Studio Sittings: Photographing Royal Academicians

A new show at the Leighton House Museum.

New Statesman
Sir Peter Blake RA in his Hammersmith studio, London May 2006. (Photo: Anne Purkiss)

Turning my bicycle onto Holland Park Road, I’m greeted by the sight of cherry trees and the sound of light wind. It’s on this quiet street that Leighton House Museum sits; the life-long residence of Victorian painter Lord Frederic Leighton. Despite the encroaching hum of Kensington High Street, Leighton House remains a fortress of calm. Like a blushing pomegranate, the home's benign, redbrick exterior masks an interior opulence which Leighton spent over thirty years perfecting. 

“Leighton House is inextricably linked to the life of its one and only occupant,” writes the museum’s senior curator Daniel Robbins. The Yorkshire-born artist was the son of a wealthy doctor and grandson of the physician to the Russian royal family. Leighton trained in the art academies of Berlin and Florence and spent much of his youth travelling extensively across Europe and North Africa, fluent in five languages upon returning to London in 1859.  

Shades of turquoise and cobalt dominate the house that Leighton built to serve as home, painting studio and showroom for his vast collection of fine and decorative arts. Works of his own share walls with those of his contemporaries; blue silk chaises sit beside fireplaces stuffed with peacock’s feathers. His love of painted tiles and decor imported from “The East” is exemplified in The Arab Hall, a £7,000 extension (extortionate sums for the times) built to house Leighton’s hoard of some thousand ceramic tiles source by remote collectors in Syria, Greece, and Turkey. A still, square pool of water sits at the centre of this domed antechamber. 

The home “made plain his obvious though unostentatious wealth,” writes Robins; regularly featuring in the press and open once a year for public viewing. After falling into misuse following Leighton’s death in 1896, repairs began in the 1980s and, following major restoration works from 2008 to 2010, the house is one again open to a curious public. 

Foremost in Leighton’s later career was his role within the Royal Academy, to which he was elected in 1868 and served as president from 1878. “Leighton proved an extremely effective President,” Robins tells us, “displaying great administrative and diplomatic skills in handling the Academicians and making particular efforts to draw into the institutions artist such as his friends G F Watts and Edward Burne-Jones, who were by temperament inclined to remain outside.”

It’s fitting, then, that the current curators of Leighton House have recently hung an exhibition called Studio Sittings: Photographing Royal Academicians.  Portraits of contemporary RAs taken by German photographer Anne Purkiss span 25 years and capture the likes of David Hockney, Peter Blake, Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry at work in their studios. Presented alongside are photographic portraits of Victorian era Academicians including Lord Leighton himself, designer George Aitchison (who dreamt up much of Leighton House), architect Alfred Waterhouse and immanent London sculpture Hamo Thornycroft. 

Studio Sittings is set back from the main home in Leighton’s winter studio: a classic Victorian glasshouse built to maximise the poor natural light that plagues London’s cold months. Through the sheer walls visitors can observe an extensive garden in which crocuses bloom white and purple and pigeons amble purposefully. The space makes for an airy viewing of the black and white photographs, which feel particularly appropriate set against a grey sky framed by the room’s iron skeleton.

It is a simple and pleasant exhibition who’s most interesting (perhaps unintended) consequence is mediation on the nature of portraits set in studios. Each artist is pitched against a personalised yet carefully constructed “creative space”, framed by their tools, their possessions, their half-finished projects. The effect is both naturalistic and highly stylised, a non-verbal announcement of an individual aesthetic timbre. 

The effect is even more pronounced in the photographs of the Leighton-era RAs, who stand with hips cocked against their finest canvases, brushes held aloft like rapiers, palettes like shields. Despite the presence of several prominent RA women (Elisabeth Frink, Elizabeth Blackadder, Mary Fedden) the show feels inherently masculine (the RA has yet to elect a female president) and it’s hard not to ponder what gallant tones these artists seek to invoke.  As art historian Marcia Pointon recently remarked in her excellent study of portraiture, the construction of identity is often “better apprehended by ignoring faces and attending to other parts of the body, and to the ways in which those body parts are covered and adorned.”

From manner of dress to matters of props, the studio portrait has become a vehicle for the projection of the self as artist, inventor and tinkerer, wielder of tools and master of materials. Wonder at this little exhibition, then step back and think what this great house, full of a thousand objects, will tell you about it’s one and only occupant. 

Studio Sittings: Photographic Royal Academicians is on at Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 until 2 June, 2013. 

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(Lord Frederic Leighton PRA. Kensington, London c. 1890. Photo: Ralph Winwood Robinson © Royal Academy of Arts, London) 

 

(Henry Stacy Marks RA. London c. 1889. Photo: Ralph Winwood Robinson © Royal Academy of Arts, London)

 

(George Frederic Watts RA. Compton, Surrey, c. 1902. Photo: Original glass-plate negative, Watts Gallery Archive) 

 

(David Hockney RA. Southbank, London, August 1985. Photo: Anne Purkiss)

 

(Sir Anthony Caro RA. London, May 1991. Photo: Anne Purkiss)

 

(Kenneth Armitage RA. Hammersmith, London, October 1995. Photo: Anne Purkiss)

 

(Dame Elisabeth Frink RA. Wollwand, Dorset, March 1990. Photo: Anne Purkiss)

 

(Antony Gormley RA. London, November 1994. Photo: Anne Purkiss)

 

(Dame Elizabeth Blackadder RA. Edinburgh, September 2011. Photo: Anne Purkiss)

 

(Sir Denys Lasdun RA. London, March 1997. Photo: Anne Purkiss)