I was lucky enough to receive an impromptu invitation to a private view of the Pérez Símon exhibition, ‘A Victorian Obsession’, at Leighton House in Kensington this week. I’d been planning to go to the exhibition anyway (and will probably go again) as I adore Leighton House and I’m currently steeping myself in all things Victorian.
The show consists of 50 Victorian paintings from Mexican collector Juan Antonio Perez- Simon’s enormous cache of art, which represent the largest collection of Victorian art after Andrew Lloyd Webber’s. What’s so special about the display is that virtually every painter shown would have at some point been a visitor to Leighton House. Lord Leighton was renowned for his entertaining of fellow artists as well as musicians and writers and the stunning house is designed for entertaining – no overnight guests – and as his studio. Represented in the exhibition are all the great Victorians – including Leighton himself, Burne Jones, Alma-Tadema, Millais, Waterhouse, Rosetti and Strudwick.
The climax of the exhibition is the enormous canvass The Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma-Tadema, exhibited in London for the first time since 1913. It depicts the Emperor Heliogabalus (who became Roman Emperor in AD 218 at the age of fourteen), entertaining his A List guests over dinner while they all observe the murder of his unfortunate B List guests. The method of execution is suffocation by flowers. Alma-Tadema, clearly conscious of Victorian sensibilities, has turned what must have been a grusesome death into a spectacular and colourful panorama. The doomed guests appear blissfully ignorant of their impending fate as the first tranche of pink roses descend upon them. The roses make a stunning tableau – and were obviously chosen by Alma-Tadema for their decorative impact rather than the more sombre violets that were actually the boy emperor’s weapon of choice. Roses also play to Victorian sentimentality as well as symbolising both beauty and death.
The paintings are in Leighton House until March 2015 – so do try and go. Unless Lord Lloyd Webber steps up, you’ll be unlikely to have another chance to see it with such magnificent paintings – all executed during the years that Lord Leighton lived in the house.