Ro­man hol­i­day

Matthew Den­ni­son dis­cov­ers much about the cre­ative im­pulses that lay be­hind this Vic­to­rian artist’s im­pres­sive oeu­vre of clas­si­cally in­spired paint­ings

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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

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