Heather Wells interviews Daniel Robbins, Senior Curator of the Leighton House Museum talking about the current exhibition, A Victorian Obsession. 

Thank you for letting us interview you Daniel, I’ve been to see A Victorian Obsession and I think it’s a wonderful exhibition, and so I’d like to ask you a few questions about the background of this show. This is a very special exhibition in that some of these paintings have never been shown in the UK, what does this mean to you personally and professionally as senior curator of the Leighton House Museum?

Well I think it’s the single most important exhibition we’ve hosted in my time and I think probably the most ambitious exhibition that the Museum’s ever held. There’s something particular about it that it couldn’t be a better match with what this house is about and the story that this house communicates because the pictures in the Perez collection date from 1860 to 1900 more or less, which is absolutely contemporaneous with the construction of the house and all its developments. Leighton died in 1896 so it is exactly the same period of time. There is also something special about the idea that these pictures are not just being displayed in a conventional gallery setting but have actually been set within the interiors of the house. Leighton knew all his artists and they knew him and they knew this house so there’s something that I think comes out of all of that makes it special, interesting and different.

Yes, absolutely it all works in great harmony together, doesn’t it? If you had to say a favourite, which of the paintings from the exhibition would spring to mind and for what reasons?

Well it’s an obvious answer but there is something extraordinary about seeing Laurence Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heliogabalus because it’s been so seldom exhibited before and it’s become an iconic image of this period. It’s an extraordinary demonstration of his technical accomplishments, his fascination with ancient history and his almost scholarly interest in trying to assemble and integrate as much detail into that picture, which is actually founded in some sort of historical truth so that’s a sort of show stopper thing. Then, it’s very understated but I think quite a moving little drawing is the Simeon Solomon, the only work by him in the exhibition, a depiction of hypnosis the god of sleep which was a theme in his work he returned to when he wrote this poem on the subject of sleep and dreams and it was drawn when he was in this very fragile state towards the end of his career and there’s something very fragile about the drawing as well so that’s at the other end of the spectrum to the Roses of Heliogabalus.

Solomon Simeon, Hynos, The God of Sleep

So the main theme of the exhibition is the representation of female beauty in nineteenth-century art, and I’ve read a couple of criticism’s which people have made, not so much about the exhibition itself, but that these women are very inert and have very little relevance to women today, I don’t actually necessarily agree with that but I just wondered what you response was to the comments about women and how that fits in today in modern society?

Well yes, I’ve read those reviews too and I think the issue always is not to try and see these images outside of the context in which they were painted is one thing. So a number of them were inspired by literary sources but they’re illustrative of and true to the text that inspired them in the artist’s conception and it’s also true that these artists were interested in a kind of idealised type of female beauty that is characteristic of that time. I think the issue of whether or not it’s relevant to today is sort of not relevant(!) and particular, of course, the strand of it which is to do with classic inspired (by classical sculpture) that is sort of by definition itself to do with idealisation and so these artists are producing work which is true to that tradition. It’s not so much to do with them having a contemporary engagement with women, with that being said the women in the exhibition do in fact represent all kinds of tradition. So I mean there are the Waterhouse’s sorcerers, there’s a large picture on the staircase by Edwin Long or in fact Queen Esther which is a story that has been widely written about as a depiction of a strong woman who defies her husband so it’s not quite true anyway to say that these are all passive just dumb characterless individuals. I mean even if you go to the extreme of the Roses of Heliogabalus: he became emperor because his grandmother and his mother conspired to make that happen by outwitting while just basically being meaner than any other man around.

You’re right, rather than being damning it’s more of a celebration of female beauty, which is a good thing I believe and would have thought that perhaps those comments missed the point really. Which kind of leads me onto ask what your stance as a whole is on art in relation to this exhibition? We know that this is an aesthetic collection of art and so I wonder, do you think it should be didactic or can art merely be art for arts sake?

Well I think it can be all these things, meaning within this collection there is that aesthetic art for art’s sake strand, but there’s an enormous amounts of material within it which also relates to literary traditions and connections to art and music, art and literature and so the challenge always for us is how do you communicate that because all of these pictures, in fact have very interesting stories behind them and a huge amount of information which has been researched for the catalogue, so it’s as much as is trying to draw out all of these themes. But it’s true to say that one of the special things about it being here, or one, if you like, of the limitations is that there isn’t complete flexibility in which picture hangs where because it’s dictated by the size of the rooms, the size of the walls and so they impose a certain restriction on how it would be organized. So a kind of overriding thing is the aesthetic and how to present it in an aesthetically satisfying way because that has to override normal curatorial convention of trying to be very didactic and rigorous in the way things are grouped. Although the initial thing was to just make sure that everything would fit and find a home and of course there was a lot of thought too how to combine them so that there is a sort of coherence to it: to let classical works go up in the silk room which is a space to respond to them and more intimate things were placed in the bedroom and so there was more than just simply trying to get them to fit.

Well yes, of course there’s been clear planning and careful consideration which you would expect. This was my first visit to Leighton house when I saw the exhibition and so not only was I bowled over by the art but it was also magnificent to see the house and the Arab hall which I wasn’t quite expecting, I mean it really takes your breath away when you first see it. I know there has been restoration and refurbishment that’s happened, which started in 2008, can you tell us anymore about what this involved and what were the major changes?

