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Leighton House

Leighton's travels

Discover how travelling influenced his work and his unique house.

Frederic Leighton, On the Nile, 1878.

Travel was an important part of Leighton’s life from childhood.  By his late teens, he was living with his family in Frankfurt, Germany and had already visited many of Europe’s major cities, including Florence and Rome; places which he would return to on a great many occasions over the next decades. By his late twenties, extended periods had been spent living in Rome and then Paris and Leighton had made his first trip outside Europe, travelling to north Africa in 1857.  Once settled in London, he continued to make extensive trips on an annual basis until shortly before his death. The countries that Leighton visited on at least one occasion include Austria, Algeria, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, The Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Syria and Turkey.

Detail of Frederic Leighton, Interior of Cappella Palatina, Palermo, c.1875.

In his early years, exposure to the continent’s great art and architecture inspired Leighton to become an artist. In later life he would continue to go to great lengths to visit buildings and sites of architectural or artistic interest, building up an exhaustive knowledge and appreciation that continued to inspire and nourish his own work.  The diversity of architectural influences that Leighton was able to bring to the design and decoration of his house was one of the results of these travels.

Detail of Frederic Leighton, View of a town in Capri, Italy, c.1859.

As time went on, these trips, which were usually made from the end of August through to October, increasingly offered the opportunity to escape from the many demands made on Leighton in London.  He appears almost always to have travelled alone, although in Italy he often spent time with his great friend, the artist Giovanni Costa and his family. Each trip seems to have been carefully planned, with destinations mapped out and a set of places or collections he wished to visit identified in advance.

Detail of Frederic Leighton, View in Spain, c.1866.

Part of Leighton’s escape was to produce small landscape sketches in oils as he travelled.  Primarily painted for his own enjoyment and relaxation, these works were only rarely exhibited and lined the walls of his studio.  While providing a record of the places he had visited, they also provided references for various effects of light, colour and landscape which were sometimes incorporated into his paintings as he worked in the studio.  On occasion, a landscape or particular sunset, cloud-effect captured in a landscape sketch might inspire an idea for a composition produced years later.

Arab Hall, Leighton House. Image courtesy of Kevin Moran.

Leighton in North Africa and the Middle East

Leighton’s visit to Algeria in 1857 (aged twenty-seven) probably first inspired him to start collecting artefacts from the Islamic world. During the 1860s and early 1870s he amassed the bulk of his collection. Leighton’s journeys to North Africa and the Middle East were part of a trend in the nineteenth century to travel to these regions.  Artists found plentiful subjects for their paintings which satisfied a growing demand for depictions of the ‘exotic Orient’. Many French, British and German artists of the time were travelling to Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. As well as tiles from various periods and locations in the Islamic world, Leighton also collected ceramic vases and tableware, textiles, metalwork, carpets (numbering nearly sixty), and woodwork. While some of these objects may have been acquired from dealers in London and Paris, the wish to collect tiles and artefacts was an important part of the trips that Leighton was to make.

In 1867 he sailed down the Danube from Vienna, into the Black Sea and to Istanbul. Travelling through Turkey via Broussa and Smyrna he then explored the coast of Asia Minor travelling by boat to the island of Lindos and then returned via Athens and Venice.

Tiles in the Arab Hall, Leighton House. Image courtesy of Kevin Moran.

The following year, Leighton travelled to Egypt. His friendship with the Prince of Wales secured him the use of a steam yacht and he was able to travel in some style up the river Nile, making numerous landscape sketches as he travelled.

In 1873 Leighton travelled to Syria, going by boat to Beirut and then overland to Damascus.  He was captivated by some of the old houses in the city and made further landscape sketches as well as making collections of pottery tiles and textiles with the help of a missionary, the Rev. William Wright.

A further, but less well documented trip to Turkey and Egypt was undertaken in 1882 shortly after construction of his Arab Hall had been completed.

As Leighton’s health faltered in 1895, he left London to try and recuperate.  Going first to Morocco, he then spent some time in Algiers, which he had first visited almost forty years previously. 

Detail of Frederic Leighton, A Street in Damascus, 1873.