The summons arrives. I am to make my way to the splendid house in west London where the 19th-century artist Frederic Leighton lived. Jimmy Page will be there.
The Led Zeppelin guitarist had so enjoyed being asked about his fascination for Victorian art and design on a previous encounter that he’d suggested we might meet to discuss the subject further. I assumed that nothing would come of it. Oh ye of little faith! Leighton House, the venue for our meeting, is a red-brick palazzo in Kensington. Built for the immensely wealthy Leighton as a home and studio in the 1860s — he called it a “private palace of art” — it is now a museum.
A stuffed peacock greets visitors in the turquoise-tiled hallway, the avian equivalent of Page in his strutting, preening prime. Through a pair of Doric columns a passage leads to a spectacular gold-domed room with Syrian tiles, an Arabic inscription from the Quran and a Moorish fountain in the centre, inspired by Leighton’s travels in the Near East.
“It’s absolutely glorious. Anyone who comes here can’t help being amazed by the whole scale of it, the beauty of it,” marvels Page as we inspect Leighton’s Arab Hall. “We can see his vision: he has been to Turkey, he’s been to Damascus, he has brought back all these tiles.”
In contrast to the sumptuous decor, Page is dressed in black, with long white hair tied in a ponytail. But an aura of exoticism surrounds him too. At 71, he is among the most celebrated of all guitarists, a player who elevated the instrument to intoxicating heights of artistry in the 1970s. Under his leadership, Led Zeppelin became the definitive rock band, a perfect balance of musicianship and decadence. The band’s exploits — immense three-hour stadium concerts, lurid tales of groupies and black magic, Caligulan goings-on aboard private aircraft — have become the stuff of legend, as mythic as the statues of Pan or painted scenes from antiquity in Leighton House.
Page knows the museum well, having lived around the corner since 1972. His interest in 19th-century art goes back even further, to when he was a teenager in Epsom, a market town in Surrey, where he grew up in a solidly middle-class household, the son of a personnel manager.
As we stand in the Arab Hall, the fountain plashing in the background, I produce a photograph of Page with his first electric guitar in 1958. It shows a serious-looking 14-year-old practising in a suburban living room. “That wasn’t my house,” Page says, peering at the photo, “but everyone’s houses looked similar in those days. An electric fire, brass plaques on the wall.” His tone is not nostalgic.
Listening to Lonnie Donegan and Elvis Presley introduced him to the sounds of skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll, escape routes from humdrum Epsom. Meanwhile, illustrations in books and trips to the Tate Gallery fired his enthusiasm for the luxuriant art of 100 years earlier. “I got just caught up in that whole romantic notion of the Pre-Raphaelites, the mission they were on [to revolutionise art]. It was something that really captured my imagination, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.”
He points to an 1880s mosaic frieze above our heads depicting a complex iconography of storks, eagles, snakes wrapped around trees and peacocks (an eastern symbol of dignity and beauty). Page identifies it as by Walter Crane, an artist associated with the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century, another of his obsessions.
“The whole concept of it is really beautiful. Seeing the hand of man working, I really like that, the craftsmanship,” he says, referring to the movement’s ethos of artisanal production. He briefly went to art school himself, after a bout of illness interrupted his fledgling career as a session musician. “I was pretty amateurish really,” he says of his studies. “I wasn’t a very good draughtsman.”
Arts & Crafts and the Pre-Raphaelites were groupings formed in reaction to Victorian Britain’s transformation into an industrial society. There’s an echo here: Page formed Led Zeppelin in 1968 as a reaction to the world of mechanised musical production in which he worked as a highly successful session guitarist, churning out guitar parts for countless hits from Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” to Petula Clark’s “Downtown”.
“Because I had so many different styles of guitar I could play I was pretty useful. I wasn’t a one-trick pony. I could play acoustic, finger-style, I could make things up,” he remembers. “If they’d say, ‘We want something like a Stax riff,’ I’d be able to say, ‘Yes, I can do that straight away.’ Once I came out of it I had the chance to really experiment with the guitar. So I could see that [session work] almost — even though I’m self-taught — as formal training; a degree of formal training. Of course I may be totally wrong in how I see things ...”
