Town mouse visits Leighton House

The street where you lived.

It’s always a delight to visit Leighton House, the studio house in Holland Park, W14, created for Frederic Lord Leighton, regarded by his contemporaries as another Michelangelo. Victorians knew they ought to honour genius, yet found the tools of critical judgment lacking. Artists exploited this uncertainty by insisting that they were taken at their own valuation: studio houses generally went up at the beginning of an artist’s career, as an advertising prospect, rather than at the end, as a reward for financial success. Leighton’s, with its Arab Hall modelled on a palace in Palermo, was dazzling.

Now, it’s filled with paintings either by Leighton or his contemporaries, loaned from the astonishing Pérez Simón collection in Mexico. The culmination is Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus, showing guests at an imperial banquet being smothered (literally) with rose petals. Sublimely, the scent of roses has been diffused throughout the gallery, courtesy of Jo Malone. Photographs owned by Alma- Tadema show the care he took to get archaeological details right. Leighton’s Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle, painted for Lord Powerscourt through whose estate the River Dargle runs, shows Leighton’s model and mistress, Dorothy Dene, a south London girl whom he backed to be an actress. She’s supposed to have been the inspiration for Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.