Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
(Dronrijp, Netherlands, 8 January 1836 - 25 June 1912, Wiesbaden, Germany)
A Dutch ex-patriate who lived most of his life in England. His name had been Lorens Tadema and Alma had been his middle name in Holland. His life followed a path similar to that of Victorian England. Tadema was arguably the most successful painter of the Victorian era. For over sixty years he gave his audience exactly what it wanted; distinctive, elaborate paintings of beautiful people in classical settings. His incredibly detailed reconstructions of ancient Rome, with languid men and women posed against white marble in dazzling sunlight provided his audience with a glimpse of a world of the kind they might one day construct for themselves at least in attitude if not in detail. During his sixty productive years Tadema produced over 400 known paintings and had some success designing musical instruments as well.
Alma-Tadema, the son of a Dutch notary, studied art at the Antwerp Academy (1852-58) under the Belgian historical painter Hendrik Leys, assisting the painter in 1859 with frescoes for the Stadhuis (town hall) in Antwerp. During a visit to Italy in 1863, Alma-Tadema became interested in Greek and Roman antiquity and Egyptian archaeology, and afterward he depicted imagery almost exclusively from those sources. Moving to England, he became a naturalized British subject in 1873 and was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1879. He was knighted in 1899.
Alma-Tadema excelled at the accurate re-creation of ancient architecture and costumes and the precise depiction of textures of marble, bronze, and silk. His expert rendering of settings provides a backdrop for anecdotal scenes set in the ancient world. Alma-Tadema's wife, Laura Epps, was also a painter.
Being a creature of his time, when the Victorian period ended so did his marketability. Paintings which once would have sold for 10,000 pounds a few years earlier were practically impossible to sell at all. In fact, some of his paintings could have been had for as little as 20 pounds at that time. His friendships with the Prince of Wales and the young Winston Churchill faded and his artistic legacy almost vanished. As attitudes of the public in general and the artists in particular changed for the worse regarding the possibilities of human achievement, his paintings were increasingly denounced. He was declared "the worst painter of the 19th century" by John Ruskin, and one critic even remarked that his paintings were "about worthy enough to adorn bourbon boxes". After this brief period of actively being denounced he was consigned to relative obscurity for many years.
One seldom noticed influence Tadema has had on modern art is the vision of the ancient world portrayed in such films as D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926), and Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), and Cleopatra (1934). Jessie J. Laskey, co-writer on De Mille's The Ten Commandments has described how the producer would customarily spread out prints of Alma-Tadema paintings to indicate to his set designers the look he wanted to achieve.
Some of the more unusual items in the Forbes Collection offer intimate glimpses into these multi-layered and inter-connected social and professional circles. Four tall, narrow paintings come from the palace of art created by Lawrence Alma-Tadema at 17 Grove End Road, St John's Wood. This extraordinary house was designed by an artist steeped in the classical world. Visitors walked through a loggia with a glazed roof and tessellated pavement to the entrance, with its welcoming inscription 'Salve' on the lintel. From here, a steep staircase lined with burnished brass led up to the studio; or visitors could turn left, pass through the conservatory, into the hall and the domestic side of the house. Here, the walls of the fireplace alcove were inset with forty-five tall narrow paintings given to Alma-Tadema by his friends and professional colleagues. 'Substantial visiting-cards [and] charming pictures,' in the words of the critic F.G. Stephens, they were each 'painted to fill its own particular niche in the wall of the house beautiful'.
Alma-Tadema began collecting the panels when living in Townshend House, Regent's Park (1870-86), the last ones were acquired early in the twentieth century. They represented the styles and subject-matter favoured by a cross-section of nineteenth century artists, from a small version of The Bath of Psyche by Frederic Leighton to A Javanese Girl by John Singer Sargent. A visit to Grove End Road was consequently not dissimilar to attending the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. Of the four paintings in the Forbes Collection, two are by Holland Park artists, Colin Hunter and Val Prinsep. An Indian Water-Carrier is one of many studies Prinsep made when he went to India to paint the Durbar celebrating the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India. John MacWhirter was a neighbour of Alma-Tadema in St John's Wood, and Alma-Tadema's daughter Anna worked in her own first floor studio within the family home. Her panel of flags, 'a reminiscence of Queen Victoria's Jubilee', was a birthday present to her father.
