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London’s Arab Hall

“…The Arab Hall in this fine house, without being at all like the Al-hambra in detail, gives the grand impression which Eastern art awakes in many minds.”

Design for the elevation of a wall of the picture gallery, Leighton House, George Aitchison, 1895. SC124/4 © RIBA Library Drawings Collection

Design for the elevation of a wall of the picture gallery, Leighton House, George Aitchison, 1895. SC124/4 © RIBA Library Drawings Collection

An English vicar’s wife was so enchanted by the sight before her that she wrote: ” . . . and here springs up the lovely dome as of the Alhambra, made of the dust of the earth, but quickened by the rainbow . . . The Arab hall in this fine house, without being at all like the Alhambra in detail, gives the grand impression which Eastern art awakes in many minds.”
Leighton House
Section through Leighton House showing design for Arab Hall, Leighton House, George Aitchison, 1877. SC124/4 © RIBA Library Drawings Collection

Section through Leighton House showing design for Arab Hall

The lady – Mrs. Haweis, author of Beautiful Houses – went on to describe the hall: the wooden screens with their “delicate tracery,” the fine glazed tiles decorating the walls of the hall and “the fountain that patters and sings in its pool of chrysolite water – the most perfect colophon to all colors and the outer heat.” But she was not describing a room in Damascus, Cairo or Beirut. She was writing of a room in London, close to Hyde Park: Lord Leighton’s Arab Hall, a small room that was to have immense influence on the decorative arts of England.

Eastern motifs were by no means new to England when Mrs. Haweis was praising the Arab Hallin 1882. Earlier in the century the Prince Regent, later George IV, had ordered John Nash, the architect, to give his residence on the south coast – Brighton Pavilion – “an Eastern character.” This, described by Nash as “the Hindoo style of architecture,” had already crept into European and English architecture – in the guise of fantasies and follies which included bits and pieces from China, India, Japan and Muslim Spain, but most of it owing little to the Orient except the name.

Brighton Pavilion was an ambitious undertaking. It cost the then-staggering sum of £148,000 and was described by Nash as having “turban domes and lofty pinnacles” that might, “from their glittering and picturesque effect; attract and fix the attention of the Spectator” The Pavilion also stimulated wide interest in Eastern architecture; with the royal seal of approval Brighton Pavilion spawned numerous imitations – in the United States as well as Great Britain.

Circus mogul P. T. Barnum, for example, saw Brighton and imitated it in “Iranistan” his house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Other famous American homes influenced by Middle Eastern architecture were Mrs. Frances Trollope’s “Bazaar” in Cincinnati, a light-hearted mixture of Egyptian architectural motifs, both Pharaonic and Islamic; and “Nutt’s Folly” in Natchez, Mississippi. There were also fish-halls in Charleston, theaters and dubs in London and New York, pumphouses in Potsdam, smoking rooms in Hampshire, villas in Stuttgart, Turkish baths in Leeds and palace kiosks in Bavaria – all, in varying degrees of taste, featuring motifs and ornamentation from the Islamic world.

This interest in eastern architecture continued to grow through the 19th century as British interests in Egypt and the Sudan broadened, as British troops and travelers, en-route to India via Suez, caught glimpses of Alexandria and Port Said, and as the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace offered large and accurate models of Eastern architecture, including Islamic Spain’s Alhambra. By the second half of the 19th century, as a result, fashion decreed that important British homes include at least a Turkish corner within the house or studio and, frequently, an Arabian-cum-Indian style in billiard, smoking and club room decoration.

Behind this fashion was, unquestionably, the mysterious lure of the Orient. But there was also the fact that in the Great Britain of the early 1800’s, there was a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of design in British architecture. As one expert put it, “We have no principles, no unity. . . (all craftsmen) runs each his independent course; each struggles fruitlessly, – each produces in art novelty without beauty, or beauty without intelligence.”

In such circumstances it is scarcely surprising that after a tour of Damascus in 1873, Frederick Leighton – a painter, recognized in royal circles and in the artistic world – assigned an architect to design an Arab hall at his residence on Holland Park Road.

This decision was the culmination of a much earlier interest in Islamic art. In late 1867, for example, Leighton had written a letter to his anxious father to explain why he was spending considerable sums of money on Islamic pottery.

“I know that you, personally, care little for such things, and have small sympathy with purchases of that nature; you will, therefore, be glad to hear that though I spent a considerable sum, knowing that such a chance would never again be given to me, I could,any day, part with the whole lot for at least double – probably treble – what I gave.” He described these purchases as “old Persian faience mainly plates,” a term which then included all types of Islamic pottery: the famous wares of Iran as well as those of Turkey and Syria.

Parrots, falcons and flowers decorate this panel of tiles from Syria.

Parrots, falcons and flowers decorate this panel of tiles from Syria.

