Leighton House Museum, Holland Park, London

Glorious Orientalism – but it stops at the bedroom door

Did Frederic Leighton actually live in Leighton House? This isn't a question calculated to infuriate the rate-payers of Kensington and Chelsea, who have just funded the £1.6m refurbishment of the brick-built villa in London W14 – and presumably did so on the understanding that it was the gaff of one of Victorian England's finest (and hairiest) artists.

It's just that walking through its gilded rooms, watching the light move through its newly polished stained-glass windows, eyeballing the stuffed peacock that perches by the ebonised banisters of its central staircase, it's hard to imagine that this building was the scene of any activity that might accurately be described as domestic.

Frederic Leighton liked painting soft-eyed Arab boys in classical settings and firmed-jawed women asleep in a sea of their own hair. He may have liked doing other things with them, too, but he burned his private papers and now we'll never know. To step inside his home is to enter a fantasia of late-Victorian Orientalism, an exotic world untroubled by Edward Said's idea that there is probably something questionable about a single white gentleman who surrounds himself with feathers, silks, Islamic tiling and sculptures of naked Greek athletes wrestling pythons.

Leighton's friend George Aitchison built the first phase of the house in 1864, and continued building until its owner was carried out in a box three decades later. The great triumph of this work is the Arab Hall, a two-storey internal courtyard armoured with a thousand tiles imported from Syria, Turkey and Persia, among which is set a box-shaped Mashrabiya window transplanted from a building in Cairo, and a mosaic fountain that splishes with the same gentle rhythm as one might have heard in the Leicester Square gents' during its Victorian heyday. It may be the most spectacular room in London, but it's hard to imagine quite what you'd do in it, except recite Dante, or inhale laudanum from a silk handkerchief, or teach your pet macaque how to smoke a cheroot.

The great revelation of this refurbishment, however, is that for Leighton, Orientalism stopped at the bedroom door. The public areas of the house are decorated in what might be regarded as a boudoir style – but the boudoir itself is almost comically sober: dark green floral William Morris wallpaper; a modest single bed, over which is suspended a bare bulb strung from an ugly electrical wire; a narrow door separating Leighton's water closet from the rest of the room. The effect is to propel you towards the conclusion that Leighton House has always been a kind of museum – a showcase for the work and the aesthetic ideas of its owner.

In Leighton's lifetime, it was already known as "the Private Palace of Art". Parties of children walked around the ground floor and examined his collection of tiles. Potential clients toured the studio on the upper level, and wondered what it might be like to have a Leighton on their drawing-room wall.

So what occurred on the threshold between these two worlds – between the high oriental and the suburban occidental? I suspect Leighton may have crossed this borderline like a weary drag queen who, after a long night under the glitterball, has finally earned the right to unpeel her high heels and false lashes. You can imagine him returning to his little room each night, shaking off his satin peignoir, tossing his tasselled skull-cap on the peruke stand, shutting the door on the Orientalist razzle-dazzle of his professional life, and breathing a grateful sigh of relief. Now we can do the same.

Leighton House Museum reopens 3 April (020-7602 3316)

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf