Last week saw the opening of the exhibition ‘A Victorian Obsession’ at Leighton House Museum, and I was pleased to be at the opening event, which felt like a party at Lord Leighton’s home. I wrote about the Museum when it opened after a wonderful refurbishment in 2010, and its interiors are so spectacular that it was a pleasure to visit it again. The exhibition, previously in Paris and Rome, is made up of 52 nineteenth century paintings from the collection of Juan Antonio Perez Simon, a Mexican businessman with a spectacular collection of art as well as an impressive private library.
If you want to read my full review of it, you’ll have to wait until it appears on the Journal of Victorian Culture Online,
but I wanted to give a brief preview or taster, because this is something special, and it says a lot about Victorian art, too. These paintings have travelled a long way, but they include a few that were originally painted by Leighton in the house in which they were displayed, so this exhibition feels like a homecoming. It also feels somehow right, in a wider sense: the paintings are displayed in the rooms of the house in the way in which Leighton often displayed works of art, hung around the walls in a rather informal way, without too much information and without strictly demarcated ‘themes’ for each room. The amazing, exotic and colourful house provides a fitting setting for these works, which manifest a range of Pre-Raphaelite tendencies, and include painters such as Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, John Melhuish Strudwick, Rossetti, Millais and Alma-Tadema.
What really struck me as I looked round the rooms is that the overall effect of the house and the paintings in display is the lens or filter that Victorian culture provided. Few of the paintings are of contemporary Victorian subjects; rather, there are myths – Eastern, Arthurian, classical – which are refigured through the nineteenth century painters’ gaze. The preoccupation with history, with narrative, with heroes and heroines, is created here by a range of artists in a very 19th century manner: despite the apparently ‘timeless’ subject matter, you wouldn’t mistake these for anything other than Pre-Raphaelite style Victorian paintings. I’ll examine this idea further in my longer review, but it’s worth noting that there are many beautiful paintings here which I’d never seen in the flesh before, including Waterhouse’s ‘The Crystal Ball’, Emma Sandys’s ‘Reverie’, Strudwick’s ‘Elaine’, and the enormous and captivating ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (which appeared in a room scented with Jo Malone’s scent Red Roses!)
Every exhibition, every arrangement of paintings, somehow shows us something new about the paintings themselves, and the juxtaposition of house and art here indicates almost a decadent approach to myth, and to interiors as an extension of the art – or the art as an extension of the interior.