During this period, Leighton, on trips to the Middle East, would scour the local suqs for textiles and pottery, returning to his accommodations happily laden with his finds. He also recruited assistants for the search, such as the Reverend William Wright of the Irish Presbyterian Church in Damascus. “Our most ardent search. . . was for Persian faience,” Wright wrote later “I had discovered the site of the ancient pottery kilns at Damascus, where the inimitable Kashani wares had been baked. These consisted of tiles and plates and long-necked jars with blue ground and white flowers, and during the spare hours of a few weeks Leighton was able to lay the foundations of his fine collection”

In Damascus, Leighton also found some of the mashrabiyas (See Aramco World, July -August, 1971) later displayed in the hall, and managed to involve the famous Sir Richard Burton, then acting as British Consul in Damascus, and Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, a colleague, in his hunt for tiles. Apparently enthusiastic about the quest, Burton at one point sent a letter to Leighton promising to look out for tiles. He also warned Leighton that the value of tiles was now recognized by local traders and that supplies were drying up. Five years later, Burton did send some tiles from Pakistan, and Sir Caspar came through with others, two panels of which were used in the Arab Hall. When Leighton decided to build the hall, therefore, he already had numerous treasures scattered among the unfinished paintings in his Holland Park studio.

For the design of the hall, Leighton turned to architect George Aitchison, a friend who shared Leighton’s interest in the Middle East and who, as early as 1857 was lecturing on the importance of color in architecture and extolling the Alhambra complex in Granada as one of the finest examples. It was a perfect choice; Aitchison had also designed the original Holland Park house.

For an artist as successful as Leighton – he would later receive the Royal Institute of British Architects’ gold medal for his architectural paintings – the house on Holland Park Road was a very modest establishment until the artist decided that he had to “do something with these tiles” and began discussing it with Aitchison. Out of those discussions came an extension to the ground floor that Leighton, Aitchison and others transformed into London’s lovely Arab Hall.

The hall, to be precise, is not “Arab” or even Middle Eastern; it resembles, rather, the 12th century Sidlo-Islamic palace of La Zisa, Palermo (See page 22). Indeed, Walter Crane – the Victorian illustrator who devised the mosaic frieze for the hall – wrote later that he had never realized how similar the plan and proportions were until he himself saw the Palermo reception room.

Essentially the Leighton House hall is some 30 feet square, placed at the end of a wide passage leading from the entrance hall. Two shallow bays face each other across a small pool and fountain, so often found in Islamic domestic architecture. Opposite the hall passage is another alcove, or as Mrs. Haweis described it, ‘a fine alhacen of carved wood . . . with its four rare Persian enamels of women’s figures. . .”

These are four fine examples of early 17th century Kubachi under glaze painted tiles with male and female figures. Also set into the wooden frontage, there are two 13th to 14th century Kashan star-shaped tiles, decorated with luster and under glaze cobalt blue, both now heavily varnished.

Verses from Sura 55 of the Koran glow from the Syrian tile panel above the Arab hall's entrance.

Verses from Sura 55 of the Koran glow from the Syrian tile panel above the Arab hall's entrance.

The man responsibile for organizing the layout of the tile panels was the potter William de Morgan, whose enthusiasm for Islamic design motifs can dearly be seen in his work. Where there were damaged or missing tiles, de Morgan designed and produced substitutes to complete the separate schemes; they are identifiable from the original only by the different glaze quality and curvature of the drawn line.

The tile work also included the staircase panel in the main entrance hall and the deep turquoise blue tiles lining the passage walls leading to the Arab Hall. In an interview given by Lord Leighton to the Strand Magazine in 1892, it was reported that these blue tiles were among the first de Morgan ever produced. Whether this is true or not, it is apparent that the brilliant color was suggested by the bordering of some of the Syrian tiles themselves.

The cost of the tile work is not known, but his biographer. Mrs. Stirling, said that de Morgan lost some £500 in the Leighton House venture. On the other hand, there was the pleasure of working with some of the finest and rarest examples of late 16th and 17th century Syrian tiles.

Where the panels came from is uncertain; five major panels are definitely of Syrian origin, including a remarkable one above the wooden facade, depicting a fishing scene with fountains, cranes, crabs, fish and turtles moving among the water plants and flowers. And to the left of the hall when entering – on the left of the screened window – is another rare panel of Syrian workmanship, presumably from a private home; it shows two green parrots, traditionally held to be the birds of Paradise, perched on a fountain in which fish and crabs swim, while two birds of prey above and two lions below attack their prey against a floral background. A small figure of a huntsman attempting to ensnare rabbits completes the scene.

One of the most beautiful designs in these Syrian tiles can be seen on the other side of the south windowed wall. Just below the inscription there is a panel with an ogee arch form, with tulips, wild hyacinths and carnations painted on the white background of the spandrels. The graceful but formal arabesques intertwining over the blue ground within the arch curves are equal to any of the finest Turkish counterparts.

There are also some Turkish tiles in the Arab Hall and the entrance, but most date from the 17th century – not the finest period of Iznik production. The largest panel is set above the south window alcove. Otherwise they are found in polygonal arrangements on the side walls of the porches or in the centers of the staircase and hall panels.

Walter Crane's mosaic frieze across the hall's north alcove is similar to one in La Ziza, a Norman royal residence in Sicily.

