A friend of the royal family and President of the Royal Academy, Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896) was an avid traveller who spoke five languages. He was
also a leading collector and one of the most celebrated artists of his day who frequently entertained
members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at his home where they smoked in his ‘Arab Hall’ and drank copious amounts of brandy.
Situated in London’s Holland Park, the restrained, red brick Victorian exterior of Lord Leighton’s former home conceals a richly ornamented treasure trove
saturated with colour and pictures. From 14 November, it will host an exquisite group of 50 Victorian pictures from Mexico-based collector Juan Antonio
Pérez Simón's extensive collection, four of which were painted in the house by Leighton himself.
Daniel Robbins, Senior Curator of Leighton House Museum, met Mr Pérez Simón in Paris at the Musée Jacquemart-Andre’s opening exhibition of the
tour, where the collector explained that he was ‘genuinely intrigued by the idea of the pictures coming back to Leighton House’. For other works on show,
the London leg represents an aesthetic homecoming as they were painted at a time when Leighton House was an important creative hub for the Victorian art
Here, Senior Curator Daniel Robbins tells us more about The Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum.
What kind of character was Lord Leighton?
‘He was a very interesting character. People refer to his princely manner when he was officiating Royal Academy events. But as well as being a very
public figure, he was an extraordinarily private figure. When he travelled, he went alone. He lived in this house, as far as we know, by himself. All his
Royal Academy associates were entertained here once a year and he had annual ‘show Sundays’ before pictures were sent to the Royal Academy. But when the
public weren’t here, it became his private space.’
The interiors of Leighton House Museum are incredibly rich. Do you think the paintings will stand their ground?
‘When a picture works in this sort of setting, it really does work. The challenge, in a house like this compared to a gallery, is to find places
where the pictures fit, and create a coherent display.
‘Another challenge was the lighting. We don’t have picture lights on our pictures and spotlights everywhere, because we want the house to feel like a house. But for the exhibition, there will be a certain amount of discrete additional lighting. That said, we didn’t want to turn it into a gallery presentation.’
Can you tell us about specific artists featured in the exhibition?
‘There is a pastel by Albert Moore who lived 50 yards from here for a period. He is represented by three pictures in the exhibition, one of which belonged
‘There is also an artist called Charles Perugini who is less well known now but had known Leighton since they met in Rome as young
men. In the 1870s and 1880s, Leighton gave Perugini a very large amount of money to support him. The picture in the exhibition by Perugini was painted
in 1896, the year that Leighton died; it’s called, But, oh, for the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that is still. It’s about mourning;
a painting of a woman with her eyes almost closed, and you can interpret the picture as her imagining the sound of a voice that is gone. It has been interpreted, and I think convincingly, as a tribute picture by Perugini to Leighton, who had been such an
inspiration and support to him. That picture will be shown in Leighton’s bedroom where he died, and where it has more meaning than it would anywhere else.
‘John William Waterhouse is represented by three pictures, including a beautiful picture called The Crystal Ball. According to
new research, it seems to have been commissioned as a pair with another picture that is now lost called The Missal, of a woman at prayer. So you have these
two pictures, one of a woman at prayer in a convent setting, and the other of a woman looking into a crystal ball with a skull on the table. What’s
fascinating is that at one point in the history of the picture, a curtain was painted over the skull to hide it. It was covered up and subsequently
revealed, so the picture shows the full extent of Waterhouse’s known interest in the esoteric.’
This kind of unusual subject matter is a recurring theme throughout the show…
‘The use of literary sources as the inspiration for paintings is a theme of the exhibition. These artists chose these stories for their striking visual images. There’s a very interesting picture called The Enchanted Sea by stained-glass artist, Henry Albert Payne, who painted very few easel paintings. It's an extraordinary picture, partly because you can see the influence of stained glass in the rich colouring and the flattening of the picture plane. It’s also very weird. It illustrates a completely bonkers fantasy story by the poet George Meredith. It shows a princess floating over an enchanted sea in a cockleshell and floating past her are these women with their eyes closed. You can only see their heads above the surface of the water. All of this is lifted directly from the story The Shaving of Shagpat. It was about how a barber had to shave the king called Shagpat because he was suffocating people with his magical hair. It’s a fantastic picture.’
Can you tell us more about the Lawrence Alma-Tadema works on display?
‘There are 14 Alma-Tadema works, including the famous painting The Roses of Heliogabalus. It will be shown by itself in our temporary exhibition gallery and be a little exhibition in itself. Everybody assumes it is a celebration with its pink rose petals floating around. In fact, Heliogabalus was a Roman emperor, and a particularly debauched one at that. There is an account of him organising a dinner and loading the awnings with flower petals. When the awnings are released, the flowers fall on his guests and suffocate them. In the background you have the emperor and his cronies looking over the scene, completely bored. There is a tension between the decorative elements and the gruesome subject.’
Do you have a favourite work in the exhibition?
‘It’s not at all the most spectacular or significant, but there’s a drawing by Simeon Solomon from towards the end of his career, after he’d been arrested for homosexuality and his whole career had collapsed. He started to work again despite living in a workhouse and battling alcoholism and produced this very beautiful drawing of sleep personified — one of a whole series of drawings around the theme of sleep. There is something very fragile about it. It’s sensitive; it’s got a quality to it that reflects the state of the artist when he was making these drawings and trying to re-establish his career around them.’
What future plans do you have for Leighton House?
‘We plan to knock down a 1950s addition to complete the restoration of the house. It’s a £5 million project that would create new visitor facilities and a
new display space, and change the whole environment of the house. I would also like to do further exhibitions about Leighton himself, especially the landscape paintings he produced as he travelled the perimeter of the Mediterranean. More than 200 of those landscape sketches were left here when he died but they were dispersed in a sale. A criticism of Leighton is that his set piece pictures were overworked or lacked immediacy. But because they were painted for himself rather than an exhibition, the landscape sketches have a greater degree of spontaneity. It would be wonderful to organise a touring exhibition of the landscape sketches and change what people think of Leighton, and show that his work was not all like Flaming June.’
The Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum will be on view from 14 November 2014 to 29 March 2015
All images: The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico / © Studio Sébert Photographes / Courtesy of Leighton House Museum