Provocative Objects / Spaces

11 October 2023 -

Provocative Places: The Arab Hall at Leighton House

Welcome to the next in our Provocative Places and Objects series, in which our contributors look at places and spaces that challenge and confront us as design historians. This time, Isabella Warnham, a student on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA, looks at the Arab Hall at Leighton House in London.

First constructed in 1865, Lord Frederic Leighton’s house did not include what we know today as the Arab Hall. Leighton was one of the most prolific Victorian painters, his work depicting historical, biblical, and classical subject matter in an academic style. His house is no exception to his style and boasts unique artefacts from his travels alongside some of his own work and other pieces from his collection such as Domenico Tintoretto and Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

This extension to the house came second to an initial extension that increased the size of the house and particularly his studio on the first floor. The Arab Hall was added to the house in 1877-81, inspired by his travels through Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Damascus. Costing him more to build that the whole of the original house, it was one of a kind and completely unique to the heart of West London. One may find this to be an indicator of the hall’s provocative nature, and thus why I have chosen to write about it as a ‘provocative space’. Intending to entice and stimulate the English gentry during Leighton’s hosting of social meetings, the hall also acts as an indicator of his wealth and education. Said to have been influenced by the twelfth-century palace of La Zisa in Palermo, Sicily, there are other Sicilian references in Leightons works, reflected through paintings such as the interior of the Capella Palatina. These worldly influences showcased not only throughout Leightons work but also within his home, reflect an abundance of knowledge and a level of intelligence that would allow him to gain and maintain a high regard within the social circles of London, and likely even further afield.

Arab Hall at Leighton House. (Authors own photo).
Arab Hall at Leighton House. (Authors own photo).

Designed by Leighton’s friend George Aitchison, as is the rest of the house, one may find an original watercolour design for the hall by Aitchison within the Royal Institute for British Architects collection. The gold mosaic frieze displays the provocative atmosphere to an intense richness that accentuated the cooler toned colours found within the tiles. The design for the frieze was made in Venice by Walter Crane, British illustrator and painter. Shipped to the site in sections and then assembled once reaching the location, visitors may see floral designs interspersed with Arabic writing and animal motifs all throughout the hall, from floor to ceiling.

Within the gold mosaic, visitors can spot peacocks and deer, both holding significant symbolism in Victorian England and now. The peacock often associated with pride and vanity seems an unlikely thing to want to be connected to, but in Leighton’s time an entirely gregarious home made for entertaining would have made him more respected and honoured for not only his craft but also his sociability; thus, the peacock does not stand out inconspicuously. In contrast to this, the deer found in the centre of room historically symbolise gentleness, innocence, and protection, traits that would lend well to a visitor and compliment Leighton in the role of host.

Arab Hall at Leighton House. (Authors own photo).
Arab Hall at Leighton House. (Authors own photo).

All material used to construct the hall was sourced in London except for the Damascus tiles that date from the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century. Reminiscent of the Iznik tiles of western Anatolia, of which Leighton had an extensive collection, the piercing blue is accented with white and a pale green in all of the tiles; pulled together by the furnishing of green silk cushioned benches and marble pillars. The colouring of the tiles utilises a brown or deep blue for the darker colours as a replacement for black. However, the viewer is still confronted with black by the wood in the alfresco; the first thing that the viewers see when walking towards the hall due to it situating in the centre of the back wall. Tying together the black and white mosaic of the flooring, the hall is a masterpiece of the nineteenth century.

With the exception of the mosaics and tiles, very little of the original house decor survived after Leighton’s death. The entire contents of the house sold off by his sisters before the house itself was sold to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 1925, of which still maintaining ownership today. Under heavy refurbishment in 2007 and 2010, the Arab Hall was restored to its former glory with many tiles repaired, replaced, and cleaned. You can visit the hall and explore Leighton’s House at 12 Holland Park Road, W14 8LZ.

Close up of the tiles in the Arab Hall at Leighton House. (Authors own photo).
Close up of the tiles in the Arab Hall at Leighton House. (Authors own photo).

I would like to thank the volunteers and staff at Leighton House for sharing their knowledge with me and being such a lovely team that I am proud to be a part of! If you wish to know more or visit, all information may be found here.

Started by the DHS Ambassadors in 2022, the Design History Society’s Provocative Objects and Places blog series looks at spaces and objects that challenge and confront us as design historians.

Past topics have ranged from the ancient Colosseum in Rome to the ultramodern Antilia in Mumbai; pink razors and Barbies to Lalique’s Bacchantes vase and nineteenth-century asylum photography. The full collection of previous posts can be found here.

We invite submissions for guest blog posts from students, early career researchers, and established academics to those with a general interest in design history. Post can be on any object or place from any era, anywhere in the world, which in some way incites discussion and debate.

Post should be 500-800 words in length, accompanied by at least one image with associated credits and clearances, and a short bio. Please send to the DHS Senior Administrator, Dr Jenna Allsopp


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