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Leighton House

The history of Leighton's garden

Do you know that Leighton's garden retains many of its original ornamental features?

Leighton House, exterior view from the garden.

The garden at Leighton House, designed by the artist himself, remains almost unchanged in format. Originally it was half the size we see today, but in 1868, when the adjacent Melbury Road was planned, it was extended to the north and two years later to the east.   Despite its simple design, with a large lawn at the centre bordered by trees, shrubs and flower beds, it did attract attention from the press right away. 

The popular publication The Building News  reported in 1866 that the new garden would soon be as equally attractive as the house: 

The garden has been laid out with reference to the peculiarities of the house and in a little time will look well. We believe it to be the intention of the owner at some future time to adorn it with carefully chosen architectural objects, some vases, a tezza, a raised bed, or perhaps a fountain. These objects are almost necessary to connect the house and garden. In a short time the garden will assume a very pleasing appearance, and, being designed on strict architectural principles, will accord well with the house to which it is attached.
The Building News, 1866

As anticipated, ornamental features were added. A large raised semi-circle of soil was built to add interest to the flat lawn, then later divided resulting in the two grass mounds seen today.  A parterre of ten geometric shapes was laid across the lawn to be viewed from the dining room windows. It was the most ornate part of the garden, filled with bedding plants which were refreshed several times during the year.

Four large terracotta urns (Italian oil jars) were later placed along the terrace. William Morris and Leighton’s neighbour, the artist Valentine Princest, also introduced this type of ornamental jar to their own gardens.  A wooden trellis covered with ivy ran along the lower part of the eastern path, and latterly roses replaced the ivy.

Leighton's garden, Marianne Topham, c. 1996.

Leighton took a keen interest in garden flowers, frequently visiting Kew Gardens to view the displays. William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, Director of  Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew, London), described meeting Sir Frederic there and the artist being absorbed in ‘enthusiastic contemplation of some old-fashioned Dutch tulips’. 

The garden was also ideal for entertaining and Leighton ‘received’ every Sunday in fine weather. One visitor, British architect, Frances Pepys Cockerell, recalled that:

He sat chatting with the President, who in slippers, a so called ‘land and water hat’ and a smock-frock, leant back in a garden chair and talked as no one else could. The quiet, the sun overhead, the grass under our feet, the green trees around us, and the house visible between them, form an ineffaceable picture of aesthetic contentment it is a delight to recall
Frances Pepys Cockerell, British architect (1833-1878)

In 1997 the garden was reconstructed using the only known plan, which was drawn up in 1896 just after Leighton’s death, for the sale of the house.  More recently, a white marble fountain has been uncovered and restored. It was the original fountain in the Arab Hall but was replaced by the black marble one seen today. 

Original marble fountain in Leighton's garden, restored in 2018.

After the completion of the Hidden Gem to National Treasure  works, the museum aims to re-integrate Leighton's garden as a key part of the house and exploit its potential as a place for learning and visitor enjoyment. There are plans to improve the existing paths and create additional seating, do some cohesive new planting and recovering the historic flower parterre. Eventually there may even be sculpture displays. 

In addition, and to take full advantage of the direct opening to the garden the Learning Centre has,  there are plans to create a dedicated area on the north-west border for outside learning. This will include activities such as drawing and painting from nature, horticulture, ecology and even cooking, using ingredients from a vegetable patch.