Last Thursday I went to the Leighton House Museum near Holland Park in order to visit the latest exhibition, A Victorian Obsession. Leighton House is the former home and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), a leading exponent of nineteenth-century classical art and one-time President of the Royal Academy. I’ve visited the house, designed and built to Leighton’s requirements by George Aitchison RA, before, and it’s beautiful: a Moroccan-style fountain court and a blue-tiled hallway are just two of the marvellous rooms inside.
Currently the house is home to part of the collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, a Mexican businessman and art collector who holds the largest collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside Britain. The pictures cover the period from around 1860 until the start of World War I, and the unifying theme is “representations of female beauty”. It’s easy to be somewhat cynical about this theme, but in fairness all of the artists represented were superb painters and their work encompasses a huge diversity in such representation, from the inspiration of the Greco-Roman period to Arthurian legend. The paintings are displayed throughout the main rooms of the house, which is a perfect setting considering that many of their artists knew this house and its owner well.
The paintings encompass late Victorian art in many forms, including historical painting and Pre-Raphaelite imagery. This kind of art is very much to my taste, so I greatly enjoyed the exhibition. There were paintings by artists with whom I am familiar, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. I particularly like the work of John Everett Millais: his The Crown of Love (1875) was on display here, and I also loved The Crystal Ball (1902), a magical work by another of my favourites, John William Waterhouse. Some of house owner Frederic Leighton’s work made an appearance, several paintings returning to the house for the first time since they were created. Leighton’s Antigone (1882) is impressive, as is Crenaia, The Nymph of the Dargle (1880), modelled by Leighton’s favourite muse Dorothy Dene.
Throughout the exhibition I was introduced to other artists I hadn’t previously been aware of, including Henry Arthur Payne, Arthur Hughes and John Melhuish Strudwick, whose Passing Days (1878) is an allegorical representation of the passage of time. His Elaine (c.1891) is a gorgeously detailed representation of the woman of Arthurian legend who pined away for love of Lancelot.
One artist seemed to dominate the exhibition – Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Famous for painting historical scenes, particularly those inspired by Ancient Rome, he painted several of the works on display, including An Earthly Paradise (1891), a rather sweet picture of a Roman woman with her young child. Alma-Tadema’s couch – the only object in the exhibition which is not a picture – sits underneath this painting. The artist designed the couch himself to use as a prop in his historical scenes, and it even has differently-designed legs – one side of the couch represents Egyptian style, the other, Roman. It’s rather fun to play “spot the couch” with Alma-Tadema’s pictures – it appears in several.
Alma-Tadema’s famous work The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) is the highlight of the exhibition, presented in a room of its own which has been scented with roses courtesy of Jo Malone. The picture shows the young, wicked Emperor Heliogabalus suffocating his guests under a shower of rose petals, and it is beautifully detailed, although I can’t help but concur with the contemporary critics who felt that the victims hardly seemed frightened enough.
This superb exhibition is a must-see for any fans of late Victorian art. It runs until the 29th of March and normally costs £10, or £5 with a National Art Pass. Special late evening openings allow free entry for Art Pass holders between 5.30 and 8.30 on 19 February and 26 March.