The house started to be restored in about 1980 because it had been restored at different times before that but in no sense trying to recreate how it had been. It was just made into the most institutionalized – so walls were whitewashed and it was just made very bland – as far as it was possible, so the attempt to recreate the feel of it began in the 1980s and then we did this major project between 2008 and 2010 which was driven by the need to rewire it all, but that meant it was going to be so intrusive to do that it was going to be necessary to redecorate and look again at all the information. The great thing about this house is that Leighton lived here for thirty years, so he’s the only person ever to have lived here, over a relatively short time span and during the thirty years he lived here there were innumerable articles and interviews with him here, which described the house and its contents. It was illustrated a lot and photographed a lot, so there was a huge wealth of material and unlike a house that’s been lived in over hundreds of years, this is actually a very defined period, so we were able to identify the end of Leighton’s life in 1896 and say well the idea would be to put the house back decoratively to how it ended up being, not at any stage before that. And so the formula to do that would be to try and find the written description of what the room looked like, so for example the floors that had painted colours upstairs, the red floor and the blue floor in the drawing room and dining room, these written description said these floors were painted these colours and they had all been stripped at some point in the twentieth-century but knowing they had been that colour, it meant that the conservator could go in under the skirting and in the corners find traces of these original colours and then match the colours. That formula of using descriptions and then looking for the physical evidence that could form the conscription meant that each of them could be put back…

It seems like a huge task. 

It was a huge task but it was fascinating to do it and be part of it, again it’s the photographs, a whole set of pictures taken of the house just before Leighton died, or a year before he died, which are of extraordinary high quality so if you load them onto a computer you can zoom in and see all kinds of details and then it’s just a question of trying to recreate that detail. So the silk in the silk room was all based on doing that same process and in fact surprisingly little of what was done was guesswork I mean almost all of it had some documentary evidence.

So how much of what we’re seeing today is similar to how Leighton once lived in it, or is that too difficult to know?

Well the thing is, when people came and saw it, there were things that were done which were very distinctly different: so the dome of the Arab Hall had originally been gilded and then had been painted over at some point again in the twentieth-century. So gilded schemes were reinstated. But people who came afterwards, which I think is the way it should be, said that they could sort of feel the way it was all different but they couldn’t say what was different. But really what the difference was were two things: one was because almost everything was redecorated at the same so there was a greater coherence to the whole scheme altogether because previously bits had been done at different times, so that was one thing and the other was part of what we’re trying to do was also because after Leighton died all the original contents for his collections were all sold, which remains the great tragedy of the house. Even after it was an bit problematic because it was a house i.e. a domestic environment, but you had lost its contents to such a point that you couldn’t determine what even the function of each of the rooms were – empty rooms empty spaces – so the idea with the restoration in 2008-2010 was at least to furnish them and present them to a point where they’re basic function was a little more obvious and to try again by very carefully looking at the photographs and the Christie’s catalogue from when all of his collections were sold. Using and finding his original furniture is a very difficult thing to do but there are examples of furniture, which were identical to the furniture that he had already bought very cheaply really. So to gradually make it feel more like when somebody walks in they feel like it’s a house, it’s a home, more than its just a rather odd empty building with a few pictures in it.

Leighton House Arab Hall ©Will Pryce

But it’s still got something of the culture and the life within the walls that you can still feel. I mean when I first walked into the dining room and just to imagine that Rossetti was sat around that dining table, it is just incredible and the house must have been the real heart and culture of the arts world at the time.

It was and well you see, the thing always with Leighton and what makes the house so fascinating is the tension between him being this very public figure who certainly earlier in his career entertained a lot and then this private side to him and the house, such as the bedroom sets up this contrast between the private environment being been so modest and simple whereas the rest of it was really designed for entertainment and to create the idea of an artist.

I don’t know how much is known about Leighton actually, obviously there will be biographies and things but…

There are, but what the biographers says that he is a curiously difficult character and personality and there was certainly a sort of side to him that was quite remote and withdrawn which is how people even at the time said they found it difficult to feel they really knew him and that somehow he was always pretending that he was always keeping people at bay in a way.

So have you a favourite room in the house that you like either for the artwork or that way in which it’s set up or just the house itself?

Well I mean the bedroom is always very intriguing because it’s, in a way so unexpected and the fact that there is one-bedroom is what makes the house so very interesting…

And he died in that room as well didn’t he? Which makes the whole thing a very strange feeling when you’re in there.

Well yes and it’s also the way that all the rooms kind of do flow into each other and relate to each other is what makes it so fascinating.

Are there any well kept secrets that you can share about the house, such as when you wrote the Leighton museum guide book, did you discover any small secrets about the house? Things like a tiny painting of X in the corner or anything like that… or is everything quite as expected?

