Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Leighton House reopens

London UK - THERE is no doubt that Frederick Leighton, or Lord Leighton as he became for just one day before he died, was a great artist with an eye for design and style. His Kensington house, minus the original furniture but with many of Leighton's paintings and drawings, has just reopened after a major clean-up and refurb. Leighton was a friend of the Gothicists, Preraphaelites, Aesthetics and the Arts & Crafts. His own house smacks of Mackintosh's cheerful individualism with a touch of Harold Peto's penchant for architectural salvage. It was supervised by George Aitchison

His life, written in 1900 by Ernest Rhys, puts his style succinctly:

We must remember the condition of things architectural in the sixties to do justice to the independence of employer and architect. It was a time when the Albert Memorial was possible, and when men tried to guide their steps by the light of "The Seven Lamps of Architecture." A sentimental fancy for Gothic based on irrational grounds was all but universal, and it needed courage to avow a preference for the classical. The compromise in favour of quaintness and capricious prettiness which began under the name of the "Queen Anne style," and has contributed so many picturesque and pleasing buildings to our modern London, had not yet budded. Nor would it ever at any time of his life have thoroughly responded to Leighton's taste. So long as he could detect a defect he was dissatisfied, and extreme nicety is not what the Dutch style pretends to. It depends upon a picturesque combination of forms of no great refinement in themselves, but which give a varied skyline and a pretty play of light and shade. It amuses at the first glance, and as it rarely demands a second, it is well suited to turbid atmospheres, which blur outlines, and a chilly climate in which people cannot loiter out of doors. Moreover, the old-world memories it evokes, although in a minor degree than was the case with the Gothic, contribute to its facile popularity. But the classical taste is a love for form and delicate beauty of line as such, quite irrespective of any associations which may accompany them, or lamps, be they seven or seventy times seven. And to build his house in this style was the natural thing for a sculptor and fastidious seeker after the ideal in form.

The most fanciful part of the house is the contemplative turquoise 'Arab Hall' built 1877-81 which is crammed with wall tiles, many Persian antiques bought in Cairo, Syria and Turkey, and the rest mostly supplied new by William de Morgan with the help of Walter Crane. The marble is a mixture of Serpentine from Levanto, Connemara Green, Cork Red and Kilkenny Black.

On the left, down a short passage, is the Arab Hall. It is so unlike anything else in Europe that its reputation has withdrawn all attention from the rest of the house. It certainly is a most sumptuous piece of work. Elsewhere Leighton satisfied his love of chastened form; in this room and its approach he gave full scope to his delight in rich colours. The general scheme is a peacock blue, known technically as Egyptian green, and gold, with plentiful black and white. Here and there tiny spots of red occur, but they are rare. The harmony begins in the staircase hall. The walls, except in the recessed part, where there are genuine oriental tiles, are lined to the level of the first floor with tiles of a fine blue, from the kilns of Mr. De Morgan, and the soffitt of the stairs is coloured buff, with gold spots. In the passage the tone increases in richness. The ceiling is silver and the cornice gold, while the walls, except for a fine panel of oriental tiles over the drawing-room door, are lined with the same tiles as the staircase. Then between two grand columns of red Caserta marble, with gilt capitals modelled by Randolph Caldecott, we pass into the Arab Hall itself, and we come upon the full magnificence of the effect. It is made up of polished marbles of many colours, gilt and sculptured capitals, alabaster, shining tiles, glistening mosaic of gold and colours, brass and copper in the hanging corona, and coloured glass in the little pierced windows, in fact, of every form of enrichment yet devised by Eastern or Western Art. From the floor, which is black and white, the tone rises through blue to lose itself in the gloom of a golden dome, sparsely lit by jewel-like coloured lights.