He pauses, and reconsiders how much fallibility to ascribe to himself. “Actually I won’t say that. I’ll say I may not be quite right about the way I see things,” he says. His tone is affable but guarded.
Page recruited the other members of Led Zeppelin — vocalist Robert Plant, fellow session guitarist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham — in 1968, after a two-year stint as guitarist with R&B band The Yardbirds. At the time he was living on a converted Victorian boathouse at Pangbourne on the upper reaches of the Thames.
“I used to scour second-hand shops because Arts & Crafts furniture was always being turfed out. I must have furnished half my house from that source,” he remembers. “When I was working with Robert [Plant] I took him to some of these shops and that was where the painting of the old man with the sticks [used on the cover of the band’s fourth album in 1971] was located and photographed.”
As we promenade through the ground-floor rooms of Leighton House, we pause before one of Leighton’s paintings, “Orpheus and Eurydice”, painted in 1864. Leighton had links to the Pre-Raphaelites but was not a member of the group. “Some of [his paintings] are beautifully executed in the Victorian style, aren’t they?” Page says. He enthuses about the painter’s masterpiece, “Flaming June”, on show at the Frick Collection in New York.
Attempts to probe Page’s own art collection are gently repelled. In 2012 he loaned large tapestries by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones to Tate Britain for an exhibition. Does he have many paintings from the period?
“At the time I was at art school, Pre-Raphaelites were selling for a few hundred pounds, that’s all,” he says. “But I couldn’t afford that. They were always out of my reach.” He laughs. These days Page is estimated to be worth £100 million (Dh575.2 million).
When Frederic Leighton moved into his mansion in 1865, the surrounding area was semi-rural. Following his example, other artists built studio-houses nearby, creating an artistic colony. Many of the buildings survive today. As we look out over the large lawn at the back of Leighton House, Page points out one that belonged to the film director Michael Powell until 1971. Scenes from Powell’s sinister 1960 masterpiece “Peeping Tom” were shot there.
Page’s own house is invisible from Leighton’s garden. He gestures in its direction, diagonally across from the lawn. It is called the Tower House, for the magnificent Gothic-revival turret that dominates it. It was designed in the 1870s by the Victorian architect and designer William Burges, who sought artistic refuge from industrialisation in a fantasy vision of the Middle Ages.
“Basically [Burges] was living there and it was his showroom as well,” says Page. “So each room has a different theme with different styles of decoration. One room may have gesso panels, another may have pictorial tiles, etc. So he’d show people around and say, ‘I can do this and I can do that.’”
The finest craftsmen and sculptors were hired to create, in Burges’s words, a “model residence of the 13th century”. The guest bedroom was decorated in gold and crystal and had emu eggs hanging from the ceiling, while Burges’s bedroom was painted with murals of mermaids and sea monsters. A contemporary visitor called it “strange and barbarously splendid”.
Page, who bought the house from the actor Richard Harris, is a zealous custodian. He has been in dispute with his neighbour, the pop star Robbie Williams, over the latter’s plans to develop his own property, including an abandoned scheme to dig out a huge basement.
“English Heritage are pretty protective towards [the Tower House],” Page says. “I haven’t wanted to change anything in the house and nor would I. But the fact is that the interior is pretty fragile. It can’t take the shaking of developing a four- or five-bedroom house underground. No.”
Burges’s phantasmagoric designs were thought to have been inspired by a hearty appetite for laudanum. “I don’t know,” Page says. “Burges aficionados were quite upset that was said. But I’ve got an interesting cabinet, a wardrobe, where you could imagine it possibly.”
My eager attempts to find out more are thwarted. “Well, let’s not talk about it.” He laughs. “Maybe one day I’ll show it to you, off the record.”
I later discover that Page has not always been so secretive about his Burges wardrobe. In 2002, he allowed it to be shown at a National Trust country house in Devon, where its decorations — painted opium poppies, scarlet hares — were on view for all to see.
Page’s teasing opacity on the subject of drugs is typical. He rarely discusses his own use of them, which culminated in a heroin habit that took hold in the latter years of Led Zeppelin, before the band split up in the wake of John Bonham’s death following a drunken binge in 1980.
