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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Home work

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

In three months’ time Leighton House, the studio-turned-museum built by artist Frederic Leighton in the latter part of the nineteenth century, will reopen. Tucked away behind busy Kensington High Street in London, the modest brick building with the unexpectedly exotic interior has just emerged from a year of careful construction aimed at improving access and enhancing the story it tells. Recently, I was part of a small group given a sneak preview of this much-loved attraction by Daniel Robbins, its senior curator.

Having visited many times in the last twenty-five years it was strange enough seeing Leighton House empty, of people, paintings, sculpture and furniture – even the famous fountain pool in the Arab Hall was dry. In some ways, therefore, we were going back to when the house was first built before seeing the new changes. Leighton was, variously, a host, philanthropist, collector, sponsor, teacher and figurehead, but fundamentally an artist, rigorous in his technique thanks to classical training and hugely successful both financially and critically. A place from which he could service this complex life of public duty and private dedication soon became a necessity, and 2 Holland Park Road (the road naming and numbering has since changed) was crafted in association with architect George Aitchison as a very personal house, workplace and showroom.

As Daniel reminded us the original structure, the central block of today’s building, provided a basic suite of living rooms and the vital studio, on the first floor and lit by a great north-facing window. The pair developed and expanded this initial design during thirty years of occupation, however, to ensure it remained useful and so to this core was soon added a short eastern extension to increase the space for painting. That Arab Hall followed later, lined with tiles from the Middle East, topped by a gilded dome and contained within a polygonal wing to the west. Next, Leighton’s working year was extended with a new, glazed winter studio back at the opposite end of the house, elevated on iron columns to clear the smog. A final infill block on top of the library was completed just before Leighton’s death.

In the years after this the building suffered a number of indignities, from housing a children’s library and suffering wartime bomb damage to unsympathetic alterations, quite apart from the sale of most of its contents. The trend was arrested in the eighties but only in the last few decades has the situation gradually improved, thanks to curatorial and popular re-engagement with the Pre-Raphaelite, Aesthetic and Symbolist artists in general and the Holland Park Circle in particular. Small improvements were made, some restoration was carried out and items were sourced to replace the losses.

This effort culminated a dozen years ago in a thorough refurbishment and re-presentation of the entire house, which became a coherent, well-researched and convincing window into the world of the man who made and lived in it. Importantly the paraphernalia required to accommodate the visiting public retreated to a single room, aiding this reading and reflecting Leighton’s fascinating duality – he welcomed countless daytime visitors and held many evening soirees, but hosted no overnight guests.

The new project, marketed under the slightly awkward slogan Hidden Gem to National Treasure, addresses four specific points: safeguarding the collection by creating state-of-the-art facilities, displaying more of it via exhibition spaces, welcoming visitors more appropriately with a café, more toilets, a learning centre and step-free access, and removing some of the posthumous work done to the building. Architects BDP are responsible for the design and we were also joined by David Artis, architect director at that practice.

From the street the changes appear minimal. Entrance is no longer through Leighton’s own front door but via the inter-war Perrin Wing, inserted beneath and in front of the winter studio to provide office space. Its ground floor has been reshaped as the new entry, orientation and retail area, completing that push back of the public mentioned earlier and allowing Leighton’s entrance hall to regain its original appearance, which will include re-installation of a large painting from the workshop of Tintoretto. To one side of the ticketing desk four steps and a glazed bridge lead to the house proper, through a new opening punched into the entrance hall’s eastern façade.

For obvious reasons this had been a concern to me since the proposed intervention was announced, and it is still hard to accept. Architecturally the feature passed into cliché decades ago and this example adds little to the canon, so one is forced to view its use here simply as a practical necessity given an assumed wish for equality of entry. The same justification no doubt explains another door to the right of the desk, one that was always part of Leighton House yet which is now marooned in mid-air. This was the model’s entrance, distinct from both the front and below-ground servants’ doors and opening onto the narrow rear staircase. For that reason alone it would clearly not be suitable as the regular way in to the house, but it does seem unfortunate that no purpose appears to be envisaged for it today and ironic given that new portal that has been cut. To further frustrate options, the inevitable wheelchair lift inserted between old and new doors blocks the view and route from the street to the model’s door anyway. I asked Daniel how this fascinating original feature will be interpreted, at least, and was disappointed to be told that a simple label is likely to be the only thing done.

