Matthew Dennison discovers much about the creative impulses that lay behind this Victorian artist’s impressive oeuvre of classically inspired paintings
The piano commissioned from Broadwood & Sons by Lawrence Alma-tadema in 1878 included, beneath its lid, a tessellation of small ivory panels set in silver frames. The design was the artist’s own, the piano intended for the Tuesday-evening concerts he hosted at home, first in Regent’s Park, later in St John’s Wood in a house previously owned by fellow artist James Tissot. Alma-tadema encouraged visiting pianists to inscribe their names on individual ivory panels.
By 1878, the Friesland-born painter, then in his early forties, had enjoyed commercial success on both sides of the Channel for more than a decade. his paintings depicted the everyday lives of ancient civilisations, above all the Romans. On canvas, Alma-tadema sought to re-create with archaeological precision the vanished public and private spaces of Roman towns and settlements.
If his scantily dressed and naked female figures suggested sensuousness, there was something approaching pedantry in the studied accuracy of his settings: furnishings, artefacts and architectural details, such as the mosaic floor and mural painting in Roman Reading (1865), the convex circular shields of the Greek soldiers in A Pyrrhic Dance (1869) and the animal feet of the table legs in Flowers, a pretty image of his sister Artje (1868).
his paintings were both genre studies and meticulous evocations of a distant past: figures and furnishings coalesce in carefully historical, aesthetic mises-en-scène. Alma-tadema’s piano—simultaneously musical instrument, work of art and record of visiting players—suggests this was an approach that characterised his life as well as his art.
Such is the premise of Leighton house’s current exhibition, which also includes paintings by his second wife, Laura, and daughter Anna. The exhibition’s title, ‘At home in Antiquity’, looks beyond Alma-tadema’s subject matter to uncover how the creative impulse, filtered
‘At his best, his painting has a sun-drenched luminosity and wonderfully tactile qualities’
through his love of the ancient world, shaped his vision as homemaker as well as painter.
eminent artists of the last quarter of the 19th century typically created domestic interiors that offered visitors an alternative facet of their vision—as Leighton house itself testifies. In Alma-tadema’s case, this symbiosis between his paintings and the decoration of his homes was particularly fluid. Furniture he designed for himself underlines the extent of his absorption in the imaginary visual world of his art. In turn, items of furniture of his own design featured repeatedly in his paintings: art imitating life imitating art.
Three paintings displayed here—an Earthly Paradise, Vain Courtship and Love’s Missile—painted over a period of 18 years, include the motherof-pearl-inlaid, carved wooden seat, of which Alma-tadema took delivery in 1893. A photograph of the artist from 1875, in the Louvre’s collection, shows him in flowing pseudo-classical draperies, complete with floral garland. his love affair with Rome, like many Victorian poses, was earnest in its sincerity.
It also demonstrated shrewd commercial acumen. Almatadema was only four at the death of his father, a public notary. Thereafter, financial uncertainty shadowed his childhood. In his teens, he resisted considerable pressure to follow his father into a legal career. Precociously, he determined instead that his vocation lay
in art. He resolved at the outset to exploit his talents lucratively and consistently exhibited his work as widely and prominently as possible to a deeppocketed clientele.
His early history paintings, exhibited in his native Holland, depicted the region’s bloodthirsty Frankish rulers with the same absorption in accurate historical detail that later distinguished his Roman paintings. These highly wrought, richly coloured scenes, represented at Leighton House by images such as Queen Fredegonda at the Death-bed of
Bishop Praetextatus, appealed to the local plutocracy.
The new rich, with their enormous industrial fortunes, would remain Alma-tadema’s target audience following his move to London. Unlike his contemporary Millais, who swapped early pre-raphaelite rebelliousness for solid respectability as a Society portraitist, Almatadema confined conventional instincts to his love for wife and children and a hard nose for cash.
At its best, his painting has a sun-drenched luminosity and wonderfully tactile qualities: the mosaic tiles of Water Pets, the tigerskin rug in Cherries, the pale musculature of the potter in Hadrian in England. On other occasions, there is a potboiler dimension to AlmaTadema’s work: his repetition of successful compositions. However, by placing so many of his paintings in the domestic setting of Leighton House—itself an exercise in full-throttle, lateVictorian polychrome exoticism—this exhibition reveals something of their uniqueness.
Removed from gallery walls, these well-known images lose their familiarity, allowing us to look at them afresh. Although the inclusion of works by Laura Alma-tadema creates an appealing counterbalance, they will not delight every reader. For the aficionado, however, this is a rare opportunity to re-examine more than 100 arresting and inventive images in a setting the artist himself knew well.
‘Alma-tadema: At Home in Antiquity’ is at Leighton House Museum, 12, Holland Park Road, London W14, until October 29 (020 7602 3316; www. rbkc.gov.uk/almatadema). ‘Lawrence Alma-tadema: At Home in Antiquity’, with essays by various contributors, is published by Prestel Publishing (£35)
Next week: ‘Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War’ at Imperial War Museum North
In My Studio (1893), showing a corner of the artist’s St John’s Wood house. He gave the painting to Lord Leighton
The model in this Pompeiian interior, Flowers (1868), is probably the artist’s sister
A Kiss (1891) derives inspiration from villas above the Bay of Naples