(Leighton House, London, until 29 March 2015)
Tucked away in a quiet street near Holland Park, Leighton House is worth visiting at any time of year, but at the moment it offers more than just the usual dose of elegant Victoriana. The pictures that usually hang on the walls have given way to a selection of paintings from the collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, a Mexican businessman with a particular fondness for British 19th-century painting. Many of the great Victorian pictures are still in private hands, and despite some renewed interest in the field, it’s still a comparatively uncommercial part of the art market. Pérez Simón has been able to build up a simply staggering collection in a relatively short period of time.
Many of these pictures are among the most famous and characteristic works of their respective painters, so even if Victorian art leaves you cold (as it does some people), it’s still a very useful initiation to the genre. For me, it was a nostalgic delight to wander round the house: my introduction to art came via the Pre-Raphaelites and Waterhouse and Leighton, and here I found old favourites hanging alongside canvases I barely knew.
The pictures are roughly divided up into themes – literary sources; female beauty; the Orient; the ancient world – but these categories are little more than an excuse: the exhibition is simply a series of beautiful things. I found myself gravitating towards lesser-known artists and pictures: Burne-Jones and Rossetti both featured, but I found myself drawn instead towards the delicate, ethereal paintings of John Melhuish Strudwick – an artist with whom I fell in love as a teenager but have barely looked at since. His Ramparts of God’s House (c. 1889) was familiar to me; his Passing Days (1878) less so.
A young man is enthroned at the centre, turning his back on the present and reaching out towards the fading figures of the past: a futile effort, since the scythe of Time separates them from him. On the left come the spectres of the future: old age, sickness and death. Yes, such overworked allegories may be sentimental, but they have a poetic eloquence to them, an air of dreaminess. It seemed appropriate that they hung in the same room as Simeon Solomon’s Hypnos (1892): a sensuous red chalk drawing showing the god’s head wreathed in poppies – a drawing so faint and fugitive that the image seemed on the verge of dissolution.
In the following room, female beauty was upheld by two pictures by John William Waterhouse, another of my teenage favourites. His famous Crystal Ball (1902) was hung beside A Song of Springtime (1913), the latter a remarkably loose painting in which the brushstrokes shimmer and fragment in the dappled sunlight. Being a contrary sort, however, my favourite picture in this room (and perhaps in the whole show) was a little oil sketch, not of a woman but of a young man – Leighton’s gorgeous study of the Head of a Musician (c. 1853), a study for his Madonna of Cimabue which now hangs, half-ignored, over the main staircase in the National Gallery.
I can’t easily describe what drew me to this study. Certainly the sitter has a dreamy, Raphaelesque beauty with his sleek shoulder-length hair and Titian-scarlet robe; but there is also a wonderful richness to the colouring overall: a sense of southern light distilled into paint. The oil sketch hung above Leighton’s preparatory drawing propped on a chair, which shows off his immense precision and finesse as a draughtsman. There is less idealism and more individualism in the pencil drawing, perhaps; but the oil study is more beautiful.
Upstairs there are mythological and historical subjects, including a couple of old favourites which I have to mention for nostalgic reasons. Leighton’s Antigone (1882) is a striking example of sculptural stoicism: the doomed heroine turns her head to look over her shoulder, the muscles tightening in her neck, her expression noble and resolved but also forlorn. It was the first time I’d spotted the resemblance to the sculpture of the Dying Alexander in the Uffizi: Leighton would have known this bust and the extreme torsion of Antigone’s pose must derive from it. She hangs near another dramatic mythological picture: Edward John Poynter’s Andromeda (1869), where the princess despairingly twists in her chains, conveniently showing off the full length of her (very naturalistically) nude figure. Her vertical form offers a steadying point in a composition full of curves: surging, swirling waves and billowing draperies that echo those of Raphael’s Galatea.
Given the context, it feels very appropriate to speak of ‘stunners’, and the resident stunner here was Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s immense picture The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The subject was extrapolated from a passing reference in the Historia Augusta, telling the story of a dinner party where the young emperor sought to entertain his hangers-on by dropping an avalanche of rose petals on the rest of his guests – smothering and suffocating them beneath the flowers. This was a picture I knew very well from books, but I’d never seen it in the flesh before. I expected to be slightly underwhelmed: such things tend to be smaller or less impressive in reality. But this! Displayed by itself in a gallery leading off Leighton’s studio – a gallery scented with rose petals, no less! – it made a terrific impact.
It isn’t the most visceral or emotional painting, that’s true. Heliogabalus himself shows a passing interest in events, but the guests under their drifts of petals look uncertain or surprised rather than in mortal danger. I appreciate the argument that Alma-Tadema wanted the scene’s horror to dawn gradually on its viewers, but there’s no horror to dawn. Even knowing the story, it looks like nothing more than a rather refined prank. But emotional sincerity isn’t really the point. This was painted to impress with its technical quality, and that remains breathtaking: it’s a tour-de-force of texture. The tumbling rose petals have a convincing waxy softness; you can almost feel the light plumes of the white feathered fan in the foreground, or the braided yellow hair of the Gaul on the right. Look too at the details, such as the way the golden spiral armband presses into the flesh of the guest at the back beneath the tripod. It is a truly magnificent thing.
Ultimately your feelings about the exhibition will depend on your feelings about Victorian art. It’s still fashionable to be a bit dismissive of the period – the Telegraph, for example, really didn’t like it, implying that it would have been much better with some ‘proper’ art like Turners or Constables. I can sympathise with the author’s gripe about there being too many inert semi-naked women. But it grows more and more difficult to write off fifty years of British art as a bit of an embarrassment. There may not be sublime power here; there may not be the grit and the passion and the Romantic grandeur which we find it so easy to empathise with nowadays; but there is elegance and a drive to tell stories and, very often, astonishing technical skill.
We can’t condemn these artists for failing to embody principles which they deliberately eschewed: the whole purpose of the Aesthetic movement (for example) was to produce art for art’s sake: to delight the eye with contrasts of colour and form, rather than to provoke strong emotions. And in my opinion the exhibition is made more irresistible by its very location. Leighton House is the perfect place to display these paintings, not in the cool featureless halls of a gallery’s exhibition wing, but in the kind of richly-decorated rooms for which they were originally painted.
Even if you can’t make it before the end of the exhibition, the house is worth a couple of hours of your time. Recently restored to its former glory, it offers a glimpse of the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the painter Frederic, Lord Leighton, whose glittering career was crowned by his appointment as President of the Royal Academy in 1878. The Arab Hall is one of the most beautiful rooms in London. Inspired by La Zisa, the 12th-century retreat of William II of Sicily, this room is a paradox – every surface is covered in decoration, and yet the whole effect is one of beguiling serenity.
Like the atrium of an ancient Roman villa, it centres on a little fountain that bubbles softly beneath a gold-painted dome, with a stunning chandelier hanging overhead, glowing copper and gold. The walls are decorated with the white, blue and green of 17th-century Iznik tiles showing grapes or flowers or the calligraphic sweep of Islamic script. Pink marble columns with gilded Corinthian capitals lead out to the hall; golden mosaics by Walter Crane, showing deer and peacocks and legendary creatures, flow around the upper part of the walls; and, above, there’s a zenana, a wooded gallery with latticed shutters brought back from a mosque in Cairo, where it was used to segregate women from the rest of the congregation. Now it offers a tantalising oasis of exoticism in the heart of Kensington.