Leighton House Museum

Dante Vanoli

Leighton House Museum

12 Holland Park Road, London UK W14 8LZ


London, United Kingdom
EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award 2012 - Conservation

Leighton House Museum Restoration 2007-2010

History and Background

Leighton House was the studio home of the Victorian painter Frederic Leighton, designed by George Aitchison and constructed between 1865 and 1896.  Located on the edge of Holland Park, the unique Grade II* listed building, now the Leighton House Museum, owned and managed by the Royal Borough of Kensington Chelsea, remains the only "artist" studio house of its type open for public use.

After Leighton's death in 1896, the building's decline reflected that of the appreciation of Victorian art and design in the 20th century with key features taken down in the mid 1930s and original decorative schemes overpainted.  The building's subsequent recuperation and recovery was intermittent and slow.  In 2006, a Conservation Management Plan (CMP) by Purcell highlighted serious concerns and shortcomings that included lost architectural features; an infestation of unsightly outmoded services; and minimal environmental control.  These limitations sat uncomfortably with the museum's aspirations, compromising its ability to display its collection and threatened its exhibitions, events and education programme.  At the same time, new research was revealing fresh information on the original interiors and collection presentation.

Daniel Robbins, senior museum curator, had long realised that the house no longer displayed Leighton and Aitchison's original intent.  The project's main objective, therefore, was to simultaneously address practical infrastructure shortcomings and conservation vulnerabilities while re-establishing its distinctive decorative and architectural unity.  This ambitioned, underpinned by the CMP's conservation policies, was to signal a strategic programme of unified work undertaken between 2007 and 2010.

External repairs and restoration 2007-08

Although only the most serious deficiencies were addressed to offset progressive deterioration of brick, stone and metalwork, it was possible to prioritise the reconstruction of the ls"brick ziggurats', derived from the distinctive stepped parapet shapes characteristic of Moorish architecture but lost during the late 1950s.  Their restoration would help to communicate the original, exotic architectural composition of the facades, and archive records provided sufficient compelling evidence in support of the chosen re-creation approach. Using an almost entirely manual process, bricks formed from clay dug at the Suffolk brickwork site were shaped in wooden moulds and fired in historic kilns to achieve an excellent colour match.

Refurbishment of the Historic Interior 2010

Paint Analysis, Textiles, Wallpapers and Soft Furnishings:  Although it was impossible to reinstate Leighton's exact original schemes, the restoration has made the best possible use of physical evidence, contemporary description and photographic records relating to the house.  A painstaking process of research and analysis was carried out by historic paint researchers and textile/wall covering consultants to replicate interiors true to the spirit of Leighton's intentions.  Paint sampling and analysis complemented by contemporary descriptions confirmed historic colour schemes while period photographs and published records were interrogated in researching appropriate textile furnishings.  The rooms now convey a more authentic sense and understanding of Leighton's aesthetics and decorative vision.  For example, the Arab Hall's dome had been redecorated in the 1970s, during which the historic gilded scheme had been obscured.  Exposure trials revealed the original to be more complex and subtle than expected, so that the historic design could then be reproduced authentically by hand, using tracings of the uncovered areas.  The new scheme was applied over a painted ground first before cutting in size followed by gold leaf.

Conservation of Historic Mosaics and Wall Tiles:  The Arab Hall's sumptuous jewel-like glass mosaic frieze decoration (originally made in Venice by Salviati Co) to designs by Walter Crane, was in relatively good condition, although some tesserae were missing and others had been replaced with mediocre substitutes.  Conservation tasks included surface cleaning with deionised water compounds and stabilisation using acrylic emulsion consolidants.  Ceramic tiles within the walls and reveals of the Arab Hall were mostly of the 16th and early 17th centuries from Damascus and in the 1880s William de Morgan had planned their decorative configuration to suit the symmetry of the Hall's architecture. Generally stable, with some losses, staining and signs of disruption, each tile was first identified and its condition recorded using high resolution photos, complemented by ultraviolet light imaging.  Weaknesses were stabilised and surfaces cleaned using cotton swabs and deionised water.

Mosaic floors: Designed by George Aitchison, the black and white marble mosaic floors unify the Staircase, Narcissus and Arab Halls. Disaggregation of the grout and salt efflorescence necessitated the stabilisation of loose tesserae with acrylic emulsion consolidants and replacement of those lost.

Reconstruction and Revelation of Lost Features and Areas:  We also addressed the reconstruction of various lost features and the correction of earlier inappropriate interventions.  The Studio's missing second fireplace and carved oak surround was reconstructed as the original had been disposed of.  After extensive mock up trials to confirm enrichment detailing, the new work used archive sketches to help replicate the missing elements.  Also reinstated was the Studio Extension's missing "delicate winding staircase" to a screen gallery that allowed Leighton to work on upper sections of large canvases.  1960s overlaying strip flooring was carefully lifted to reveal Leighton's Studio and Silk Room floors.  The house's back stairs and basement are now also restored, displaying Leighton's resurrected Prussian Blue colour scheme and revealing concealed fireplaces.  Rooms that previously served as congested council offices, including the butler's pantry, now display their original functions and are open for educational use and public display.

Lighting:  Archive photography revealed how the distinctive fittings, designed by Aitchison, first appeared.  For example the Arab Hall's original gasolier had been converted to electricity in 1895 but had been inaccurately modified in the 1980s.  Mock up trials to brass lamping arrangements were tested to restore their original historic configuration and supplementary lighting now also provides contemporary museum functionality that exploits the full richness of the Hall's interior.

Environmental Control:  Refurbishment of the building's redundant, obstructive and invasive services infrastructure was essential to ensure appropriate museum conditions and, where possible, elements that were still serviceable have been overhauled and re-used with better monitoring and control.  Modern joinery encasements such as the Studio's stage were adapted to conceal air conditioning.  In combination, these systems now deliver the environmental conditions required to balance the needs of the collection with the communal use of the building for visitors, education and events.

A carefully considered transformation has re-established Leighton's intimate, atmospheric studio house as an exceptional example of Victorian art, design and architecture. Executed to high conservation standards, Leighton House can now communicate a wider appreciation and understanding of a building that was described as "a Palace of Art" by its original owner, and now provides entry to a unique environment displaying a particular character of Victorian aesthetics.  Importantly, this has been achieved in a way that reconciles the often competing requirements of the museum's status as an historic building and its use by the public community.



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