I was lucky enough to visit Leighton House a few weeks ago, newly opened to the public after its recent refurbishment. The wonderfully tiled Arab Hall is still as glorious as ever and the recreation of Leighton’s winter studio – full of light to support his painting in winter- is lovely.
Frederic Leighton, President of the Royal Academy from 1878 to 1896, was one of the most eminent artists of his generation. He built his house as a ‘palace of art’ on a plot of land in Kensington which he bought in 1864, and which he extended and remodelled with his friend and architect, George Aitchison, from its first iteration until his death in 1896.
A number of artists, who have come to be known as the Holland Park Circle, built houses around Leighton’s on Holland Park Road and on the adjoining Melbury Road, drawn by the reputations of Leighton and also of G. F. Watts. One of the families who built a house on Melbury Road was the Thornycroft family of sculptors and painters, whom we met in July when two paintings by Helen Thornycroft, which had been donated to us, were put on display in the Bronte Room at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Our blog describes the connections between the Martineau, Thornycroft and Gaskell families and makes the case for hanging the paintings in the House.
Leighton himself bought a number of works by Helen Thornycroft’s brother, Hamo, which are displayed in a current exhibition at Leighton House. One of these is a bust of his mother, who is also the model for one of Helen’s paintings which we have in the Bronte Room.
Interestingly I have found more connections between the Thornycrofts and the Gaskells. Sometime between 1829 and 1831, when Elizabeth Gaskell was between 19 and 21, David Dunbar made a marble bust of her. I think it is rather a matronly image of a young woman, and Gaskell herself doesn’t seem to have been particularly fond of it. Writing to Harriet Carr on 30 September 1831 she ponders:
‘Mr Losh told my cousins in town that he thought my bust so very like Napoleon – do you?’
However, many replicas of the bust were made. One by the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft was donated by Meta and Julia Gaskell to Owens College (now Manchester University) to commemorate both their mother and father. The bust is now in the collection at John Rylands Library.
I think the paintings by Helen Thornycroft have earned their place on the walls of the Bronte Room!