio house, Frederic, Lord Leighton of Stretton (1830–96), High Victorian painter par excellence, and the first British artist to be given a peerage, created for himself an exotic ‘Palace of Art’ where he lived and worked for the last 30 years of his life. Returning to England in 1864 at the age of thirty-four, after spending much of his youth abroad, and newly elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, Leighton planned the construction of his London home in collaboration with his architect friend George Aitchison. Together they developed a house where he could severally work, entertain guests (his circle included Clara Schumann, William Gladstone and George Eliot), and also retire. On his death, the contents of the house were sold at auction, the building itself being saved for posterity through the efforts of Leighton’s close neighbour and biographer, Mrs Emilie Russell Barrington, who was instrumental in establishing the house as a museum, presenting several of Leighton’s works to it, and organising a popular series of fundraising concerts. In 1926, the house was donated to the Royal Borough of Kensington. After suffering bomb damage during the Second World War, it re-opened in 1951 as the children’s section of the Kensington Borough Library. By the early 1980s a programme of repair and restoration had begun with the aim of recreating the distinctive character of the place during Leighton’s lifetime.


Ground floor

The Inner Hall, with a black and white mosaic floor, is decorated with the pervasive blue tiles by William de Morgan that give much of the ground floor its special character, interspersed with 16th-century tiles from Damascus. Beyond is the Hall of Narcissus, so named after a statue that once stood here, and now home to showcases containing examples of de Morgan’s work. To the left is the Library, with some of its original fittings and books as well as one of the few Old Master paintings from Leighton’s original collection still in the museum: Marcantonio Bragadin Worshipping the Trinity (1571), from the school of Tintoretto. Another can be found upstairs on the first floor landing: Jacopo Tintoretto’s Portrait of an Elderly Gentleman, recently returned to hang in its original location. This was the first of Leighton’s collection of 27 Old Masters (20 of them from 16th-century Venice). Along with the works of his contemporaries that can be seen here, these two paintings go some way towards illustrating the main influence on Leighton’s own art, of which the house contains many notable examples. One relatively recent acquisition, hung in the Dining Room, is Leighton’s Portrait of Professor Giovanni Costa (1878). Costa, a passionate supporter of Italian independence, was an artist and close friend from Leighton’s early years in Rome, when he enjoyed the company of the Brownings and was talent-spotted by Thackeray. The only portrait by Leighton of a fellow artist, it bears comparison with the museum’s most important acquisition in half a century (acquired in 2004), the Portrait of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1871) by his close friend and neighbour George Frederic Watts. Watts was suspicious of the Royal Academy’s power and influence; it is a token of his esteem for Leighton—who became president of the Academy in the late 1870s—that he resigned from it tactfully only after Leighton’s death. Also in the dining room can be seen Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith (1819–1909), a large oil depicting the opening of the Summer Exhibition in 1881. A record of personalities associated with late-Victorian Aestheticism, it includes portraits of Leighton, John Everett Millais and Oscar Wilde, who wears a large lily in his buttonhole. Powell Frith, who specialised in large-scale Victorian crowd scenes, achieved instant fame in 1854 when Queen Victoria bought his Ramsgate Sands. The next year Leighton himself received royal approval when the Queen bought his Cimabue’s ‘Madonna’ carried in Procession through the streets of Florence. Next door, right of the Hall, is the Drawing Room, which has been returned to an approximation of its original appearance. Several works by Leighton’s contemporaries hang here, including Burne-Jones, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Millais and Evelyn de Morgan.

Beyond the Hall, past red Caserta marble columns, is the Arab Hall. Designed by Aitchison from drawings which he had made in Spain and Sicily, particularly of the Palace of La Zisa in Palermo, the room provided a showcase for Leighton’s large collection of 13th, 16th and 17th-century polychrome tiles, variously retrieved by Leighton himself, the explorer and scholar Sir Richard Burton, and the architect, archaeologist and museum director Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke from Damascus, Rhodes, Cairo and elsewhere. The room remains richly evocative of the artist’s fascination with the Ottoman world. In the centre of the room, above a fountain trickling into a pool cut from a single block of black marble, hangs an ornate copper chandelier also designed by Aitchison. The dome was also purchased in Damascus, decorated with a mosaic frieze designed by Walter Crane and supported on columns with alabaster capitals designed by Caldecott. Beyond is a Moorish wooden alcove or alhacen.


Upper floor

Returning to the Hall, stairs lead up past a stuffed peacock placed here by Leighton above a seat adapted from a Persian inlaid chest, as well as paintings by his contempories, and Leighton’s Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunamite (1881), Orpheus and Eurydice (1864) and a copy of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel, painted when Leighton was nineteen.

The landing, now the Silk Room, was used by Leighton as a small music studio and music room. At the far end is a zenana or lattice window with a seating area overlooking the Arab Hall. Several paintings hang here, including Shelling Peas (1889) by John Everett Millais, and Leighton’s Rustic Music (1861), Bianca (c. 1881) and an oil sketch, Picture of a Street in Damascus (1872), probably taken from life. In one corner is a bronze bust of Mrs Emilie Russell Barrington, along with a pair of Leighton’s easels, and in another an armchair given to Leighton by Queen Alexandra when Princess of Wales, and covered in silk embroideries worked by her. On the left is Leighton’s bedroom, now hung with early photographs of his work, on loan from the V&A.

To the right of the landing is the Great Studio, where Leighton produced most of his work. Several of his larger paintings hang on the north wall, notably his Clytemnestra (pictured left). There is also The Uninterpreted Dream by Edward Burne-Jones, and a bronze bust of the artist by Sir Thomas Brock, later responsible for the Queen Victoria Memorial, and who also sculpted Leighton’s own memorial in St Paul’s cathedral. In the apse of the west wall is a tall door through which large canvases could be lowered. An archway at the east end leads into the Winter Studio and Upper Perrin Gallery, both used for temporary exhibitions. Right of the archway is a door leading to a staircase to the servants’ quarters, which was also used by the artist’s models and (indicating their status in Leighton’s eyes) by art dealers. On the south wall are casts of part of the Parthenon frieze and of Michelangelo’s ‘Taddei Tondo’ (which can be seen in the Royal Academy), underlining the classical and academic influences on Leighton’s work.


In the garden behind the house is Leighton’s monumental sculpture Athlete Struggling with a Python (1877, bronze), and Brock’s Moment of Peril (1880), a striking group representing a Red Indian on horseback spearing a large snake.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

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