On the final day of our London stay we set off on foot for an area somewhere between Earls Court and Kensington High Street. I can’t be any more specific than that because after walking at least two miles and getting lost twice, my sense of direction had headed in the general direction of no man’s land and I hadn’t a clue where we were. However, we eventually fell over what we were looking for, which was Leighton House Museum, otherwise known as the home of Victorian painter Lord (Frederick) Leighton.
Rather like the Old Operating Theatre I mentioned the other day, this is a privately owned/run business, but affiliated to the National Trust on a ‘partner’ basis so NT members get in for half price. I’d seen some pictures in the NT handbook and thought the place looked impressive, and sure enough it was. Leighton himself appears to have been a somewhat eccentric type with a love of Middle Eastern culture that bordered on obsession. Rather than living in a typical Victorian suburban house, he had his converted into a mock Arabic palace with a pool, fountain, stunning Islamic wall tiles, a fake divan, and (apparently, since it’s there now) a stuffed peacock.
The end result is rather bizarre. The only conventional rooms in the house are Leighton’s study and his remarkably austere bedroom. Everything else appears to be there for show, rather than comfort or general living. I was left with the distinct impression that there was a lot of showing-off going on, and I’m not convinced that Leighton’s interest in Arabic art extended to any real understanding of the culture. In one balconied area overlooking the pool, for instance, the pierced wooden screening looks very much like that used to close off the harem in a medieval sheikh’s palace – yet Leighton had no women living with him.
As well as all the Arabic stuff, the house was littered with Leighton’s paintings and sculpture, and would be absolutely fascinating for anyone with a love of his work. Sadly, it’s also being run as something of a money-making enterprise, with even the most basic information leaflets costing 50p and the custodian behind the desk informing us with almost her first breath that “we were welcome to purchase any additional information we might need”. Photography is forbidden (as I found out, entirely accidentally, the hard way) and the prices in the small gift shop were astronomical.
By way of a complete contrast, in the afternoon we walked another couple of miles to the world-famous V&A Museum, where we discovered vast murals painted by none other than Lord Leighton were available on public view, completely free. It makes you wonder why the museum at his home needs to be quite so commercialised.