A visit to the Victorian Obsession exhibition at Leighton House feels like the perfect Easter weekend activity. Personifications of spring and pastoral scenes abound, decorated with a profusion of botanically perfect blooms. It’s a pretty sort of show, gentle and soothing. The set up here is oddly relaxing – the pictures are placed in the house’s rooms as though part of the fabric and there’s not a panel in sight. Instead you are equipped with an exhibition guide which provides the essential information about each picture without befuddling; a pine cone has been imaginatively placed on the antique chairs to stop people sitting on them, instead of angry signs reminding you that YOU ARE IN A MUSEUM!!! Paintings based on literary works, as so many were, are supplemented with excerpts of poetry to give a rounder picture of their creation.
The exhibition itself is the private collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, and there are some real treasures to be found amongst sentimental paintings of women by the sea. An 1892 Simeon Solomon chalk sketch of the head of Hypnos, the father of dreams, is not only sleepily ethereal, but also heady and heavy with the intoxication of drowsiness, suggestive of opium in the poppies entwined in the hair of Hypnos. It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Solomon was destitute and falling into alcoholism when he produced this. I was so enchanted by this that the Burne-Jones sketch juxtaposed on the other side of the fireplace appears at rather a disadvantage. A pastel sketch of one of Rossetti’s famous female busts is on display in the drawing room. This is a meditation on the power of female beauty thinly veiled in a mythological guise, and based upon an oil painting of the same subject, Venus Verticordia. Seeing it in the flesh it has an indescribable softness and insubstantiality which makes the highlighted hair look like liquid silk.
The most intriguing painting was The Enchanted Sea by Arthur Payne. A scene dominated by foreboding reds and oranges, a lady sits with a falcon in a boat fashioned from a cockle shell, floating through water populated with floating, sleeping heads. It’s sinister and exotic all at once, and was based upon a fantastical tale called, rather unfortunately, The Shaving of Shagpot. Inspired by a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a painting by Talbot Hughes was one of the exhibition’s unexpected jewels: roughly a foot in height, The Path of True Love Never Did Run Smooth sat unassumingly in an alcove in the dining room, shimmering through the dimness: the finely delicate gold tracery on her Tudor dress appears to have come alive to ensnare her on a nearby rose bush, and she pauses to remember her lost love. An 1869 Andromeda by Poynter shows the clear influence of the Renaissance master Titian, modernised by a brilliant turquoise cape dramatically haloing her nude form.
The exhibition ends with a crowning glory: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heliogabalus. This is his most famous work, and rightly so. Thousands of rose petals and other flowers have been painted with gorgeous accuracy, in such profusion that you can almost smell their dusky scent. (In fact, the exhibitors have collaborated with Jo Malone and her Red Roses scent permeates the room, drawing you deeper into the painting). The narrative is taken from the anonymously-penned Historia Augusta, which told of the 3rd-century Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, a depraved and probably insane young man who once entertained himself at a banquet by dropping thousands of violets on his guests, many of whom suffocated and died from their weight. Alma-Tadema’s luxurious treatment of the subject is utterly seductive, and it sold at the Royal Academy for £6000, at that time the largest sum for a painting ever paid. Critics, however, were divided. Whilst clearly brilliant, they worried that the painter was only interested in materials and surfaces, rather than the tragic human drama unfolding under the petals.
I’m inclined to agree that the painting’s artistic importance lies more in its decorative value and realisation of surfaces than any psychological interplay. Interestingly, the study (hung adjacent) conveys more of the panic and chaos of impending massacre with bodies flailing under the pink weight; in the finished painting, the guests look more as though they are frolicking in a ball pit than dying – with the exception of the lady in the bottom-right corner who looks slightly perplexed, and the man above her glaring at Heliogabalus. You may argue, like the contemporary critics of the exhibition’s star attraction, Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heliogabalus, that this exhibition is all surface materialism, with no greater intellectual or psychological depth. But really, who cares? What’s wrong with a bit of mindless Aestheticism from time to time? I could make an academic case for the Aesthetic movement if I had the time or inclination, but really, that’s not the point of this art. It’s imagery which transports us to foreign times and places. The serene beauty of these paintings take us out of a grey day in London and bears us along a whirl of petals into a purely sensory experience, where we are free to simply enjoy the act of seeing, without having to say something clever about it.
A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum finishes on Easter Monday.
Copyright Disclaimer: I do not own the images reproduced in this article.