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A Victorian Obsession: Daniel Robbins, Senior Curator at Leighton House Museum

6 November 2014 | Jessica Johnston

“The experience will be like entering a jewel box and once inside, visitors can see all these treasures sparkling away.”

Lord Leighton’s muse, the beautiful Dorothy Dene, is returning to a London house she knew well, in an exquisite collection of Victorian art being lent by billionaire businessman and art collector Juan AntonioPérez Simón. The exhibition at Leighton House Museum will showcase fifty exceptional paintings by many of the most celebrated artists of the period, including Lord Leighton himself. London Calling had a chat with Daniel Robbins, Senior Curator at Leighton House Museum, ahead of the exhibition’s opening to find out about the history behind these masterpieces.

London Calling: Can you tell us about this spectacular collection and how the exhibition came about?

Daniel Robbins: The collection belongs to Juan Antonio Pérez Simón who is a Mexican businessman and art collector. His entire collection consists of over three thousand paintings, part of which is made up of Victorian and Edwardian pictures featuring the work of Pre-Raphaelites and various other Victorian painters. Pérez Simóndecided to tour this part of his collection around Europe, showcasing fifty paintings that have already made their way to Paris, Rome, and Madrid and now they are here at Leighton House. These fifty paintings amount to the largest collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside of the UK.

LC: When were these paintings last seen in the UK?

DR: Well a number of the paintings have seldom, if ever, been exhibited publicly. Certainly this combination of pictures has never been seen together before and it is quite possible that they will never be seen again as a collection in the UK.

LC: Why is this exhibition so important for the museum?

DR: What’s so special about the exhibition in relation to Leighton House is that the collection includes six pictures by Frederic Leighton himself who built the house and lived here. So these pictures are in fact coming back to the house in which he painted them. Also so many of the other artists represented in the collection were friends of Leighton, they knew this house and Leighton had pictures by them in his own collection. So there is a sort of home coming aspect to this exhibition that is rather special.

LC: Does the Pérez Simón Collection reflect any particular theme?

DR: I think it would be fair to say, the thread that runs through the collection is feminine beauty and the representation of women. This was a very prominent theme for Victorian artists, who drew inspiration from various different contexts and sources, whether that was using the classical antiquity or the might of King Arthur and his court.

LC: What can visitors learn from these paintings?

DR: The paintings reveal the diversity of inspirations these artists drew from. Many artists were inspired by contemporary literature and poetry being written at that time and a number of paintings featured in the collection have links to literature and poetry. Other inspiration came in the form of history, with some artists travelling to archaeological sites in the Middle East and Egypt to try and paint images set in the past but in a way that was accurate and archeologically correct.

LC: Two of Leighton’s paintings in the collection feature Dorothy Dene, who was she?

DR: We know that Leighton was introduced to her in 1879 and from that point onwards, until his death in 1896, she modelled for pretty much all of his most significant pictures. She was certainly his most important model but we also know that Leighton did what he could to support her in her ambition to be an actress. She did in fact establish a successful career as an actress and became, in today’s terms, a celebrity. It would be true to say that there was a lot of speculation at the time about the nature of Leighton’s relationship with Dene, but of course its hard to know what was true and what was newspaper gossip.

What’s certainly unique about Dorothy is that Leighton’s paintings of her were amongst the most sensual images he ever painted. Another intriguing aspect was that she was not only posing nude for Leighton’s paintings, she was also accompanying him to exhibitions and parties at places like the Royal Academy where Leighton was president. She was able to see these nude images of herself on the wall and in doing so, she crossed that divide between model and society figure, something that had not been done before.

LC: The exhibition features The Roses of Heliogabalus, which has been described as one of the greatest paintings of the Victorian era.  Can you tell us about this artwork?

DR: It’s a very large picture that was exhibited by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1888. When you first see the painting it appears to be an extraordinary decorative picture, depicting lots of pink rose petals fluttering to the ground as part of some sort of festival or celebration. It is only when you understand the subject matter that you realise the picture is actually showing a roman emperor from the third century who, for his own entertainment, has killed his guests at a banquet, and they are in fact being smothered by this torrent of rose petals falling on them. Alma-Tadema was fantastic at painting different surfaces and textures, and this painting is a real tour de force in showcasing his technical ability.

LC: Most temporary exhibitions take place across a few rooms, but in this case the entire museum is being transformed... What can visitors expect?

DR: So virtually all of the paintings that are normally on display in the house, are being taken down, with the exception of Leighton’s studio, and the Pérez SimónCollectionwill be hung throughout the house. Leighton House has got these extraordinary interiors, from the gilded ceilings to the beautiful mosaics, and when the rooms are dimly lit, it creates an evocative atmosphere, so for this exhibition we will be closing out the daylight and giving each picture its own lighting. The experience will be like entering a jewel box and once inside, visitors can see all these treasures sparkling away.

LC: Finally, why should visitors come to see A Victorian Obsession at Leighton House Museum?

DR: People may think they know about Pre-Raphaelite artists and Victorian artists from previous exhibitions at the Tate and elsewhere, but there has never been an exhibition where this artwork has been shown in such a special and sympathetic environment. Leighton House is so in tune with the pictures as it is an environment that the artists themselves had a personal connection to. It’s a unique setting and a special moment for the public to see these works on display, some of which are returning home to the very place they were painted.

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection will be on display at Leighton House from 14th November – 29th March 2015. Tickets cost £10, available here.

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