He is also elusive when I raise the subject of occultism, a topic that fascinated the Victorians — and with which Page has long been associated.
“Really?” he says mildly. Despite being the former owner of an occult bookshop called Equinox and the Scottish manor house that belonged to the notorious magus Aleister Crowley, he looks bemused at the notion that anyone might take him to be a serious student of the paranormal. I venture to ask whether the 19th-century tradition of spiritualism is attractive to him.
“Yes, I think it would be,” he replies. “But I can’t time-travel so you can only ...” His voice trails away. “It’s pretty evocative.”
Adjoining Leighton’s handsome studio upstairs is a room hosting an exhibition of works by the contemporary Lebanese artist Raed Yassin. Among these is a portrait of the celebrated Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, who died in 1975. Page is a fan.
“This is the classic Egyptian orchestration, with the oud and the violin etc,” he says. “I’ve heard lots of live records; the music will stop and she’ll come in and sing just one line — and the audience erupts and she’ll sing the line again. It’s just the whole drama of it.”
Led Zeppelin’s music drew on blues and folk but also Middle Eastern, Indian and north African influences. The epic ascending riff in “Kashmir” was inspired by Page’s interest in the sitar and eastern modal tunings. Like the best of the Victorian art that Page admires, their songs were a remarkable blend of exoticism and spirituality. (“I do agree with that,” he says.)
Walking past a sign reading “Ars longa, vita brevis” (“art is long, life is short”), we enter Leighton’s studio, a large light-filled room with paintings lining the walls.
“I think the ambience in here is really good,” says Page. Historic buildings played an important role in Led Zeppelin’s history, such as the former poorhouse Headley Grange in Hampshire, where they recorded several albums. “If I was going to play an acoustic guitar I’d prefer to do so in a room such as this, where you could hear the dynamics of the guitar filling the room, rather than a studio that was really damped down with no reflective surfaces,” he says. “If you’re going to play the acoustic guitar you want the sound to extend, so you can play with the dynamics.”
Page is perhaps the most complete guitarist in rock’s pantheon, a boldly expressive and technically accomplished player in whom vigour is allied with intense thoughtfulness. “It’s like in here, you can see Leighton’s character coming through in everything he did, you can recognise a Leighton. In the same way you can recognise a guitarist,” Page says.
He once described solos such as the majestic one in “Stairway to Heaven” as a “meditation” on the song in which they appear. “When a song had built up from a track and Robert had his lyrical content and the overdubs were complete, then yes, I’d like to do the solo as a summing up, if you like, of my input on that song,” he explains.
“So that what I hope is for people to go, that solo is perfect” — he clicks his finger — “or that guitar work is perfect within the context of the lyrics and what is being portrayed dynamically by the rest of the band. I would just warm up, get the tape rolling and just do two or three takes at the most, and would usually know which one it was.”
We pause for a moment in front of the painting that Leighton was working on when he died in 1896 — “Clytie”, a portrait of a classical nymph mourning the departure of her lover, the sun god Apollo. It is unfinished.
The question of whether Led Zeppelin is finished has dogged Page since the band’s one-off reunion concert at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. He has spent the intervening years remastering their albums for the digital age, re-releasing each with additional material. It has been a marathon task. “I just wanted to make sure I could locate everything in existence,” Page says of the band’s many recordings.
His project now concludes with the reissuing of Led Zeppelin’s last three albums, “Presence” (1976), “In Through the Out Door” (1979) and “Coda” (1982).
“That’s the whole catalogue with the companion discs out, completed, and I can breathe a sigh of relief,” he says. “But I don’t know how long I’ll have a holiday for, because then I’ll be putting my whole focus into playing the guitar, to see what we can manifest with that.”
It is a tantalising prospect — Page back at work in the recording studio, his equivalent of Frederic Leighton’s workplace.
“Well, it’ll probably be rather smaller than this,” he says with a smile. “Not quite so grand. But as long as there are reflective surfaces for the acoustic guitar to be bouncing from, it’ll be fine.”