Walter Crane's mosaic frieze across the hall's north alcove is similar to one in La Ziza, a Norman royal residence in Sicily.

Above the tiles, on three of the four sides, runs the mosaic frieze designed by Walter Crane on the basis of a photograph of La Zisa sent to him by Lord Leighton. Crane sent sketches of his plan for the frieze to Leighton and received an enthusiastic reply:

Dear Crane, – many thanks. Cleave to the Sphinx and the Eagle, they are delightful. I don’t like the Duck-women. By the bye, what do you say to making the circles in the returnsstarry heavens instead of another sun and moon?-In haste great, yours sincerely…”

His suggestions were accepted. The so-called “Duck-women” – the Sirens luring the Argonauts to their death – were replaced by mermaid figures and there is no repetition of the sun and moon in the alcoves. Peacocks, parrots and deer face each other amid swirling arabesque plant stems, but the heraldic confrontations are enlivened by the inclusion of mice, pelicans, squirrels and cats with twitching tails. Although the flat setting of the glass cubes impedes their reflective quality, Frederick Leighton was delighted with the result and, had money been available, would have “let loose” both Crane and Burne-Jones on a mosaic composition for the dome of the hall.

Syrian tiles and wooden screens in London's Arab Hall.

Syrian tiles and wooden screens in London's Arab Hall.

Since the money was not available he apparently settled for gilt or gold painting and today even that does not exist; the interior of the dome now is decorated with a painted design similar to 19th century embellishments of Turkish mosque domes. There is a row of screens piercing the cupola but only one, it seems, originated in Syria. Leighton had made a special trip there to buy five windows, once the plans for the Arab Hall had been agreed upon, and the Reverend Mr. Wright remembered some years later that they were obtained from a local mosque in the city. But four of the screens arrived in London irreparably damaged and a London firm reproduced them in plaster and colored glass.

The rest of the decoration in the hall was the work of Aitchison. The chandelier with bird-forms, wings outstretched, the black honeycomb molding with details picked out in gold – a favorite color device of his – above the squinches, the painted friezes in the zone of transition just below the dome-springing were meticulously worked according to his drawings. The forms of the columns and their alabaster or gilt capitals were executed to his plan, with modeling by two of the leading sculptors of the day. And although cost precluded the use of Italian marbles for the shafts and fountain basin, Aitchison was determined to show the richness of color inherent in marble; he therefore used marble from Cornwall, Belgium and elsewhere.

The floor itself is covered with a mosaic composition with borders of tight scrolls encircling bunches of grapes, restrained in design and in color according to one of Aitchison’s dictums: “In marble mosaic, black and white has always a dignified effect, if a proper proportion between them is adhered to.” Aitchison also used marble for the pool and fountain, originally white but quickly replaced – when found to leak – by the present octagonal pool of Belgian black marble.

But there were some practical problems with the pool; guests had the infuriating – and undignified – habit of falling into the shallow water when strolling about the hall during the weekly open house on Sunday afternoons, or attending the annual musical evening held in the spring

Still, the Arab Hall cast a spell on the visitor. In the journals of the day, and in the diaries and memoirs of Leighton’s acquaintances, the Arab Hall was described as conjuring up “the recollection of the fairest scenes and grandest palaces described in the Arabian Nights,” or as “quite the eighth wonder of the world … all lined with precious Persian tiles and mosaics … as good almost as a Ravenna church.”

It is extremely difficult, obviously, to assess the exact influence of the Arab Hall on other British interiors of the 19th century. But just as Brighton Pavilion gave royal assent to Eastern decoration, the Arab Hall – in the residence of the highly respected President of the Royal Academy of Arts – gave an artistic assent. And although the fashion was in decline by 1900 – as far as architecture and interior furnishings were concerned – the Islamic themes continued to be used on pottery and glass forms, on metalwork, on textiles and in dress fashion. Perhaps more importantly, the eastern theme also stimulated a wide interest in color in, for example, wallpaper. Designers, architects and critics grew louder and louder, calling for the rejection of “smudgy terracottas, crude greens, ghastly lemons and dull greys and browns that are so liberally provided by the usual paperhanger” and for the adoption of “real sealing-wax reds, deep oranges, dear yellows and beautiful blues,” as one critic put it.

George Aitchison, of course, had long been a champion of that cause, as he made clear in a lecture in 1895. He was, actually, describing his ideal of architectural decoration, but the image of London’s Arab Hall was surely in his mind:

“. . . the ground of the cornices will shine with eternal colors, the piers will be enriched with sparkling panels, and friezes of gold will run the length of our buildings; monuments will be of marble and enamel, and mosaics will make all admire color and movement. This will not be false and paltry luxury; it will be opulence, it will be sincerity.”


This article appeared on pages 8-16 of the November/December 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Some images provided here in this article are in addition to the original article which was published in the print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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About the Author
Patricia Lesley Baker is a graduate of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. A specialist in Islamic history, art and architecture, she lectures in British universities, did research for television programs on the arts of Islam and was a consultant for London's World of Islam Festival in 1976.
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