The Holland Park Circle
Discover more about the community of artists that grew up around Leighton House in the late nineteenth century.
When artist Frederic Leighton first settled on Holland Park Road in 1864, his studio-house was constructed at the same time as that of his immediate neighbour and fellow artist, Valentine Cameron Prinsep. They remained friends and neighbours for the next 30 years. By the time of Leighton’s death in 1896, ten artists had constructed purpose-built studio-houses on Holland Park Road and neighbouring Melbury Road, with more living nearby.
Lord Leighton’s House and studio are notable as the centre of an art colony, which has been strikingly described as a red group of artists’ houses, like soldiers or clansmen loyally closing round their chief.
Like Leighton, the majority of these artists became members of the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts, were commercially successful and, in many ways, represented the height of the art establishment. But why did they choose to live here? Who were they? And what kind of houses did they build?
Origins of the Holland Park Circle
The first artist to settle in the area was George Frederic Watts, who established himself as the permanent house guest of Sara and Thoby Prinsep who were renting Little Holland House, the Dower House on the Holland estate. The Prinseps were an Anglo-Indian family with something of an artistic reputation: the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was Sara Prinsep’s sister and the women of the family in general were known for their beauty, their artistic manner of dressing and cultivated conversation. With Watts acting as a kind of artist in residence, Little Holland House became a popular meeting place for artists, writers, and intellectuals, including Leighton.
In 1864, when two plots of land became available next to Little Holland House on Holland Park Road, both were acquired by artists. Sara and Thoby’s son painter, Valentine Cameron Prinsep (known as Val Prinsep) acquired the first, commissioning architect Phillip Webb to design his studio-home, and Leighton purchased the second, creating his studio-home with his friend, architect George Aitchison.
In 1875 the Holland estate was forced to raise funds and demolished Little Holland House to make way for Melbury Road. Displaced from Little Holland House, Watts was the first to acquire a plot and many other artists followed suit, attracted to the area partly by the presence of such illustrious artists nearby and also by the plots themselves which allowed for generous gardens and grand houses.
The artists and their studio-homes
Like Leighton, most of the artists built their studio-homes fairly early in their career, using them to help establish their artistic reputation. Every spring the studios would be opened up to the public as part of 'Show Sunday' where artists gave visitors to their home a preview of their entries for the Royal Academy exhibition that year. With so many notable artists living close by, Holland Park was a popular destination with ‘so many carriages and prettily dressed women about that it looked as if some particularly smart wedding were going on in Melbury Road.’ In between these annual events, people could catch a glimpse of the artists' houses through the many illustrated 'at home' interviews with the artists published in newspapers and magazines.
The artwork produced by the Holland Park Circle artists varied greatly, from seascapes to portraits, romantic genre paintings to social realism, and these differences were reflected in their studio-homes. Sculptors Mary and Thomas Thornycroft and their son Hamo Thornycroft had a specific set of practical requirements for their Melbury Road studio, which included a marble yard, a gallery and pointing studio. Painter Marcus Stone, who also lived on Melbury Road, had a dedicated glass Winter Studio constructed on the first floor, so that he could paint his models as if outdoors, from the comfort of his studio.
One of the most distinctive houses in the circle is Tower House built by architect, William Burges in 1877 for his own use. As an architect, Burges did not need a practical workspace, and instead turned his attention to creating a fantastical, richly decorated house in the style of a medieval castle complete with bespoke furniture and themed rooms.
Today, Leighton House is the only artist's studio-house in the circle open to the public, but you can learn more about Frederic Leighton and the Holland Park Circle with our free Artists Houses Walking Tours.