Frederic Leighton’s controversial Arab Hall - the most beautiful room in London

From the outside, it’s Kensington, but inside, it could be Damascus

The Arab Hall in Frederic Leighton's home in Holland Park, looking into the Narcissus Hall. Photo: Will Pryce / Leighton House
Powered by automated translation

The most beautiful room in London? It would be hard to pick one, but the Arab Hall in Frederic Leighton's home in Holland Park is considered by many to be a strong contender.

Leighton was a Victorian painter and sculptor who was fascinated by the Middle East. He was born in 1830 and became very successful in his lifetime, rising to become chairman of the Royal Academy for 18 years. His biblical and classical paintings were bought for huge sums by patrons including Queen Victoria.

Travel was his passion, and every year he would visit Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and Turkey, collecting art and antiques.

From the outside, Leighton House looks like an ordinary red brick Victorian house. It is in Holland Park Circle, a community of 10 artists that sprang up in the 19th century. But the clue to its unexpected interior is the dome to one side of the house, with a spire topped by a crescent moon, a copy of the domes seen on Arab mosques.

Leighton built a house that modelled the way he thought an artist should live, along with his architect George Aitchison. And what a life it was. The artists’ community was a tight-knit one. Every spring the studios would be opened up to the public as part of Show Sunday, and artists would allow visitors to tour their homes, gape at their interiors and look at their entries for the Royal Academy exhibition. It was the age of the artist as intellectual, interior decorator and public figure.

In the manner of British travellers back then, he ransacked Turkey, Damascus and Persia for antiques from the 16th and 17th centuries, and brought back more than 1,000 tiles, artefacts and furniture. The result: a shimmering blue hall, complete with a golden dome, mashabiyas (Arab oriel windows with lattices), a serene pool and fountain, chandeliers and mosaics, and jewel-like carpets scattered everywhere. Outside, it’s Kensington. Inside, it could be Damascus.

The famed ceramicist William De Morgan was commissioned to piece together the tiles. The controversial diplomat, adventurer and explorer Richard Burton, a close friend, was also roped in.

The nearby staircase hall is lined with deep blue Izmir tiles, an inlaid Syrian chest, a copy of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco, with a stuffed peacock overlooking it all. It was a flamboyant entrance, a statement of Leighton’s artistic vision. The Arab Hall cost more than £7,000 ($8,535) to build, more than the entire rest of the house.

Beyond the Arab Hall, the house was stuffed with paintings. Leighton had a huge collection, including original sketches and paintings by Michelangelo and Eugene Delacroix. Most have been sold now, but the entrance hall displays a large Tintoretto, and the living room a John Everett Millais.

Farther in, the ornate Silk Room displays the priceless Persian rugs, textiles, ceramics and furniture that Leighton acquired over a lifetime. The rust-painted studio, a huge space hung with drawings, is where Leighton hosted music performances by famous singers of the day. An adjoining Winter Studio allowed him to paint during the winter, when the infamous London smog made natural light scarce.

In complete contrast to his flamboyant living area, Leighton’s sleeping quarters, tucked away in a corner, were spartan, with only a narrow single bed. He remained a bachelor his entire life, rare in those days. Some think he had an affair with his favourite model and muse, Dorothy Dene, who appeared in much of his work. However, despite much gossip, Leighton’s private life remained private. He left no diaries or letters. But when he died, he left £5,000 to Dene, and another £5,000 in trust for her and her sisters, a sum equal to £1 million today.

Leighton House has recently undergone a significant restoration, re-opening in December 2022 for visitors. The rooms were restored to what they looked like in Leighton’s time, using Victorian paint colours, such ash blue. And in a nod to Leighton's passion for the Middle East, Leighton House partnered with the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a charity set up by King Charles III, to produce a new suite of furniture for the house. The intricately inlaid furniture was crafted by traditional Syrian artisans.

Also new to the house is the tiny sketch for Flaming June, Leighton’s most popular work, which was widely reproduced as a print and for postcards. It is in a glass case by the entrance, and easily missed. The original is on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The sleeping woman in bright saffron robes, with flushed cheeks, a bare foot peeping from her robes, and the marble surround is typical of Leighton’s work. Her classical features are thought to belong to Dene.

More recently, Arab scholars have accused Leighton, and certainly his friend Burton, of orientalism and plunder. The tiles of the Arab Hall were from houses and mosques across the Middle East, which were pulled to pieces for European collectors. Burton wrote to Leighton, “I am quite as willing to have a house pulled down for you now as when at Vichy. But the difficulty is to find a house with tiles. The bric-a-brac sellers have quite learnt their value and demand extravagant sums for poor articles. Of course, you want good old specimens, and these are waxing very rare.”

Many of the methods of collection were dubious. Burton wrote: “My friends Drake and Palmer were lucky enough when at Jerusalem to nobble a score or so from the so-called Mosque of Omar. Large stores are there found, but unhappily under charge of the Wakif and I fancy that long payments would be required. My wife and I will keep a sharp look out for you and buy up as many as we can find which seem to answer your description.” Leighton even commissioned Casper Purdon Clark, one of the first curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum, to collect antiques for him.

Perhaps the first contemporary artwork on display is intended to repair this unease. It is a striking 11m-tall turquoise mural hand-painted by Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari, and called Oneness. The mural wraps around three floors of the house. Ghaffari was inspired by a 13th-century poem by Rumi, which emphasises the unity of cultures. The swirling brush strokes also evoke the calligraphy in the Arab Hall, so it fits right in.

Opinion on the Arab Hall continued to be divided. The majority of people were enraptured, but there were the odd critics. Leighton’s friend, the painter Edward Burne-Jones, described his magpie tendencies, perhaps with a touch of envy as, "all those splendid things from the East built up in such a silly way". Leighton himself, when asked why he built it, said casually “a little addition for the sake of something beautiful to look at once in a while”

Leighton was eventually knighted in 1896 for his service, but he died only a day after, in his tiny bedroom at his beloved house, with his final words noted as, “My love to the Academy”.

Updated: October 13, 2023, 6:02 PM