By Charlotte Villiers
Signing himself off ‘Your affectionate son, Fred’, Leighton wrote to his father in 1873 describing his journey to Damascus.
Three tedious days on board a Russian boat which tossed and rolled like a cork over a sea on which a P and O would have been motionless, brought me to Beyrout; a cheery, picturesque, sunny port at the foot of Lebanon; gay and glad I was to land, and Andrea’s cool, clean inn overlooking the sea was a delightful haven of rest, and my first meal at a steady table (or a real chair) was ambrosial. Being in a hurry to get to the end of my journey, I did not stay more than half a day, but started by diligence for Damascus, a journey of some thirteen hours, first over Lebanon itself (which is fine, but by no means grand as I had hoped), then across the Valley of Coelesyria, and lastly over Antilebanon), at the foot of which the town lies.
At the last relay I found waiting for me a horse and dragoman, for which and whom I had telegraphed in order that I might get the famous view of Damascus about which travellers have told wonders from time immemorial, and which is only to be seen from a bridle path over the hill above the suburb of Sala’aijeh; unfortunately the days are getting short, and I did not reach the proper spot till just after sunset; not too late, however, to enjoy the marvellous prospect before me, and to feel that it is worthy of all that has been said in its praise. It is impossible to conceive anything more startling than the suddenness with which, emerging from a narrow and absolutely barren cleft in the rock, you see spread before your eyes and at your feet a dense mass of exuberant trees spreading for miles on to the plain which looks towards Palmyra, and, rising white in the midst of it, the Damascus of the thousand and one nights. It is a great and rare thing for an old traveller not to be disappointed, and I am grateful that it has been so with me this time.
He goes on to tell his father about ‘the old houses of which some few are standing, though grey and perishing, and which are still lovely to enchantment. I can’t hope to convey to you in writing any idea of this loveliness, and it is not within the scope of sketching (though I am doing one or two little corners), but I am having three or four photographs made (for there are none!) from which you will be able to gather something of their charm. They cannot, however, give you the splendour of the light, and the fanciful delicacy of the colour in the open courts, or the intense and fantastic gorgeousness of the interior. Indeed I shall probably not attempt the latter, and though you will see lemon and myrtle trees rising tall and slim out of the marble floors and bending over tanks of running water, you will miss the vivid sparkling of the leaves, and you will not hear the unceasing song of the bubbling fountains.’
The unceasing song of the bubbling fountain, the splendour of the light and the fantastic gorgeousness of the interior certainly bring to mind the Narcissus Hall and the Arab Hall which Leighton went on to create as part of his extension (1877-81), with their shimmering play of light and colour at different times of the day.
Our aim here at Leighton House with our learning activities is to provide creative and inspiring opportunities for people to learn more about Leighton, his life and work, and the house that he built.
His fascination with Syria and its culture, and his creative response to it are powerful strands of investigation, from the numerous studies in oil and pencil sketches he executed, to the large number of tiles from Damascus displayed in the Arab Hall. Our partnership with the Hands Up Foundation this year, with the initiative Cinema for Syria, has enabled us to explore this historic relationship and to reflect on contemporary Syria. The initiative has opened doors for us to work directly with Syrian creatives, particularly artists and directors, to remind us all of Syria’s rich culture, whilst raising money to support Syrians in need through this impressive charity. All proceeds from ticket sales go direct to Hands Up, to enable medical and educational projects in and around Syria.
The programme of six screenings was curated by director Soudade Kaadan, whose recent short film ‘Aziza’ won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2019. She describes the sequence of films as an ‘enchanted journey’ which showcases ‘the talents of Syrian filmmakers despite the challenges they face in a country shattered by a violent conflict’. Each screening is preceded by a brief keynote introduction by a guest speaker directly connected to the film, coordinated by Amira Kaadan, our indefatigable link at Hands Up.
Please do join us for a screening – the studio makes for a unique environment for film, and an ideal space in which to come together and reflect, in the shadow of ‘A Street in Damascus’ and ‘Damascus, Moonlight’ hung on its walls.