A Victorian Obsession


Ahead of our Desperate Romantics event, Ingrid Leonard delves into the Victorian opulence of Leighton House and its stunning ‘Victorian Obsession’ exhibition…


Visitors to ‘A Victorian Obsession’ can look forward to a feast for the eyes and senses that is twofold. Set amidst the magnificent backdrop of Leighton House, home and studio of the artist Lord Frederic Leighton and built by the same, this exhibition from the Pérez Simón collection celebrates 50 years of British art, beginning in the last decade of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and ending with the onset of World War One.

Spanning the length and breadth of Leighton House, ‘A Victorian Obsession’ takes us through a menagerie of azure skies, creamy marble facades, lutes, fruit, flowers and angels, with beautiful renditions of the female form, draped in folds of shimmering, sunlit toile, at every turn. Colour is a constant, with paintings of rich red, blue and brown as well as peach, ivory and sea greens that are near-voluptuous in their abundance, notwithstanding the women, and occasional men, that they adorn. Here we can view works by a number of Victorian artists, among them John William Waterhouse, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John Melhuish Strudwick and William Clarke Wontner, as well as several works by Leighton himself. And no celebration of art from this period would be complete without contributions from the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement themselves, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The rooms of Leighton House Museum compliment the exhibition perfectly. We begin in the drawing room, where we find the representations from literature and mythology, particularly Arthurian legend, that form a constant throughout our visit. Here, Henry Arthur Payne’s ‘The Enchanted Sea’ illustrates the escape of a princess on a magic shell, from George Meredith’s fantasy work ‘The Shaving of Shagpat’. This room also houses the only piece on show by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the pastel ‘Venus Verticordia’.

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The darkly-lit dining room forms the perfect backdrop for the blood-red robe, skull and spell book of the enchantress in John William Waterhouse’s ‘The Crystal Ball’ and the contrast of rich earthiness and melancholy that is Strudwick’s ‘Song Without Words’, the piece that transformed Strudwick’s career.

Much of the work on display here, painted with the aim of celebrating the aesthetic, swiftly fell out of favour in the face of a violent and rapidly changing new century. Bought in their heyday by a burgeoning middle class of entrepreneurs and businessmen in the industrial and commercial centres of Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, many of these works have lain forgotten for much of the last hundred years and it is worth noting that some remain in their original frames, as designed by the artists.

The staircase boasts vast canvasses of biblical and classical themes of Egypt and Mesopotamia, with the artists, Edwin Long and Frederick Goodall, clearly inspired by their travels in the Middle East. The antechamber displays a number of works by Leighton, from his depiction of the Greco-Roman heroine ‘Antigone’ to the sensual ‘Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle’. The antechamber also boasts the first rendition of pubic hair in British art, in Edward John Poynter’s 1869 work ‘Andromeda’.

The Silk Room was the last room to be added to Leighton House during his lifetime and was completed in the months before he died. Named for the green silk which lines its walls, here we are treated to a number of works of great importance to the Aesthetic movement as the visitor moves between sunlit Mediterranean vistas with translucent marble and figures in lustrous robes, dreaming of love, bathing or listening to music, as is the case in Albert Joseph Moore’s ‘A Quartet: A Painter’s Tribute to the Art of Music’. In Alma-Tadema’s ‘An Earthly Paradise’ a mother nuzzles her child on a mahogany couch which was designed by the artist and which is on display nearby.






Leighton’s sprawling studio forms a pleasing interlude to the exhibition, with its high North window and functional, yet aesthetic air. Doubling as the space where Leighton held his well-known musical receptions and soirées, here we can view numerous examples of his work from the museum’s permanent collection, something which is well worth the time.

Built as an addition to the house in the 1920s, the Upper Perrin Gallery displays one of Alma-Tadema’s largest works. ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ appears, at first glance, to be a celebration of the triumph of beauty over the everyday which is so central to the work of the artists in this exhibition. In fact, this is a rendition of the young tyrant emperor Heliogabalus, high priest of the sun god Elagabalus, showering his guests with such an abundance of roses that many of them suffocate, while their emperor and his court look on serenely, unmoved by the plight of the dying. Visitors searching for this visually stunning painting and its numerous preparatory sketches will find themselves accompanied by the heady scent of roses throughout. It is this idea of drowning in beauty and opulence which makes for the perfect finale to an exhibition which prizes the aesthetic above all else.

Elected President of the Royal Academy in 1878, Leighton was an influential figure in the arts scene of his time and many of the artists displayed in ‘A Victorian Obsession’ knew him both professionally and socially, not least through the entertaining he did at Leighton House. What more appropriate venue then than for Poet in the City’s ‘Desperate Romantics’, an evening of talks, music and poetry exploring the philosophy behind the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and hearing the works of their poetic and musical contemporaries.

Tickets to this event include entry to the exhibition and, of course, the house itself. Visitors on the night of 25th February will be able to marvel at the delights of British art, music and poetry from the Victorian age and at the stunning Arab Hall, lined with Islamic tiles and mosaics, with a pool at its centre, which an unfortunate guest is said to have fallen into during a dinner party attended by Whistler, Moore and Burne-Jones.

Who fell in? Attendees at ‘Desperate Romantics’ will be able to ponder this amidst the art and poetry of the era in the very house which served as a seat and social centre for the people who made it happen.


Desperate Romantics takes place from 6.30pm on Weds 25th February at Leighton House Museum. Poetry and talks from 7pm. Tickets cost £25 and include entry to the exhibition and a wine reception. Book here.

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