Tom Sutcliffe: An artist's dream home

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I dreamt I went to Leighton House again last night. Or rather I didn't dream it. I really went. And it was last week, if you want the full, unromantic, disclosure. The London home of Frederic, Lord Leighton has just been reopened to the public after an extensive refurbishment and restoration and I went for a preview. I'd been a couple of times before – once for a friend's wedding reception and once for a fittingly memorable memorial service for the writer and painter Philip Core (who used to contribute to these pages) and it had remained in my mind as one of those fantastical properties, the kind of place you don't entirely trust to be still there when you go back the next day – like the house in Le Grand Meaulnes. Oneiric, you would say, if you wanted to be grand about it. Dreamlike, if you didn't. But certainly not entirely of the fixed world of rateable values and water connections. In fact, when I checked where it was I discovered that I'd mentally transposed it to an entirely different part of London, moving it in my mind from Kensington and Chelsea to a quiet road in St John's Wood.

The Arab Hall is the thing that makes it feel so chimerical. It's unusual from the outside, with an odd elevation of red brick. But inside it is manifestly a fantasia, the entrance hall leading off on the left-hand side, beneath a ceiling of burnished silver, into something that is half pastiche and half reconstruction. Costing him around £7,000 at the time of its construction – a very considerable sum – the Hall, Leighton loftily said, had been constructed "for the sake of something beautiful to look at once in a while", and it absorbed into its structure the loot of several dubious shopping trips in Middle East, acquisitive raids in which he was assisted by the great Victorian orientalist Richard Burton. Lined with Leighton's Syrian tiles, and oriental wooden screens, overlooked by a Cairene balcony and centred around a sunken fountain the Arab Hall is an aesthete's dream of the East. It always looked good but now, with freshly gilded cupola and burnished copper lamp, it's extraordinary.

What I did find myself wondering, as I walked round the rest of the house, was whether there was a connection between the Arab Hall and the current status of Lord Leighton's art, which is – to put it politely – not what it was when he was alive. He was a serious artist then and he isn't now – admirable perhaps for the finish of his canvasses or the efficiency with which he represents a certain tendency in Victorian art, but not someone who is seen as having something urgent to say to us. And it didn't seem entirely implausible that what makes the Arab Hall so captivating – its aesthetic frivolity – is what also undermined the standing of the paintings. I don't mean by this that Leighton wasn't in earnest in creating the Hall. It was consistent with a particular aesthetic attitude, and striking of attitudes. But surface was all. The Arab Hall isn't informed by a scholarly passion for the objects within it – and what they might originally have meant. It's all about "look", and as a result it mixes together objects that would be unlikely to find themselves associated in any other space. There was a kind of cheerful miscegenation about Leighton's collection, which allowed him to set-dress an Oriental space with Japanese screens and then lead the eye on to classical sculpture. Nothing wrong with that of course, and you could argue that they're all united by the eye of an artist. But you can't quite get away from the sense that it's all costume. The interior of Leighton House isn't really an interior at all. It's a flamboyant exterior folded inwards to protect it from the weather. And that fits with the languid narratives of his pictures, in which the classical settings or the oriental ones have no meaning beyond their own exoticism. It's all fancy dress. Wonderful fancy dress – but an escape from life, not an account of it.

A secular tweet

Intriguing to be reminded – by means of a tweet of Graham Linehan's of all things – that Philip Pullman's new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, has a presidential precedent over 200 years old. Linehan's tweet linked to an article about Thomas Jefferson's The Philosophy of Jesus, an exercise in de-mystification, which was moved by exactly the same instinct that powers Pullman's secular gospel. In Pullman's book Jesus has a sickly twin, Christ, who collaborates with the powers that be to promote his more charismatic and radical brother by means of scriptural spin, using miracles and claims of divinity to "get the message out". Jefferson's enterprise, like Pullman (below), was to recover the teacher from the fraudulent packaging by going through the gospels and taking out all the supernatural elements, from the virgin birth to the miracles. This was an anti-clerical enterprise but, like Pullman's book, very much a pro-Jesus one. In a letter to a friend Jefferson boasted that he had extracted the "diamonds from the dunghill" to produce "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals, which has ever been offered to man". Pullman's book tackles the same task imaginatively, rather powerfully making the point that once you add magic to Jesus's message you dull its radical challenge and pave the way to intolerance. Jefferson didn't quite have the audacity to theorise that Judas was actually Jesus's twin brother, but I wonder if Pullman took a look at his predecessor's exercise in deconsecration before starting work himself?

Pretty much all the talk about the iPad so far has concentrated on it as a conduit for existing content. There have been excited reports on its excellence as a book reader ("the best Kindle yet", noted one mischievous blogger), breathless accounts of how exciting it is to flick through comic books on its large screen and approving reports of how it operates for viewing video and You Tube and streamed television. What I haven't seen any sign of yet is any notion that it might be used for visual art – either by giving you unprecedented access to the digital versions of large public collections (imagine browsing through the National Gallery and pinching-to-zoom on Uccello's The Battle of San Romano) or with images created specifically for an LCD screen (and responsive to a viewer's touch). Given that David Hockney took to the iPhone Brushes programme with some enthusiasm, publishing "paintings" to his friends directly, it surely can't be very long before a serious artist decides that an iPad (or another tablet) is a perfectly legitimate canvas, not for a reproduction of the work but for the thing itself.

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