Hyde Park late this afternoon was a sumptuous experience of shadows and light. The sun was low, about to sink behind the barracks, silhouetting the promenading public against an iridescent Serpentine. One curving side of the Royal Albert Hall glowed behind the grotesque golden curlicues of the Albert Memorial. Tubby squirrels thumped about the darkened borders of the Flower Walk, gathering their fourth or fifth helpings of lunch from tourists.
It was a fittingly rich hors d’oeuvre for the sensual feast that awaited me at Leighton House Museum. Frederic Leighton, the pre-raphaelite artist most famous for his painting Flaming June, lived in the house for thirty years or so until his death in 1896, and most of the upper floor is given over to his enormous studio.
The place is magical but perplexing. Few of the spaces beyond the studio are ones a person could live in, in any normal domestic sense of the word. There seems to be no personal haven in what is an incredibly lavish shrine to exotic cultures and decoration. The bedroom contains only a single bed, and while the dressing room off it must have once have housed at least a wardrobe and perhaps a washstand, this monastic sparseness is apparently an accurate recreation of the room as it was when Leighton slept there.
Still, I wasn’t looking round with a view to moving in (though I did hear at least three visitors wondering aloud where the kitchen was, as if the ghost of lifelong bachelor Leighton might be found making a lonely cheese toastie of a Sunday afternoon). Looking around was the visual equivalent of a five course meal, each dish hailing from a different yet equally beautiful city.
Leighton paid homage to a room unearthed in Pompeii with his Narcissus Hall, but you don’t need to know that to appreciate it. The walls are covered in deep turquoise tiles glazed by William de Morgan, whose work I have admired many times at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. Here they give the impression of a kind of Platonic ideal of water, the colour is so vivid yet varied, as if the shadows of fluttering trees lay across its surface.
A few steps beyond the bronze statue of Narcissus is another hall, lined with 17th century Syrian tiles, again a detail that hardly mattered as I counted mermaids, vines, spotted deer, harpies, peacocks and parakeets in the friezes. Here and in the rooms above there are deep seats, set in alcoves and windows, often the size of a double bed. There would be no way to occupy these spaces except to recline like one of the nymphs Leighton often painted, and it’s easy to imagine one of his models doing exactly that, still draped in whatever fanciful layers of muslin he had chosen for a sketching session.
Before I write an entire Leighton House guide book, I should say that this visit only deepened the enigma of Frederic Leighton. He burned all his personal papers, and there seems to be very little impression left of the person who designed and inhabited this breathtakingly gorgeous building. Indeed it is too beautiful to feel like a home at all, but for me, hoping to experience what his models did when they visited to pose in his gilded alcove, I found what I wanted.