Well everything’s to be as expected but …well in doing that kind of book there really are two things that came of it: one was going through all the contents of Leighton’s collections, so it absolutely became clear that he didn’t build the house and then sort of go shopping for things to put in it. The house was definitely conceived and the decorative schemes and the forms the rooms took were all conceived because he already knew he had a collection that he wanted to display and so there is an aspect of the house that is really like a museum in the way it was conceived as a means of displaying different bits of his collection in different parts of the house. So it was almost like the whole thing was a total work of art. And the second is the odd things about a studio house so the way the model was given access into the house and the model had their own doorway and they use the back staircase into the studio so the models don’t use the front door and they don’t use the servants passage…

Yes, why would he do that, was that just to be discreet about it all?

Well all these artists houses which are around here, (Holland Park) they all do the same sort of thing and it’s about I think having a separate entrance. It’s about the status of the model so the idea is that, usually an unaccompanied young woman coming in and out of the back door is a way to try to signal that they’re a model and professionally modelling for the artists and trying to make that clear. I suppose I mean Leighton is an exception not having a wife and family here but in the other cases it meant that the model wouldn’t necessarily bump into Mrs X it was kind of kept separate really from the household and from the family of the artist. Other houses went into even greater length than here in having a staircase and an entrance where the model will come in and could only get into the studio and out again and there was no way that they could actually engage any other bit of that house. There was here this little back door into the studio behind the screen and then there was a little fireplace to warm-up, so all these considerations which were part of its original planning as to how an artist studio house would have to function. The reality was that there is a lot of speculation over Leighton’s relationship with Dorothy Dean and so many artists did end up having affairs one kind or another with models.

So how do you think this exhibition compares to other art exhibitions, obviously the fact that it’s in a house, a house museum itself is one big difference, but I mean I can’t imagine, all these beautiful pictures, if you put them in a grand hall, then you’d still be able to recognise the wonderful works of art but there is something so much more about it being here in this house, obviously with the connection you first talked about, but I think it’s possibly more than that.

Well obviously it is a private collection so almost by definition private collections have strong points and weaker points that some of which is to do simply with the art collectors taste, or the collectors budgets or whatever it is and actually the beauty of being able to show it here is in the same way that anybody hanging paintings within their house. There are spaces where you would put the most important pictures and there are secondary spaces where you would put lesser pictures and in a way I think that’s why it works very well here, is that the house sort of flattens out what might be in a gallery setting a certain unevenness as there are things which are more important and less important and we can use the spaces in the house to sort of, not disguise, but to sort of even out the collection. Even the lesser works look fine wherever they are whereas if it was just cheek by jowl in a conventional gallery those peaks and troughs would be much more obvious…

And was Pérez approached for this?

No so what happened is that he has this much bigger art collection and another aspect of it had been exhibited at the Jacquemart-André museum in Paris previously and so both sides were happy with how that had gone, and then the Jacquemart-André was talking to him about what other aspect of his collection could be turned into an exhibition and this idea of his Victorian pictures came about and it was quite a bold thing for the Jacquemart-André to do because French public remains pretty sceptical about Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian pictures so it was quite an bold idea of showing them, but it was enormously successful there and then it became the Jacquemart-André took on the negotiation of a European tour so they approached the venue in Rome and a venue in Madrid and then they wanted it to come to London and so they came and saw the house and immediately the only way it could be done would be for us to take down virtually all our collection to make way for it because there was no other way of accommodating it. They put it to Mr. Pérez Simón if he was happy for it to come here but we know he had been herein the past so did know the house and given there were these six Leighton pictures in the collection there seemed a so he was happy with it but really all the organisational side was with the Jacquemart-André in Paris rather than with him directly.


So they will obviously go back to Perez and we may never see them again!

Well that’s the thing I mean people have said you know is this a prelude to him selling them but there’s absolutely no indication that that is the case. They are going back to Mexico and they hang on the walls of, I think, various houses. Given that they’ve now had considerable airing it’s completely unknown as to whether he will lend them out again. It’s possible this may stimulate an American tour but it’s extremely possible that he will feel that he’s shown them in public and now he wants to enjoy them! And then who knows, nobody again is sure whether his intention is in the end to build and create a museum in which his entire collection will be put or whether after his death it’s dispersed. It’s an unknowable thing so that’s why what we do know is that they are here right now and that many people should see it if they can.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day there was a circulatory and one or two of the Leighton’s themselves came back…

Absolutely and there is the one, quite a very nice little pastel drawing by Albert Moore which actually did belong to Leighton and that would be very nice if that somehow found its way back into our collection, but one can only hope.

Is there anything you wanted to say about the exhibition or to people who are maybe wondering whether or not to go?

Well I think the thing is, that there has been a number of exhibitions of Victorian Pre-Raphaelite art at the Tate: the cult of beauty exhibition which covers the same period, but I think what nobody will see is this quality of picture which is so contemporary, that this has actually been seen in a setting that shares the same set of values as the pictures do. Within the display the shutters enclose the house to try and give it a sort of massive sense of really being for visitors, to really get into this environment and draw from the pictures.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888, oil on canvas, The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico
© Studio Sébert Photographes

For more information please visit: http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/LeightonHouseMuseum/AVictorianObsession.aspx 

A Victorian Obsession runs until the 29th March 2015.


By Heather Wells

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