In the centre a jet of water springs up, to fall back into a basin of black marble. The form of the basin which deepens towards the centre in successive steps, is an adaptation of the pattern of a well-known oriental fountain. All is equally black in this pool, and the border unfortunately is barely distinguishable from the water. After a dinner party at which Sir E. Burne-Jones, Mr. Whistler, Mr. Albert Moore, and many others were present, I recollect how, when we were smoking and drinking coffee in this hall, somebody, excitedly discoursing,stepped unaware right into the fountain. Two large Japanese gold tench, whose somnolent existence was now for the first time made interesting, dashed about looking for an exit, and there was a general noise of splashing and laughter. The dark, apparently fathomless pool was rather a mistake. Mishaps like that just mentioned occurred, I believe, more than once. There had been at first a white marble basin, but it did not give satisfaction, because, being in several pieces, it leaked, whereas the black one is all cut out of one block, at great expense, of course. But the white had the advantage of lightness where light is none too plentiful. In our winter, when days are dark and cold, black pools, with marble columns and floors, tiled walls, and dim domes about them do not fall in with English notions of cosy woollen comfort. The season to do justice to this hall is when summer comes round. When the sun breaks through the lattice work of the musharabiyehs, and the light is thrown up on the storied tiles, and up the polished columns to the glinting mosaic, to die away in the golden cupola, the effect is indeed superb, and to sit on the divan, by the splash of the fountain, and look from the glories within to the green trees without, is to live not in London but in the veritable Arabian nights.

The hall is square. On one side is the entrance. In the centre of each of the other sides is a lofty arched recess. Those to the north and south are windows, shuttered with genuine musharabiyehs bought in Cairo and having deep cushioned divans. The recess to the west has only a small pierced window high up. It has a raised step, and in it used to stand certain bronze reproductions from Pompeii, with pots, vases, etc., now gone. Some of the tiles were bought in Damascus in 1873. The price paid was £200 for the complete tile surface of one room. What would they be worth now? Others, particularly the great inscription spoken of below, were bought later in Cairo, and the rest at odd times. Here and there are single tiles, but most of them are in sets forming fine panels. An interesting one, in the south- east corner, represents hawks clutching their prey, cheetahs and deer, a hunter, etc., and another has herons, fish, tortoises, deer, etc. Set into the woodwork in the western recess are four tiles with female figures. These are either Persian or come from the neighbourhood of Persia, for the Anatolian or Egyptian Mahommedan tolerated no representations of life. The rest repeat in pleasing variety the usual motives of oriental design, viz., vines, cypresses, pinks and vases, doorways (? the entrances of mosques), with hanging lamps, and conventional floral designs. Above the entrance runs the chief treasure, the grand series of tiles bearing the great inscription. It is about sixteen feet long. According to Mr. Harding Smith it may be translated thus:

"In the name of the merciful and long-suffering God. The Merciful hath taught the Koran. He hath created man and taught him speech. He hath set the sun and moon in a certain course. Both the trees and the grass are in subjection to him."
It cannot be said that there is anything very new in that. There rarely is in such inscriptions. There are three others, but so far as they have been deciphered they appear to be incomplete, and in two cases, at any rate, to much the same effect as the big one. Just pious reminders. The real interest of them lies in the decorative effect of the imposing procession of letters across the wall, and the splendour of their colours. For beauty and condition this great inscription is said to be without a rival in any collection in Europe.

Let into the woodwork panelling in the west bay there are two small lustred Persian tiles of the thirteenth century. They have been mutilated as to the faces of the figures by true believers. The rest belong to the sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries, a time when artistic production was stimulated by the commercial wealth brought by the trade of Venice and Genoa with the East through Anatolia, Damascus and Cairo.

Round three sides above the tiles runs a decorative mosaic frieze, by Walter Crane, of an arabesque design on a gold ground. It is a beautiful and fanciful piece of work in itself, and it serves moreover to blend the prevailing colour of the tiles with the gilding of the upper regions. But it does not continue round the fourth side, because over the entrance, above the great inscription, an oriel window of musharabiyeh work looks down into the hall from the first floor of the house.

The pierced windows, or at least eight of them, were brought from Cairo, and when bought had the original glass in them; but in the east the glass is stuck in with white of egg, and as they were, as usual, ill-packed, the glass all came out and was ground to fragments in the jolting of the journey. Only enough could be saved to fill the window in the upper part of the west recess opposite the entrance. The remainder had to be filled with English imitations.

It is a house worth seeing.

Arab Hall

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