Nestled in the heart of Kensington, Leighton House stands as a testament to the opulent artistry of the Victorian era, blending exotic elegance with meticulous craftsmanship. Alessandro Laraspata explores this rare London treasure, discovering a living canvas and the artist who created it.



Leighton House: cerulean-tiled walls anticipate the grand gilded dome, glimpsed through the corridor, or Narcissus Hall © Alessandro Laraspata 


Frederic Leighton, a towering figure in Victorian art, envisioned his house as more than a residence; it was to be a living canvas reflecting his artistic philosophy.

Designed by the architect George Aitchison and completed in 1866, Leighton House in London's Kensington - now one of the city's most impressive house museums - embodies a fusion of classical influences and exotic motifs, drawing from the eccentric artist's extensive international travels and his admiration for Middle Eastern art.

Stepping into the building is akin to entering an artist’s reverie. Leighton's well-heeled guests, arriving to sit for their portrait or collect a commissioned painting, would have passed through a magnificent hallway leading to a wooden staircase. Today's visitors still take them same route, to be greeted by a stunning black and white mosaic floor featuring flowers motifs - brilliantly inspired by 15th century Venetian palazzos - which leads to the property's most iconic room: the Arab Hall.

But before diving into this gold domed ceiling room, up the three flights of stairs that lead to the first floor, we enter a two-roomed studio and showroom where Leighton painted and, during springtime, welcomed leading musicians to perform for a select group of his inner circle. Across the antechamber we see a remarkable Mashrabiya, an intricate wooden screen inspired by traditional Islamic architecture, characterized by its detailed latticework that provides a mesmerizing play of light and shadow from which we can appreciate the splendor of the gilded dome.

On the opposite side of the antechamber lies Leighton’s bedroom, his only genuinely private space in a home dedicated to presentation and display. The grand room hosts a canopied bed surrounded by essential Victorian furniture, silk- paneled walls and reproductions of his favorite artworks, giving a serene and restful atmosphere. Walking down the grand wooden staircase, one is met by Leighton's collection of exotic finds, under the watchful eye of a perfectly set peacock.

The cerulean-tiled walls anticipate the grand gilded dome, glimpsed through the corridor, or Narcissus Hall, so named after its central bronze, believed to be a cast of the mythological, Narcissus, found in the ruins of Pompeii. The deep turquoise tiles, produced by potter William De Morgan, evokes the classical myth, of the youth who falls in love with his own reflection. As you reach the jewel in the crown, the Arab Hall, you hear the tranquil sound of the room's drizzling fountain.

This spectacular room dazzles with its domed ceiling, intricate Islamic tiles, gold mosaic frieze and central fountain, transporting visitors to a different world. Adorning the walls, which must have witnessed so much, are original hand-painted tiles Leighton purchased and collected during trips to Turkey, Egypt and Syria. The room is heavily inspired by Moorish and Ottoman architecture, in particular the palaces and mosques of Cairo, Damascus, and many other Middle Eastern cities.

The Arab Hall, alongside all the exquisite and well-preserved rooms in Leighton House, clearly underscores the Victorian fascination towards orientalism and the era’s aesthetic eclecticism, making it a unique cultural and artistic landmark.

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