Other doors open off the reception area into the rear part of the Perrin ground floor. Its back wall has been removed and replaced with full-height glazing to create a bright, naturally-lit café and events space that connects visually and – via an existing side door – physically with the garden. Viewed from there, the winter studio now ‘floats’ above this space once again and more logically too since iron columns hidden by later brick over-cladding join those that have always been visible. Back inside the café a neat and elegantly timber-clad island provides and conceals the kitchen equipment, and whilst the brick loggia that was once outside is now brought within the building envelope the overall effect on a sunny summer evening is of a light, contemporary space with historic, industrial accents.

Yet more doors – Tracey, one of the curatorial team accompanying our group, agreed with me that controlling visitor flows here will be a challenge – give onto the major architectural addition of the new scheme: a partly freestanding cylindrical tower containing a lift and helical stair that serve all of the public floors. Glass panels connect this brick-skinned structure to the existing building at the rear, approximating the original condition of the east façade, with a more solid joint to the front. Artis explained how the design intent was to “terminate the axis that runs through the house” from the apse in the studio, and provide “a circular form, a bookend to resolve” the asymmetrical massing initiated by the Arab Hall at the other end of the plan. In this I think BDP have succeeded, and I find the subtly-detailed dark brick convincing as a present-day interpretation of Aitchison’s palette. In response to my question as to what alternatives were considered David mentioned glass and faience, this last picking up on the Arab Hall’s tiles; I think coated aluminium cladding, which is available in a range of colours, would also have worked.

The interior of the tower uses the same modest materials as the café below, unifying and distinguishing these new elements, to calming effect. Rather less soothing is Oneness by Shahrzad Ghaffari, a mural covering the interior of the stairwell that supposedly ‘respond[s] to the iconic interiors of the historic house’ but appeared to me to be an artefact of the building work. Along with furniture handmade by Syrian artisans, it’s an un-needed and disappointing move.

Reassuringly, little has changed inside the house once past the pleasant shock of the freshly-emptied, newly-refinished entrance hall. In fact, with the art in storage and many of the internal doors closed, it took on a different appearance, reminding us that rooms function in more than one mode and are in dialogue all the time. The winter studio has been reglazed with performance glass and redecorated – it will be returned to how it appeared in Leighton’s day, with easels and so on. Daniel pointed out a tiled corner of the floor that will soon receive a stove once again, and the perimeter trough by means of which it would have heated the room. The existing, relatively recent exhibition gallery occupying the upper floor of the Perrin wing remains, though updated and now entered directly from the new circulation tower. Modern offices for the museum’s staff have been inserted in the Perrin attic, our route to which included a second, high-level glazed link and gave us a lovely glimpse of the two small servants’ bedrooms at the top of that back stair.

Descent beneath the Perrin wing is now possible, thanks to an extension of the existing service floor that required planners to apply the exemption clause in their own ‘basement ban’. David explained that the choice of depth and ceiling height were crucial in order to balance sufficient space with negotiable floor levels across the site, telling me that this was particularly true at the junction with the existing basement. There is balance, too, in the brief here – an environmentally-controlled reserve collection and drawings room for staff, display cases and cloakrooms for the public. I'm not sure either balance is quite right, since the spaces felt uncomfortably low and tight even when our small group was using them; fully occupied, I can envisage considerable congestion and not a little claustrophobia.

A peek through the basement windows of the original house, which give on to that below-ground service path or ‘rat run’ wrapping around its eastern end, shows the doors to the storerooms, butler’s pantry and kitchen. A new learning centre has been created inside the latter, yet the general public will still not be allowed into this area despite it being recovered and cleared of clutter during the previous refurbishment. Tracey told me the spaces aren’t large enough, which feels a little dismissive and, taken together with the awkward handling of the model door, hard to defend. Indeed, ignoring this element of Leighton’s household would be surprising at any time but is a genuine shock in the current era so I hope these omissions are rectified before October.

Overall, then, the £8 million that this project has cost has been well spent. Finally returning the house to a state its former owner would recognise is clearly right, with the compromises needed to do so bearable on the whole. Perhaps inevitably the new work is less successful the closer it sits to the original building; the glazed links are a necessary evil and that confusion of doors is especially stark, but the café and related spaces will indeed be welcomed, not least by those parties of older visitors that “want to make a day of it” as Tracey put it to me when we chatted after the tour. The flexibility they and the tower will bring should help to increase footfall and revenue (ticket prices have yet to be announced), although some of that will be needed to increase the window-cleaning budget given all that new glass. It will be interesting to see how the complex actually copes in practice.

Leighton House reopens to the public on Saturday 15 October 2022, along with nearby (Linley) Sambourne House

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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