The Koran in Leighton's House

Above the doorway to the Arab Hall is a tile panel with a passage from the Koran. Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), a Victorian explorer and a good friend of Leighton’s, allegedly brought back these tiles from Sind, Pakistan (then India). The panel consists of forty-eight tiles with white calligraphy on a blue background.  The passage is taken from Surah 54, Verse 1-6, of the Koran and is translated as:

In the name of the merciful and long-suffering God,
The Merciful hath taught the Koran
He has created man and taught him speech.
(He has set) the sun and the moon in a certain course,
Both the moon and the stars are in subjection (unto him).[1]

caligraphy.jpg

View of Koranic Tile Panel in Leighton House, Photo © Will Pryce

mw00960.jpg

Sir Richard Francis Burton,  Frederic Leighton, oil on canvas, 1872-1875

Richard Burton’s extensive experiences outside Europe began in India. He first arrived in 1842 as a part of the Bombay army. Two years later, he was stationed in Sind, where he would spend most of his time in South Asia. Burton left India in 1849 and went on to travel throughout the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. His ability to quickly absorb languages and cultures proved invaluable in his prolific career as a writer, scholar, and explorer. Burton would adopt alter egos during his travels and convincingly pose as a local to gain access to places Europeans were not permitted. In 1853, he became one of the first Europeans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and in 1855 he became the first European to enter the city of Harar, Somalia.[2]

The Koranic calligraphy panel was not the only contribution Sir Richard Burton made to Leighton’s Arab Hall. The two men were well acquainted by the mid-1860s and spent time with each other in Vichy, France. In March 1871, while Burton was consul in Damascus, he wrote to Leighton describing his attempts to find good quality tiles to decorate the Arab Hall.[3] Only few months after this letter was written, Burton was forced to leave Damascus, having made several enemies, including some Jewish moneylenders, and lost the favor of the Turkish authorities.[4]

Upon his return to England, Burton sat for a portrait by Leighton. The painting was neither commissioned nor done for presentation, but was a friendly encounter between Burton and Leighton. Leighton did not typically paint portraits and those he did were of people he knew personally. Burton’s wife, Isabel (1831-1896), recalls this fondly in her 1893 biography of Richard Burton, and describes him joking with Leighton to “not make [him] too ugly.” The portrait was unfinished in June 1872, when Burton left England to explore Iceland.[5] After this, Burton became British consul to Trieste, Italy. While in Trieste in 1874, Burton wrote to Leighton to inform him of preparations to send a group of tiles to England for the Arab Hall. This tile group is likely the Koranic verse placed above the doorway. According to Burton, they are from the Tomb of “Sakhar” on the Indus.[6]

Several other Islamic elements are incorporated into the Arab Hall. Along with the long Koranic panel from Burton, there is a short passage from the Koran on the north wall. The floor of the hall was covered with four Muslim prayer rugs where an open Koran on a stand was once placed.[7] To the right of the entrance is an inscription with the name of God and the Prophet Muhammed. In Islamic art, it is uncommon to find explicitly religious and mundane images in the same space. Some of the tiles in the Arab Hall clearly come from mosques and have been mixed freely with non-religious tiles. 


[1] The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, “Calligraphy Tile Panel, Date Unknown,” https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/lhleightonhouse/housetour/arabhalltour8.asp (Accessed November 24th 2016).

[2] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Burton, Sir Richard Francis” by Jason Thompson,  http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4136 (accessed November 24 2016,).

[3] Frederic Leighton and Mrs. Russel Barrington, The life, letters and work of Frederic Leighton, 2 vols.(New York: The MacMillan Company, 1906), 2:218

[4] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Burton, Sir Richard Francis.”

[5] National Portrait Gallery, London, “Sir Richard Francis Burton, extended catalogue entry,” http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitExtended/mw00960/Sir-Richard-Francis-Burton (accessed November 24 2016).

[6] Leighton and Barrington, The life, letters and work of Frederic Leighton, 2:220.

[7] Laura B. Starr, “Sir Frederick Leighton’s Arab Hall,” The Decorator and Furnisher vol. 27, no 6, 171-72.

The Arab Hall
The Koran in Leighton's House