Sensuous And Even Scented Victorian Masterpieces
Londonist Rating: ★★★★★
It's rare that masterpieces of art return to the place of their making, but this is certainly the case with 52 magnificent and rarely seen works of Victorian art from the private collection of Mexican art collector, Juan Antonio Perez Simon, currently on display at the home of Frederic Lord Leighton. The exhibition includes work by John William Waterhouse, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Albert Joseph Moore, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton himself. These are highly significant works in their own right, not only for their important role in the shaping of artistic movements in the 19th century, but also for their own beauty and aesthetic.
These splendid works of Classicist, Orientalist and pre-Raphaelite paintings and sketches are finely set off in the opulent Victorian surroundings of Leighton House Museum. The colours seem to sing out against the colourful walls of the lushly appointed rooms. Leighton frequently entertained artists from the Royal Academy in his home, including many of the artists represented in this exhibition, so it's a rare chance to see these painting in authentic settings. It is a highly sensuous exhibition, full of colour, light and even scent. The beauty and representational realism is striking, with the paintings almost tactile in their depictions of skin and velvet draperies. The technical mastery of oil on canvas is stunning in its accomplishment of rendering realistic, if idealised, images of beauty.
By far the most stunning work from the collection is Alma-Tadema's The Roses of Heliogabalus, an immense canvas depicting the decadent Roman emperor Elagabalus (Marcus Aurelius Augustus) who supposedly smothered his dinner guests to death with a dense shower of rose petals for an evening's entertainment. The painting is displayed along with photographs of Roman furniture from Alma-Tadema's archives, in a heady rose-scented gallery, surrounded by vases full of freshly-cut roses. The sinister undertone to the painting is not seen until you look more closely at a preparatory sketch that Alma-Tadema made before tackling his full canvas, showing guests in distress under wafting clouds of pink petals. The larger canvas merely resembles a lavish and beautiful celebratory feast.
The exhibition showcases many other great works, including Rossetti's Venus Verticordia (1867-68), considered to be one of the great depictions of female beauty, and alludes to Venus, goddess of Love. Do not miss the secluded corner of the Antechamber, where a study of the Head of Dorothy Dene (1881) can be seen: a model, muse and possibly lover of Lord Leighton. The exhibition also showcases several works by John Melhuish Strudwick, whose colours, particularly in Song Without Words (1875) are vibrant and lively.
The paintings speak for themselves, although there are no labels present for the preservation of the wall coverings so it's crucial that you pick up a guide to understand the history and stories behind the works. This is a fabulous exhibition and should not be missed by anyone, but particularly those with a great interest in Victorian or realist art.
A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection runs at Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road, W14,
until 29 March 2015 now extended until 6 April 2015. Opening hours daily from 10am-5.30pm, closed Tuesdays. Admission: £10/£6 concessions, book online or by phone on 0800 912 6968.
Last Updated 16 November 2014