Review: Leighton House, London

For East, go West.
by Nicky Charlish

It’s tempting to think of cultural diversity as a modern concept, something that is either praiseworthy or – in a pejorative sense – ‘woke’. But this temptation is to be resisted, as a visit to the newly-renovated Leighton House, just off Kensington High Street in west London, shows.

Begun in 1865 by the architect George Aitchison RA, it was the brainchild of Frederic Leighton (1830-96), a painter who had visited Algiers, Constantinople and Rhodes.

He wanted a house and what he got – and what we can now enjoy too – is a meeting of East and West, with not only the influences from his Eastern travels in evidence but also a smattering of some from Venice too, along with a painting from the workshop of Domenico Tintoretto. The walls are adorned with carpets, and bookshelves whose contents grab at us for our attention.

The Arab Hall

What motivated Leighton’s interest in the East and its cultures? For some it’s perhaps tempting to speculate on the possibility that the unmarried painter may have shared the same tastes that would lead generations of gay men such as playwright Joe Orton to search for pleasures which were more easily obtained in certain parts of the East than the within the distinctly un-gay confines of Britain.

But this explanation is both lazy and questionable. It’s more likely that Leighton (later ennobled – the only president of the Royal Academy to be so honoured) was simply a Romantic searching for – and entranced by – art whose glamour was an inspirational contrast to the puritanism and poverty which were the downsides of his era (though we should not forget the positives things that came from the leaping hare of the Victorian imagination).

The Silk Room

The newly-refurbished building is not only a mixture of East and West. It has the best of old and modern too. The centrepiece is the Arab Hall, complete with mosaic floors, tiles and carpets. But it also contains a contemporary a mural, entitled Oneness, by Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari. There is also newly-commissioned handmade furniture from Syrian artisans based in Amman, Jordan. Finally, there are a cafe and shop, those indispensable features of any good museum or gallery, along with plentiful loos.

But don’t take my word for it. Go and see this inspiring example of true multi-culturalism for yourself. Let it inspire you to discover – and evaluate – more about the cultures of our world as Leighton did about his. And try to make time and visit nearby Linley Sambourne House – home of Punch magazine cartoonist and illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910) – with its cosy collection of drawings, photographs and Victoriana, too.

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Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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