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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

Frederic Leighton's art at Leighton House

Updated: Jan 15

An excellent collection of 19th century paintings and sculpture by Frederic Leighton.


The painter, draughtsman and sculptor was one of the most celebrated artists of the Victorian age.


Leighton House was his home and studio, built in phases between 1866 and 1895 to designs by architect George Aitchson. It is a large house, but has only one bedroom (other than servants' quarters) since Frederic was a lifelong bachelor.


Leighton was part of the Aesthetic Movement and associated with (although not a member of) the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists inspired by an earlier age before industrialisation. He was good friends with fellow artist George Frederic Watts, who painted Leighton's portrait more than once.

Frederic Leighton, 1871, by George Frederic Watts

Watts was the first of the Holland Park Circle, a community of Victorian artists, to build houses in the area.

The Holland Park Circle. Information screen at Leighton House

A celebrity in his day, Leighton was visited at home by Queen Victoria. A capable leader and administrator, he was President of the Royal Academy of Arts for 18 years from 1878 until his death in 1896. He also commanded the 38th Midddlesex (Artists') Rifle Volunteer Corps.


He was the first (and, so far, only) painter to be made a peer, becoming Baron Leighton of Stretton in the County of Shropshire on 24 January 1896.


His death the very next day, with no children to inherit the title, brought him the further distinction of having the shortest-lived peerage in history.


Lord Leighton's funeral took place in St Paul's Cathedral on 3 February 1896, with a guard of honour formed by the Artists Rifles.


Leighton House, his former home, is run as a museum by Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council. It underwent a major refurbishment in 2022 and is well worth a visit.


It displays a significant collection of artworks by Leighton, as well as by other painters and sculptors of the Victorian era. In addition there is furniture and other artefacts from the period.


The house itself is also of considerable artistic and architectural merit, especially its so-called Arab Hall. Leighton commissioned the pioneering ceramicist William de Morgan to create a spectacular room for his extensive collection of Islamic tiles and to create compatible new tiles.


The museum cafe also has a wonderful collection of William de Morgan ceramic plates, bowls and vases (see here for some examples) .


Leighton House is dazzling in its range and number of artworks and artefacts, too numerous to include in one post.


For this blog article, I focus on showing some of the photos I took of Leighton House's wonderful collection of art by Frederic Leighton himself. Works by other artists and the de Morgan ceramics will have to wait for a future blog.


The first group of pictures shows examples of his sculpture. They include a 2021 cast of Athlete Wrestling with a Python (the fourth picture in the group) and, just before it, a preparatory study for the work. The original bronze was Leighton's first sculpture, created in 1877 and exhibited at the Royal Academy. It is regarded as one of his most influential works, now at the Tate Britain.

Click on an image to enlarge


Below is a study for The Death of Brunelleschi and then the completed work of 1852.

Click on an image to enlarge 


The next group is what I call action or drama scenes. Clytie, the first in this group, was unfinished when Leighton died and was exhibited posthumously at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition in 1896. The full title of the second, in the circular frame, is Boy Saving a Baby from the Clutches of an Eagle.

Click on an image to enlarge 


Below is a series of male portraits, the first being the artist's father, Dr Frederic Septimus Leighton (a man I imagine was respected by his son, but it is difficult to imagine much affection in their relationship, based on the painting). The second is an 1855 portrait of Italian British artist Charles Edward Perugini, a protégé of Leighton's, who married Charles Dickens' youngest daughter Kate, also an artist.

Click on an image to enlarge 


Leighton House has many drawings and sketches by the artist, although it displays copies rather than the originals. Below I have included his chalk drawing of Dorothy Dene. Also below is a reproduction of his water colour of 1852, entitled Study of a Female Figure.

Click on an image to enlarge 


The final group shows some of Leighton's paintings of women. The first is a portrait of his sister, Mrs Sutherland Orr. Many are archetypes or characters from classical stories, rather than portraits.

Click on an image to enlarge 


Frederic Leighton was a giant of the Victorian art world, but his work fell out of favour into the 20th century. His reputation has enjoyed something of a revival more recently, but he is still not as well known as many other 19th century British artists.

Frederic Leighton, 1888, by George Frederic Watts

As the collection at Leighton House demonstrates, he was a highly talented painter and sculptor, whose work will delight all art lovers.


Leighton House Museum is open Wednesday to Monday. The nearest tube stations are Kensington (Olympia) and High Street Kensington. Tickets and more information from this website.

 

Walking tours available for booking

For a schedule of London On The Ground walks and tours, please click here.

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