Day 11 in England – Leighton House and Morris Gallery
Our feet were beginning to tire and our outfits repeat, but our morale couldn’t be squashed! Especially not with a late-19th-century pattern-and-color appreciation extravaganza planned. The rainy morning could not dampen our enthusiasm for Britain’s greatest (?) century!
We began at the home of Lord Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) in Kensington. Leighton was a leading Victorian artist and a popular socialite. His history paintings are his greatest legacy, and his house his most telling biography.
And what a house it is! It is an eclectic pile, designed and built in phases between 1865 and 1890 by the architect and scholar George Aitchison (1825-1910). The outside of the mansion is rather austere, if not well proportioned. Here we are, going inside to begin our tour of the home. The excitement of the gentleman behind the camera could have powered the whole of Piccadilly Circus.
We met with Daniel Robbins, Senior Curator of the Museum, who took us on a tour of the house and its current exhibition, “A Victorian Obsession,” co-curated with Dr. Veronique Gerard-Powell. The show displayed the Pérez Simón Collection of Victorian and Edwardian art by Leighton and his peers (think Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Millais, and other hearty romantics). A favorite moment of the tour was when Mr. Robbins opened the usually-closed panel above the drawing room fireplace to reveal a huge plate glass window overlooking the rear garden. This logic-defying view was made possible by a flue that jogged sharply to the left above the fireplace and into an off-center chimney. It was way cooler than flat screen TV’s that disappear in mantel pieces.
There was no photography allowed inside the house, so I’ve included some images from around the web (CC Attribution 4.0 IL). The home’s ground floor was used for Leighton’s office, dining room, drawing room, and stair hall, while upstairs are a series of galleries and a soaring, light filled studio.
In 1877-81, the Arab Hall was added onto the home’s western side. A small fountain at the center trickles away as light filters in through high windows covered in pierced screens. The room is tiled in 15th, 16th, and 19th century tiles from the near east, Venice, and London, and the whole assemblage is akin to a random assortment of exhibitors from the Crystal Palace being shaken in a snow globe. Leighton was chic; I was living a woozy, maximalist dream.
We left the lair of the good Lord Leighton after a happy three hours, and while some Fellows gift shopped, the rest studied the outside of the house. I was still particularly dedicated to the idea of this blog post, so I immediately began snapping photos as I stepped out of the door. Our tour was happily longer than we’d allowed for, so lunch was delayed.
This area of the city is quite posh, as they say. Many artists lived on the same block as Leighton, and I felt my spirit belonged here. I snapped these few details of buildings that stood out to me. I’m sure they could be identified in Pevsner’s exhaustive guides to London, but I enjoy them all the same without a pithy explanation.
Enchanted by this house who’s car must fit so snuggly between the fluted columns and the living room window, I parked my headspace here for a moment. Few American cities demand this type of density, and fewer still would stamp a building permit that left half a sedan on the sidewalk!
We had a long Tube journey ahead of us, the entire length of the Victoria Line to Walthamstow Central. It was a difficult journey, as there were suddenly delays and diversions across the system due to an accident. We made small talk with locals or otherwise busied ourselves with thoughts of Queen Victoria.
After a refreshing refrain of “Mind the gap,” we disembarked to find William Morris waiting for us on the platform! Yet another lovely detail from the very design-focused Transport for London.
We emerged above ground to find the rain had stopped, and took a brisk walk the wrong direction. Righting ourselves, we passed delicious smelling food stands and these very attractive fruits.
It was a nice walk to the William Morris Gallery, past this wonderful undulating concrete overhang.
And this charming little shop.
And this great piece of infrastructure, nay, industrial design. I found it quite powerful in its solitary stance, something fascinating about putting the whole street’s utility eggs in one basket. A maypole with which the children should never play.
We eventually arrived here, at the William Morris Gallery! This 1740s Georgian house was the Morris family home from 1848-1856, and the entire facility reopened to great critical acclaim in 2012.
We had lunch in the cafe, which featured some of Morris’ famous wallpaper patterns fretted into the glass. I appreciated the detail and coined it skypaper. Others questioned whether Morris himself would have done the application. Mostly we ate in silence.
Refreshed and renewed and ready for learning, we met curator Rowan Bain for a tour of the Morris Gallery. The building is tastefully packed with his designs and ephemera, including this reproduction of his work shirt!
The displays were informative and interactive, explaining both the world in which he worked and the many processes which he employed.
Upstairs, Ms. Bain kindly shared with us highlights of the collection in the Gallery’s library space, including a rare and haunting photographic portrait of Morris’ wife, Jane. Overall, the depth of Morris’ skills and interests were thoroughly explored. The museum showed me that Morris and I had more in common than a love of wild botanic patterns and hoarding. As I discovered, Morris once said “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving a tapestry, he’ll never do any good at all.” I’d never given this multi-tasking activity thought before, but once I read it, I couldn’t agree more.
We departed from the Gallery towards Central London, where some dined, others walked, and a few retired to bed. I myself went shopping at Topshop, because there is nothing like consuming mass produced British goods after a day exploring excellence in English design.
By Kevin Adkisson, WPAMC class of 2016
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