The former home and studio of renowned Pre-Raphaelite painter Frederic Lord Leighton has evolved as a museum over its long life; its latest reimagining is a sensitive and artistic refurb by BDP, as Tom Boddy reports
London is renowned for its array of world-famous museums scattered across the city. But one which people may be less familiar with is Leighton House Museum – once the home and studio of Victorian painter Frederic, Lord Leighton, and now owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC).
Located in the heart of Kensington, the historic building’s red brick exterior may deceive passers-by as to its true use, appearing as one of the many grand townhouses in the area. However, the inside is filled with opulent interiors and historic artefacts.
The Grade II* listed building was originally built in 1865, and over its 150-year history, as it’s transitioned from a private home to a public museum, it has undergone significant transformations.
The most recent phase, led by interdisciplinary practice BDP, completes the restoration of the house and garden while reimagining the spaces to create a “coherent, inclusive and enjoyable visitor experience,” explains David Artis, architect and director at BDP. The focus has been on consolidating the museum as an amenity for the local community and beyond – this was “a key driver for the Borough,” he adds.
History & context
During the 19th century, London’s burgeoning middle class began to invest their disposable income into artworks. This newfound demand for art led to an era of affluence and recognition of artists.
Within this context, a group of wealthy artists decided to construct their own residences on the Holland Park Estate in Kensington, known as the Holland Park Circle, with Leighton’s home being among the first to be commissioned.
The original building, designed by Leighton’s close friend and architect George Aitchison, was a fairly modest design.
But over the next two decades, it became an evolving piece of artwork in itself, as Leighton and Aitchison introduced striking new elements.
Just three years after completion, the house underwent an expansion to enlarge the painting studio on the first floor, and incorporate a store room for canvasses.
Next was the creation of a dramatic new extension (‘Arab Hall’) that has since become regarded as the centrepiece of the home. As an avid traveller to the middle east, Leighton developed a strong fascination with the architecture and artefacts he encountered during his journeys.
This enthrallment with all things Arabian inspired the design of the hall, leading him to include a golden dome and adorn the interior with historic tiles, some dating back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
This striking addition was constructed between 1877 and 1881 and surpassed the original cost of the home.
Two more noteworthy extensions took place prior to Leighton’s passing in 1896.
The first was the Winter Room, an elevated space designed to support his creative endeavours during the colder months. The second was the Silk Room, a picture gallery lined with green silk that displayed his personal collection of paintings.
Following Leighton’s death, the building was transformed into a museum, undergoing several alterations over the course of the 20th century. Among these changes were the construction of the Perrin Wing and an infill extension beneath the Winter Studio to provide facilities for a children’s library.
These modifications served to alter the building’s original identity as a home and personal studio, turning it into a venue for a more generalised museum and events space.
In the process, many of the interior fittings and finishes were lost. BDP’s Artis asserts that the 20th-century additions, which were carried out by the municipal Borough Works Department, were of “lower quality and value, and obscured the reading and understanding of the original house.”
Responding to this, the ‘Closer to Home’ project, initiated in 2008, began the process of restoring the interiors.
It focused on redecorating the spaces back to how they were based on historic photographs while returning items from Leighton’s original collection back into the house.
Building on this work (by Purcell Miller Triton, undertaken in 2010), BDP’s phase in this historic journey looks at restoring further aspects of the home.
The refurbishment project focuses on the reconfiguration of the building’s facilities to appear as how Leighton and Aitchison originally envisioned while establishing a museum that meets the needs of new audiences without affecting the integrity of the original designs.
Selective restoration projects of this nature are well within BDP’s capabilities, as evidenced by their portfolio of heritage sites, museums, and visitor destinations.
Several of these projects have garnered awards, such as the Europa Nostra Medal for their work at Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent, as well as the Europa Nostra Diploma for The Royal Albert Hall refurbishment.
In the context of such a sensitive refurbishment, the architects from BDP collaborated with several key stakeholders such as Friends of Leighton House, the National Heritage Lottery Fund and the local community, to craft a comprehensive brief.
Firstly, the general aim was to recover the lost fabric and character of the original house, and thereby help make it more legible for visitors. As a way of reducing the burden placed on the building, an important goal was to relocate the core museum spaces to less ‘sensitive’ areas away from the house, as well as to better connect it to the 1920s addition of the Perrin Wing.
Part of the project was to enhance the visitor experience by providing facilities for education and care of the collections, while accommodating the needs of all visitors by creating accessibility for all.
Furthermore, the proposal aimed to improve the environmental performance of the house through fabric upgrades and re-servicing.
The support and input from the stakeholders have enabled BDP to “choreograph a finely-judged set of interventions and upgrade measures that reinforce the character of the place,” says Artis. The project is the final part of the museum’s development, and allows it to “realise its potential as a vital cultural amenity for the local residents and wider public,” says the architect.
In with the old
An important element of BDP’s methodology focuses on ensuring visitors can distinguish between the original designs and the later additions. Demonstrating this principle, a new entrance and reception area has been added to the Perrin Wing with new physical connections to the original house and garden – “enabling the Perrin Wing to be understood as a later element,” explains Artis.
Glazed links connect the Perrin Wing to the original house at both ground level for visitor access, and at the second floor, where a new office deck was integrated within the volume of the upper gallery space for staff use. The glazing used here was to “divorce the various elements in a relatively neutral way.”
The architects’ focus was to ensure a harmonious integration of the distinct qualities of both the old and new designs, while “preserving their individual character and identity.”
The masonry infill underneath the Winter Studio, undertaken as part of the 1950s interventions, had encased the iron columns in brick, meaning it couldn’t be ‘read’ as an elevated element, say BDP.
