‘This has to be one of the most magical, beguiling spaces in the whole of London,’ enthuses art critic and broadcaster Alastair Sooke as he strolls through the Arab Hall at Leighton House in Kensington. This ‘oriental fantasy’ commissioned by Frederic, Lord Leighton was, as the critic explains, ‘an exotic embellishment for his studio house’, and inspired by his trips to North Africa and the Middle East.
The Arab Hall was completed in 1879 when Leighton was already president of the Royal Academy. But, Sooke argues, its creation was largely down to his success at the Royal Academy 15 years previously, and one painting in particular — Golden Hours, painted in circa 1864 and offered in the Defining British Art Evening Sale on 30 June — which ‘attested to his love of gold’.
Peter Brown, a Christie’s specialist in Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art, describes the painting as ‘a love duet’. The sexual charge between the couple is palpable, even though the man is looking down at the keyboard. The intent way in which the woman leans forward, however, suggests that she is devouring him with her eyes. He is the object of desire.
Brown goes on to explain how Leighton travelled to Venice in the 1860s and was inspired by the golden light in St Mark’s basilica, and discusses the balance of composition in the painting — ‘light and dark, male and female, and the wonderful billowing fabrics that add to the feeling of emotion’.
The late 1850s and early 1860s saw a shift in the landscape of British art just as momentous as the advent of Pre-Raphaelitism in the previous decade, with its mantra of ‘truth to nature’. New aesthetic impulses liberated art from the straitjacket of narrative and morality — a picture could be an object of beauty and emotion without any ostensible subject.
‘These ideas coming from France through Leighton and others formed a shift in what British artists were about to do,’ says Brown. Golden Hours is therefore not only a masterpiece of aesthetic art, but also a ‘pivotal work’.