The Arab Hall


Leighton's Arab Hall, © Will Pryce


Architectural Sketch of Arab Hall, George Aitchison, 1880, watercolor and gold paint, British Architectural Library, Drawings Collection. 

In 1857, Frederic Leighton wrote to his mother from Algiers, Algeria, “One of my greatest desires was to see if possible a Moorish interieur.” He goes on to describe walls covered in “fillets of colored porcelain tiles,” a “handsomely cushioned and carpeted divan,” and “florid, gilt looking-glasses.”[1] At the time, he was twenty-seven years old and on his first trip to the Islamic world. Already, Leighton’s fascination with Islamic art and design is clear. He would make four more trips in North Africa and the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Turkey, and Syria. During his travels, he began to accumulate a massive collection of Islamic art, which at the time of his death amounted to more than thousand tiles, over eighty vases and bowls, and fifty rugs. Leighton collected many of these objects himself, mostly during his time in Damascus. However, he also persuaded his friends the explorer Richard Burton (1821-1890) and the missionary Rev. Dr. William Wright (1810-1870) to acquire objects on his behalf and sent very specific instructions of what he wanted.[2]

Leighton’s early desire to see a Moorish interior foreshadows the creation of the Arab Hall, his own Islamic interior, built twenty years later. The Arab Hall was designed by George Aitchison (1825-1910), an architect who was Leighton’s longtime partner in the execution of his studio home. The son of an architect, Aitchison studied first at the Royal Academy and then at University College London. He met Leighton in Rome in 1853. While in Rome, Leighton connected Aitchison with William Burges (1827-1881), a fellow architect with a strong interest in Moorish design, who would later design the Arab Room at Cardiff Castle. On his return to London, Aitchison joined his father working as architect for the St. Katherine’s Dock Company. While he did well, eventually succeeding his father as the company's chief architect, the position did not allow him to fulfill his creative potential, but in 1864, he received the commission for Leighton’s house. After this, Aitchison’s work was characterized by decorative interiors, which harmoniously wove together a variety of elements, such as mosaic, painting, sculpture, and marble.[3]

Aitchison’s ability to create a cohesive aesthetic interior from independent parts is exemplified in the Arab Hall. The Arab Hall is a small, double height reception hall on the first floor of the house. It features a gold domed ceiling, tiled walls and a black marble fountain designed by Aitchison. On the walls left and right of the entrance are niches with cushioned divans and lattice windows. Across the entrance is a display cabinet holding some of Leighton’s collection of Middle Eastern pottery. The hall contains decorative and architectural elements from Damascus, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, as well as decorations commissioned from contemporary Victorian artists like Walter Crane (1845-1915), Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890), and William De Morgan (1819-1917). The layout was inspired by La Zisa, a twelfth-century palace in Palermo, Sicily. La Zisa is built in the Islamic tradition, and is a condensed version of the complete form illustrated in the Alhambra. La Zisa contains muqarnas (a squinche made up of many smaller squinces creating a honeycomb effect)vaulted niches, a decorated pool, and a mosaic frieze. The Arab Hall adapts these features to a domestic setting, making the pool smaller and simpler, and replacing the murquanas with four simple squinches.[4] While Leighton and Aitchison consciously drew from La Zisa, the resemblance is not overwhelming. Unlike the Arab Hall, La Zisa is untiled and once had a painted interior. Other than the layout, Leighton consciously drew on the mosaic at La Zisa when commissioning the mosaic for the Arab Hall. The room also has aspects of Cairo-style homes, probably observed in Orientalist paintings by artists like John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) and Frank Dillon (1823-1909).[5]

[1] Frederic Leighton and Mrs. Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1906), p. 301.

[2] The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, “Leighton and Collecting Art,” (accessed November 16, 2016).

[3] Robin Simon, ed., Lord Leighton 1830-1896 and Leighton House: A century celebration (London: Apollo Magazine, 1996), 11.

[4] Ibid., p. 13.

[5] Charlotte Gere, Artistic Circles: Design and Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement (London: V&A Publishing, 2010), p. 148.

The Arab Hall