They successfully addressed this issue by removing the masonry, revealing and restoring the columns and plinths to their former glory. Artis explains how while this was “technically not too challenging,” the necessary restoration of the original brickwork was “extensive.”
Basement & rotunda
Given the delicate nature of the setting, the original basement has been extended to accommodate new visitor amenities, display and ‘interpretation space,’ and an archive store, as well as a gallery dedicated to showcasing Leighton’s previously unseen collection of drawings.
This subterranean extension was the “preferred way to deliver the majority of the additional brief area with minimal external impact,” say the architects.
At the eastern end of the basement, a new rotunda is a focal point containing a stair and lift, its location being the “most logical in terms of circulation and wayfinding.”
It creates a circuit of movement that encourages the use of the basement as an accessible education and learning area.
To pay homage to the elements of the original design, the rotunda features a brick ‘jacket’ that references the details in Arab Hall using a series of 15 bespoke bricks, plus bespoke radial bricks. The rotunda’s form is a “reflection of the apse that terminates the west end of the building,”
say the architects, while its colour and banding detailing provides a “tonal bridge” between the Perrin Wing and the original house’s brickwork.
The interior of the helical staircase features a hand-painted mural by artist Shahrzad Ghaffari titled ‘Oneness’, which in many ways is a “synthesis of what the museum represents today.” Despite BDP conceiving the design before the artwork was commissioned, this combination of art and architecture has “elevated the experience” for visitors travelling between floors.
The rotunda balances the composition of the garden elevation and has become a “centrepiece and icon” for the project, says Artis.
With certain elements of the new additions impacting on the visual and physical connections to the outside, the project involved reconfiguring the external landscape. Central to this was the enhancement of the visitor’s journey from how they travel from the street through to the forecourt, before arriving at the new entrance. This new entrance boasts a glazed door surrounded by faience tiles and stone, “a nod to the teal and gold interiors.” The entrance’s transparency offers a view all the way through the building to the garden.
The architects worked with traditional craftsmen as well as more modern methods to create contemporary forms which also referenced the past, using new as well as old approaches. The external faience panels were produced by UK firm Darwen Terracotta using a combination of digital drawing, hand carving and CNC machining to form the zig zag profile (inspired by ziggurats on the original house). By contrast, Cantifix developed frameless glazing, including large format, curved and integral doorsets.
Before the Perrin Wing was built in the 1920s, the garden had a stronger presence from the street. Part of BDP’s goal was to restore this connection as much as possible.
To achieve this, four new openings in the ground floor reception area have been introduced, allowing the garden to be “part of the welcome and orientation” of the museum, along with other “key curatorial themes” of the museum. The reception space serves as a place for visitors to relax and familiarise themselves before entering the house.
Situated adjacent to the reception area beneath the Winter Studio, the De Morgan Cafe now occupies a space that was formerly outdoors. To maintain the feeling of openness, BDP has enclosed the area with full height frameless glazing, all while incorporating Yorkstone flooring into the design.
Several significant challenges were encountered during the project, particularly concerning the construction of the basement. This was because it involved temporary support of the historic Winter Studio while work took place beneath it. Additionally, the adjacent basement structures required new connections to be established, adding further complexity to the process.
Upon completion of the basement, attention turned to re-levelling the Winter Studio balcony, which had experienced corrosion and expansion of shimming. This deterioration had a detrimental impact on the adjoining masonry, which in turn supported the perimeter glazing. To address this issue, the entire structure was de-glazed, and the architects were able to retain and restore the original patent-glazed roof framing before it was re-glazed with better performing units. The new glazing was sized such that its total weight did not exceed the capacity of the original framing.
The comprehensive environmental upgrade to the museum was driven by a holistic strategy developed through sustainability workshops. The project has focused on optimising the benefits of reconstructed and new construction elements, as well as plant and services, to enhance the building’s overall energy performance while respecting the sensitivity of the listed fabric, alongside the scope of the project.
BDP has used “simple and robust solutions” to meet the energy and carbon saving requirements of Part L2A for the extensions and Part L2B of the existing building. The strategies used have been designed to anticipate potential future improvements to the historic house.
Some of these measurements include “reconfiguring and enhancing the building fabric to minimise leakage into environmentally controlled and sensitive spaces.” This included providing shelter and enclosure to parts of the envelope of the original house to reduce heat losses, as well as to the new rotunda and basement, and glazed links. Thermal elements were replaced, including the installation of improved insulation in the Perrin roof. The original lantern lights have been utilised for natural ventilation and daylighting.
All HVAC services have been replaced with more energy-efficient equivalents. This included the installation of air source heat pumps, variable speed ventilation units with heat recovery, and lower specific fan power. Water-saving fittings have been used throughout the museum, and drought-resistant, native plants incorporated into the soft landscaping. Hard landscaping included semi-permeable areas and stormwater detention via soakaway systems.
On top of this, the project has utilised durable, self-finished materials that were both ‘natural,’ and UK sourced where possible, to further reduce the environmental impact of the project.
Since the project’s completion at the end of 2022, the museum has already met its target annual visitor numbers in six months, which “exceeded client expectations.”
The restoration of Leighton House Museum has revitalised an important historic building for the future. The interventions celebrate the Victorian architecture while adding and integrating carefully designed museum spaces into a domestic original structure. BDP’s approach has revived Leighton’s vision of the house as a piece of art, while also rectifying flawed 20th century interventions. The result allows visitors to fully appreciate the building’s opulent interiors and historic artefacts in a more authentic way.
Artis says the collaboration between key stakeholders was fundamental to the project’s success. As part of this, the community-focused, tri-partite funding arrangement as well as the integration of the parties’ various requirements “galvanised” the project, and propelled it beyond the design stage “with scope and budget aligned.”
And in general, the architectural legacy of the refurbishment is that it has given the original house room to breathe, meaning it is easier to understand.”