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The Arab Hall of Leighton House in Holland Park, London

What to expect from the £8m redevelopment of Holland Park’s Leighton House

Leighton House, the beautiful former London home of 19th-century painter Frederic Leighton, has unveiled a major refurbishment

Leighton House, the architectural jewel in the gilded coronet of London’s leafy Holland Park, will reopen this October following an £8m ($9.6m) redevelopment. Funding is owed to a partnership between the Friends of Leighton House charity, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The meticulous redevelopment of the site is in its third and final phase, following a period of restoration and the resetting of the gardens. The project will transform a series of unsympathetic architectural additions made to the home of the English artist and epicurean, Lord Frederic Leighton, after his death in 1896. The result, we are told, will be a refreshed version of the bastion of Victorian arts and culture that retains its fey, delphic essence and enjoys a few new, tasteful mod-cons.

Leighton House was built in the 1860s by the English architect George Aitchison to showcase the artist’s collections of furniture, artwork and antique tiles from the Middle East, which are displayed in private nooks and stairwells, and in a purpose-built Arab Hall. The Arts & Crafts ceramicists William De Morgan and Walter Crane contributed to the splendour of the towering chute of glistening tiles with restoration work and friezes, such were Leighton’s close ties with the artistic set of the late 19th century.

The Narcissus Hall at Leighton House, London
The Narcissus Hall at Leighton House, London (Photo: Will Pryce)

Others among Leighton’s contemporaries were the motley crew of Pre-Raphaelites and the concentric conspirators of the Holland Park Circle, who gathered quite literally on his doorstep, building their own metropolitan piles a stone’s throw from his. So cemented was Leighton in the intellectual, artistic and social milieu of Victorian London that it seemed only right to Daniel Robbins, Senior Curator at the museum, that the redevelopment initiative should “widen appreciation and enjoyment of Victorian culture while forging meaningful connections with the contemporary world.”

We hope to widen appreciation and enjoyment of Victorian culture while forging meaningful connections with the contemporary world

Daniel Robbins, the Senior Curator at Leighton House

Attentions were focused on Leighton House at the turn of the millennium when recovery and restoration works began. In 2008, BDP, an architectural firm, was appointed to turn West London’s best-kept secret into a more centralised destination in the mind of the local community. At the top of the agenda were two main objectives: increasing accessibility to the hodge-podge of halls, studios and salons, and alleviating the pressure on the original property to function as a museum. The works will deliver step-free access across the building and the garden, a new café, gallery spaces, improved visitor facilities and the restoration of some of the original architecture.

The majority of BDP’s work was carried out at the east end of the building near Leighton’s Winter Studio, which was elevated to bring in as much natural light as possible on shorter days. It stands on cast-iron columns, the space between them filled in by engineers in the 1950s. “It was a curious thing,” says David Artis, Architect Director at BDP, “that our work began largely with the taking-away of some of the fabric of the property.” Artis’ team has cleared away the filler to recover the sense of elevation that Leighton achieved as you look at the property from the extensive gardens. The studio has also been fully integrated into the house, and for the first time, will be accessible to visitors to the museum, as will an original loggia between the eastern sections of the museum and a model’s entrance used by Leighton’s visiting sitters.

Artis discloses that the existing routes for visitors around the museum were potentially “non-inclusive, precarious and unintuitive, as all visitor facilities were amalgamated into the original home, which is small in scale.” So, BDP dedicated the Perrin Wing to such facilities, an underused extension tacked onto the house in the 1920s. On top of a new entry sequence, it also accommodates an exhibition space, archives, a helical stair and a lift to help visitors negotiate all levels of the house with ease and dignity.

“The main visible piece of new architecture is the lift,” says Artis, adding that “its location and function were important considerations to make visitor journeys around the museum feel logical and accessible.” Not only is the lift a practical addition to the museum, but it also enters into the visual discourse with ease, thanks to the consideration BDP paid to its context, both aesthetically and historically. “Leighton House is a classical, Victorian red brick building and the Perrin Wing uses rather utilitarian brown bricks, so for the lift shaft, we opted for a shade that lies between these two colours,” says Artis.

“Oneness” by Shahrzad Ghaffari, a 36-ft-high mural along the new helical staircase at Leighton House (Photo: Nick Caville)

The Perrin Wing’s helical stair is another visual response to the decorative heritage of the museum. “We took the main axis through the building for the rotunda that houses the helical stair to give an equivalence with the Arab Hall to the west, bookending the other side of the site,” says Artis. The helical stair is home to the museum’s first contemporary artwork on permanent display. Oneness, a 36-ft-high mural enveloping the curved walls of the rotunda, has been hand-painted by the Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari. She was inspired by a poem exploring cultural unity by the 13th-century poet and scholar, Rumi, and took visual cues from the tiles in the Arab Hall.

Working in a property quite so fundamental to the Arts & Crafts tradition both restricted and liberated BDP’s creative brief. Artis and his team were conscious of the balance they needed to strike between honouring the style of the house and not competing with it. “We wanted to be respectful of the context of the property, so all of our interventions at Leighton House were designed to speak the same language as the original build but in a slightly quieter voice,” he says. “We tried to emphasise material and texture as Leighton did, but perhaps in a more tectonic way, letting the materials speak for themselves,” he continues.

The central staircase at Leighton House with (foreground): a Turquoise Mountain commission (Photo: Jaron James)

This tug of war between the desire to give over to the cocktail of colour in the original house and merely to allude to its decadent rooms has produced a version of the Perrin Wing as reserved as it is expressive. Interior stone, oak panelling and brick detailing form a backdrop for a suite of bespoke inlaid furniture made by displaced Syrian artisans in partnership with Turquoise Mountain, a charity set up by the Prince of Wales to preserve traditional craft practices. The marquetry references a Syrian chest that Leighton acquired on his travels, converting it into a seat for the Staircase Hall on his return. A subtle allusion? Yes, but one entirely worth noting.

Another nod to Leighton’s decadent use of colour can be found in the detailing of the glazed teal faience on the narrow elevation of the lift block and above the new front door. “We worked with Shaws of Darwen for the faience, consulting with them through the handmade process of ceramic prototyping and developing,” says Artis. “This was one of the highlights of the project. It’s very gratifying to work with craftspeople so committed to their trade in true Arts & Crafts fashion.”

Leighton House : view from the garden (Photo: Jaron James)

It must be said that the colour BDP chose for the front door faience marks the entry into a new era for the museum, echoing as it does the cascade of shimmering teal tiles of the Arab Hall, whispering the Leightonian language in which BDP has become fluent.

Leighton House reopens on 15 October 2022