Holland Park and Leighton House

... an Ipswich Society outing, 27.9.2018

In the 1770s the Earl Holland came into possession of this Jacobean mansion through his wife’s inheritance. He extended the house so that he could entertain on a grand scale and renamed it Holland House. Today all that remains, after bomb damage in the Blitz, is the east wing and the adjoining terrace, both much restored; the latter is sometimes used as a ‘stage’ for operatic productions. We entered the Park by a modest doorway on its north side and walked along paths by trees and shrubberies. We stopped to admire the Japanese garden before reaching the central area of house, renovated formal garden and visitor centre. The lower section of the Park contains a large recreation field, tennis courts etc. Imposing iron gates form a grand entrance on the south side. During lunch, some of us visited the Design Museum nearby.

In Holland Park Road the notably plain exterior of Leighton House Museum gives little indication of the extravagance within. Frederic Leighton was enobled just before his death in 1896; he was one of the most famous of our Victorian painters and sculptors, but his reputation has steadily dropped over the years. The house and studio were built for him – his wealthy father paid him an allowance throughout his life. The Staircase Hall, past the entrance hall, leads to the Narcissus Hall, with its eponymous bronze statue.

This in turn leads to the most outstanding feature of the house: the Arab Hall, much influenced by his travels in the Middle East as a young man, featuring exotic decoration from tiled floor to domed ceiling. The Drawing and Dining Rooms and Library complete the ground floor. Upstairs, the Silk Room gives on to the spacious Studio with its large, north-facing window under which his models posed. Uncluttered now, in Leighton’s day the studio would have been crammed full of paintings, easels and other equipment of a successful, hard-working artist. He died of heart failure at the age of 66. He was elected as the President of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1878, so he had a heavy workload. Unfortunately, after his death his exceptional collections of fine and decorative art and furniture were dispersed at auction. Some of the items have found their way back and the house is largely a reconstruction of the one he knew; many photographs show it as it was in his time).

Many thanks to our guide and to Caroline Markham for this most interesting and unusual outing.

Richard Worman

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