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.
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.
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.
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.
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.