A movie review can entice one to go see it. Perhaps that’s the point of reviews.

Though renowned author Bill Bryson probably did not have ‘review’ in mind when writing of his visit to a London museum, his description in ‘The Road to Little Dribbling – More Notes from a Small Island’ made me go there.

Leighton House in Holland Park is where Victorian artist Lord Frederick Leighton lived and worked.

Entrance to Leighton House Museum in London.

Is it worth seeing? Actually, yes.

In typical wry Bryson humour, he describes the house as “a little like a cross between a pasha’s den and a New Orleans bordello.”

It does indeed look a bit like that. An elaborate hall in front, covered in bright geometric patterned tiles, carpets, dark wooden window grills and domed ceiling, has a distinct Arabic feel; a result of Leighton’s travels to North Africa and the Middle East. He was born in Yorkshire in 1830 from wealthy parents who sponsored his early life in Europe, mainly France and Italy.

Self-portrait of pre-eminent Victorian artist Frederick, Lord Leighton, in 1880.

Although the rest of the house lacks this exotic display, it is quite eccentric. As Bryson notes, there is just one bedroom – a small one actually, with a single bed. On the walls throughout the house his paintings are displayed. It was disappointing for me that photography inside is not permitted.

Wedded, a painting by Lord Frederick Leighton (1830-1896)

The staircase leads to a huge studio with a large window facing the garden. This is where Leighton put his models on a small stage at the window.

Leighton House seen from the garden. The exotic Arab Hall is on the right. Frederick Leighton worked in his large windowed studio on the upper floors.

And here this pre-eminent artist painted an aspiring East End actress, a curious relationship that likely inspired George Bernard Shaw to write ‘Pygmalion’ – subsequently popularised by the play and movie My Fair Lady.

Ada Pullen, whose stage name was Dorothy Dene, often modelled for Leighton. He taught her manners in keeping with refined Victorian society, instructed her to speak well, bought her the latest fashions. And sometimes asked her to disrobe to paint her in the nude.  

This is probably where it ended. He never married, left no diaries, his letters contain very little of a personal nature, and his sexuality is a matter of conjecture to this day – not that it matters.

In 1896 he was ennobled as Frederick, Lord Leighton, 1st Baron of Stretton. Sadly, he held this title for one day only, as he died the following day. He lies buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


6 Responses

    1. Sad really. It is a quiet spot in the bustle of London and the garden has a tranquil feel. I just wanted to photograph inside the house, but that was not permitted.

      1. Ag, the story of my life – that thing of not being permitted to photograph inside the house. I wanted to pull my hair out in Ireland – time and time again…
        Marsh’s Library in Dublin was one – where Jonathan Swift did his research for Gulliver.

  1. An interesting piece Sam. Is the house registered?
    I’ve visited a number of stately homes in Britain and always found them interesting.
    I have an unpublished novel that is partially set in an imaginary stately home in England.

    1. Thanks, Blake. I’m not sure; it is not a stately home as one would find all over the UK. Rather it is a smallish house in a quiet street. You should publish your novel; it would be interesting to read.

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