The 19th-century President of the Royal Academy, Frederic, Lord Leighton spent 30 years creating his very own "Private Palace of Art" on the edge of west London's Holland Park. It wasn't straightforward, but neither was his vision. Starting with a single house in 1866, designed by the architect George Aitchison under the watchful eye of the proprietor, the painter and sculptor Leighton slowly added a domed two-storey extension, which he stuffed with the most exquisite materials and furnishings the world's more remote regions had to offer. Three decades later, his labour of love was finally complete.
Once inside the red Suffolk-brick façade, callers to number 12 Holland Park Road were met by a gorgeously ostentatious scene: all rich golds and endless slabs of sweeping coloured marble; wooden lattice-work windows, 16th-century Turkish tiles and a mosaic frieze living side by side over two floors. Such was the spectacle that ever since Leighton House was first opened to the public as a museum in 1900, visitors have continued to flock here in droves. Some come for the 81 oil paintings by Leighton himself which stand side-by-side with pieces from a private collection that includes the work of key Pre-Raphaelite painters. Others come for the first-floor studio where Leighton would work day and night under the high-domed roof. It was in this space that the great man would hold his legendary musical evenings.
But to this day, the Arab Hall, with its gilded ceilings and walls, peacock-blue tiles and fountain, remains the central attraction. And now, having been re-gilded, refurbished and restored as part of a £1.6m facelift, it has never looked better. So we wait with bated breath as, after a 17-month period of closure, staff at Leighton House prepare to open their doors once more to the public.
Leighton House Museum re-opens on 3 April; leightonhouse.co.uk; 020-7602 3316
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