BDP restores London’s Leighton House museum

BDP’s skillful redesign of Leighton House has breathed new life into one of London’s forgotten museums, the former home of artist Frederic Leighton.

Rear elevation showing new brick staircase, glassed-in cafe and renovated winter studio (ph: Jaron James)

BDP has completed the restoration and refurbishment of the Grade II* listed Leighton House Museum in London. The £8million project includes a new entrance, gallery, learning center and cafe, as well as significantly improved accessibility in the form of a spiral staircase and lift.

Designed by George Aitchison and located on the edge of Holland Park in Kensington, the original building dates back to 1866 and was home to painter Frederic Leighton. The artist, in collaboration with Aitchison, extended the building over a period of 30 years, including the two-storey Arab Room and the Winter Workshop on the first floor. After Leighton’s death, the house became a museum and received other modifications, including the Perrin wing, added in the 1920s, and a large substandard post-war infill extension below the winter studio.

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View from the reception towards the café and the garden (ph: Dirk Lindner)

BDP has taken a restrained approach aimed at re-establishing the original intent of the house and museum. “It was a question of removing and judging what should be added, particularly with regard to the layout of the building’s garden, which is surrounded by artists’ houses from the same period”, explains David Artis, director by architect BDP. “It’s about making subtle interventions that don’t detract from the overall legibility of the building.”

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The cafe is located below the Winter Studio, replacing a substandard infill extension from the 1950s (ph: Dirk Lindner)

At the center of the project is a new basement of 180 square meters located below the entrance and which houses the museum archives, a gallery and toilets. It also connects to the building’s existing basement, which now includes a learning center; unlock the blueprint and allow the rooms in the house above to return to their original function. “This key move allows the whole house to breathe,” says Artis.

Plan of the ground floor and the basement

Unlike its former home under the Winter Studio, the new archive provides a safe, climate-controlled environment for the museum’s treasures. The basement lobby, which contains additional exhibit space and restroom access, is lined with wood, providing a warm and tactile aesthetic.

An elevator and a steel spiral staircase connect the basement to the renovated entrance on the ground floor and the winter studio on the first floor. The latter is housed in a carefully detailed brick enclosure which complements a large semi-circular brick bay on the opposite side of the house and neatly completes the dominant east-west axis across the plan. A dark brown brick was chosen for this new addition, subtly differentiating it from the historic red brick facades of the house, while complementing the newer Perrin wing.

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New basement showing Holland Park Circle storefront (ph: Dirk Lindner)

“The staircase is a recessive piece, which is visually separated from the winter workshop and allows the original rear elevation to be clearly read,” explains Artis. “The details are inspired by the Arabic room and aim to add visual richness without being too explicit.” Hand-painted on the interior walls of the staircase, an 11-meter-tall mural by Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari is the museum’s first contemporary artwork to be on permanent display.

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The basement gallery features Leighton’s drawings and sketches (ph: Dirk Lindner)

The remodeled entrance and reception area restored the building’s existing entrance hall, complete with works of art: a large painting from Domenico Tintoretto’s studio, which was part of the original collection of Leighton. A separate private entrance used by the artist’s models was also revealed.

The new entry space and adjacent cafe are articulated by a suite of specially hand-commissioned furniture by Syrian artisans based in Amman, Jordan. In the cafe, cast iron columns supporting the winter workshop above have been revealed – having been encased in brick in the 1950s – and painted a rich green. Floor-to-ceiling glazing connects this space to the garden and surrounding homes.

The curved staircase wall is lined with ‘Oneness’, an 11-metre-high artwork by Shahrzad Ghaffari (ph: Dirk Lindner)

On the first floor, the winter studio has been carefully restored with the existing Georgian wired glass replaced with ultra-thin insulating glazing placed in the original frames. Double glazing could not be used as the elements would have been too heavy for the existing ironwork.

The Perrin Wing features a new upper level personnel ‘bridge’ and has had an initial fabric thermal upgrade, including a new roof and insulation. Regarding environmental control, the architect audited the entire collection of the museum before putting in place a strategy that would ensure the future preservation of the building and its precious contents.

Exterior view of the staircase (ph: Dirk Lindner)

Outside, richly colored oversized earthenware tiles mark the new entrance – a nod to the fine ceramics on display in the Arab Room and the work of Halsey Ricardo, architect of the Perrin Wing. “The earthenware is designed to give more prominence to the new entrance, while remaining slightly ambiguous as to whether it is modern or ancient,” says Artis. “The architecture is ‘by Leighton’ without being overtly modern, which in many ways sums up our approach to the whole project.”

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