Leighton House Bespoke Library Bookcases

Leighton House, the remarkable studio and home of the artist Lord Frederick Leighton (1830-1896), re-opened its doors on 15th October 2022 after a £8M transformation. The museum sits on the edge of Holland Park and is well known for its lavish interiors, including the Arab Hall (based on mosaics, tiles, and architecture assimilated by Leighton on his travels to Sicily, Turkey, Egypt and Syria) and the original studio space. The latest project has focused on adding in a new wing, designed by BDP, offering new spaces for exhibitions, a new Learning Centre and a collections store. The recreation of the bespoke library bookcases was considered to be an important component of the project.

library bookcase
Luke Hughes bespoke library bookcases designs


Luke Hughes & Company have been working for the museum for forty years and, on this project, was commissioned to recreate the pair of missing library bookcases that once formed a key part of the furnishings of Leighton’s actual painting studio room. These highly elaborate bespoke library bookcases, originally designed in conjunction with Leighton by his architect George Aitchison, were inlaid with fruitwood and lapis lazuli, with elaborate Greek Revival detailing. The designs clearly matched the stylised patterns of the woodwork elsewhere in the building and formed key elements in that interior; they framed the entry to the Winter Studio and held some of Leighton’s varied library collection.


The books themselves provide an insight into his interests. Books played a very important role in Leighton’s life and the studio, in particular, was full of them - on travel, architecture, mythology, ceramics, antiques...but also with publications by fellow artists, contemporary fiction and the complete works of Shakespeare. It is hoped that by reintroducing the library bookcases and their contents, together with the re-presentation of the Winter Studio as a more practical working environment, visitors will derive a more representative idea of Leighton's use of his working spaces and the lengths he went to in creating bespoke furniture to suit his tastes.

Leighton house library bookcase
Bespoke library bookcases

Like the rest of his furniture, the original bookcases were also sold at auction and are now lost and, as with the earlier commissions, there were no extant drawings. Nevertheless, Leighton’s Studio frequently featured in the Victorian press and in the museum’s archives, 19th century photos were found to have survived, offering just enough detail for a forensic eye to recreate the original design intent. The task has required a painstaking but rewarding collaboration between the principal designer, Luke Hughes and others from the Luke Hughes & Company design team, and the Leighton House curatorial department, led by the Senior Curator, Daniel Robbins.


Involvement over the years - a little history

Designing custom furniture for Leighton House Museum over the decades has been a little like playing the after-dinner parlour-game ‘In The Manner Of The Word’; you are given a fragment of an old photograph then expected to offer an impromptu performance to amuse the assembled company.

Leighton at work in his studio

Luke Hughes was first commissioned in 1982 by the then curator, Stephen Jones, to make two black-lacquered glazed mahogany display cases to house some of Leighton’s de Morgan china, which had certainly never been behind glass in Leighton’s day. Jones found the meagre Borough annual budgets forced on him the commercial letting of the museum for exotic parties, fashion shoots and the making of artistic videos – hardly compatible with the informal ‘drawing room display’ techniques of his previous curatorial charge, Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury.

Luke Hughes Library Bookcases in Leightons studio with view into Winter Studio, Leighton House

The de Morgan china clearly needed better protection, regardless of historical accuracy. Jones, always at heart the utterly serious and professional academic, nevertheless rather enjoyed the social exposure fund-raising required and took great delight in the tale of his chance encounter with an old acquaintance who, upon being told that he was now running Leighton House, replied "Oh yes, I heard; it's a sort of night-club isn't it."

All Jones had to offer for inspiration was a fragment of a late 19th century photograph into which poked a corner of a lacquered side table, the murky details of which offered modest clues, certainly not quite enough to do full historical justice to any design. Luke Hughes was reassured by the museum’s architectural advisor at the time, that scourge of Modernism and towering doyen of the Victorian Society, Ian Grant, as he scribbled some annotations on my proposed sketches, ‘The gist, my dear boy, the gist – Leighton was nothing if not theatrical’.

Luke Hughes Leighton House Bookcases marquetry doors and drawers

The house has had a precarious past. Initially designed collaboratively by Leighton and his architect George Aitchison in the 1860s, it evolved and doubled in size over the 31 years that Leighton lived and worked there, becoming one of the most sumptuously exotic interiors of any house in 19th century London. It is one of a tradition of artist-studio houses in the Holland Park area designed by the likes of Webb, Norman Shaw and Burges, built more like show-palaces than as private studios: heavily embellished architectural fantasies, designed to show off personal collections of artefacts as well as display to full effect the works of the artists who lived there. It is an astonishing concoction, the collaboration between artisans, artists, architect and patron being of the kind that later informed the principles of the Arts & Crafts Movement and, in particular, the foundation in 1884 of the Art Workers Guild. Many of those involved with the Leighton House interior were early members of the Guild.

After Leighton’s death 1896, Christies held an eight-day auction of the contents; most were dissipated, many were lost. Since then, the house been white-washed, bombed, converted into the children’s branch of Kensington Central Library and even earmarked for demolition – in 1960 the Borough actually challenged London County Council’s attempts to apply a preservation order. Fortunately, in the 1970s, common sense prevailed and tentative steps were made to recover some of Leighton’s extraordinary aesthetic legacy. Further impetus was generated with the inspired tenure (1981-9) of Stephen Jones as curator.

More parlour games in 2010, when Jones’s equally talented successor, Daniel Robbins, asked if a new desk could be made to sit in Leighton’s study which had been denuded of its centrepiece when Leighton’s furniture was auctioned. The study is the first room to be seen from the museum entrance and the desk was key to that interior ensemble. A few years later, in 2016, some funds were found to commission a replica of Aitchison’ elaborately architectural sideboard in the dining room (used for the display of some of Leighton’s ceramic collection). The latest custom library bookcases in the studio continue this theme.

Luke Hughes was also involved as a design consultant on other aspects of the latest renovations, including the recreation of the front gates.

Media coverage of the reopening of Leighton House can be found here:


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