Alma-Tadema belonged to the St John's Wood Art Club, The Forbes Collection includes a leather-bound box containing eight drawers, a gift from the copyright committee of the club to T.E. Scrutton. Inside the drawers are paintings and drawings characteristic of the committee members, smaller examples of the 'visiting-cards' on display around Alma-Tadema's fireplace. Members of the club were linked by the location of their studios rather than by any particular style: Solomon J. Solomon's watercolour of a knight in armour standing beside his horse (a study for the full-size oil painting is also in the Forbes Collection) contrasts with George Storey's delicate portrait of an aesthetic young lady holding a blue and white porcelain vase. Alfred East's impressionist sketch of trees beside a lake was presumably executed en plein air.
Storey was the only member of the Club who had belonged to the earlier St John's Wood Clique, founded in 1862. This group also included Storey's brother-in-law Philip Calderon, George Dunlop Leslie, John E. Hodgson, W.F. Yeames and his brother-in-law David Wilkie Wynfield, and Henry Stacy Marks. Honorary members included Val Prinsep, his cousin Eyre Crowe, George Du Maurier and Frederick Walker. They behaved more like the young knights-at-arms they enjoyed painting than artists competing in the market-place of London's art world. Stacy Marks expressed their creed in his reminiscences: We have all of us now to work together, and do our very best, not caring who is first or last, but helping each other, so that all may come out strong. The better each man's picture, the better for all.
The Clique enjoyed going on painting trips together. In 1866, they rented Hever Castle to serve as both lodgings and inspiration for their subject paintings. They joined the Artists' Rifles for the fun of 'bloodless field-days' and 'the delightful incomprehensibility of the manoevres' and they regularly visited Moray Lodge on Campden Hill, the home of the silk mercer Arthur Lewis. Here there were games of cards, smoking 'ad libitum, as one's eyes, hair, and clothes testified the next day', and sometimes charades, the artists dressing up as Old Master paintings. Several of their works are in the Forbes Collection.
In the 1860s, St John's Wood was closely associated with the style and subject matter of the Clique. Holland Park, on the other hand, was characterised during the same period by two houses and two artists: Little Holland House where G.F. Watts lodged with Sara and Thoby Prinsep and the orientalist palace created by George Aitchison for Frederic Leighton. However, even before Alma-Tadema moved to Grove End Road in 1886, the styles of the 'colonies' had become blurred as aritsts with very different interests moved in. Luke Fildes and Marcus Stone, for example, became neighbours of Leighton and Watts in Holland Park in the late 1870s, their studio-houses designed for work and domestic life by the 'suave and persuasive' architect Richard Norman Shaw. Neither was remotely interested in classical art, seeking to express rather 'the popular mind with a feeling that art can be an exceedingly paying business.' By 1884 a writer in the Spectator was complaining that 'we want to see less of a club bounded by St John's Wood on one side and Holland Park on the other.'
The emergence of a club extending from Holland Park to St John's Wood is reflected in one of the four autograph fans in the Forbes Collection owned by the painter Andrew Gow (lot 125). It was owned by the painter Andrew Gow, who in 1890 moved from a small studio close in to Leighton in Holland Park Road to 15 Grove End Road, two houses away from Alma-Tadema. Between about 1891 and 1897 he collected the autographs and signature sketches of artist-friends, presumably as and when they visted his home.
Gow's new neighbours in St John's Wood included Alma-Tadema, the landscape and animal painter Henry William Banks Davis (who lived, appropriately, in Landseer's former studio house at 1 St John's Wood Road), John MacWhirter, J.W. Waterhouse and Briton Riviere. Old friends enticed from Holland Park included Leighton, Watts, Stone and Boughton, also Millais from Kensington and Edward Poynter from Shepherds Bush. Frank Dicksee and Solomon J. Solomon both moved from west London (Dicksee lived next door to Boughton and Solomon opposite Leighton) to St John's Wood during the 1890s. The artist who travelled furthest to enjoy Gow's hospitality was Hubert Herkomer, who had built the sprawling, Lululaund at Bushey, 'a marriage of Strawberry Hill Gothick and Bavarian Art Nouveau arranged by Celtic fairies'.
The oriental autograph fan brings together names from Holland Park and St John's Wood, also the worlds of Punch and the theatre, all inscribed across a painted peacock. The links are complex. The sculptor Edgar Boehm, who was the teacher and close friend of Princess Louise, helped to embellish the homes of Leighton and Alma-Tadema; W.S. Gilbert and Marcus Stone shared the same architect (Gilbert acquired Norman Shaw's 'Grim's Dyke' in the Harrow Weald in 1890); Leighton contributed one drawing to Punch (it was of his favourite model Dorothy Dene to illustrate The Schoolmaster Abroad in 1886), but he was also a talented singer, as were the Punch regulars Charles Keene, who sang 'as it were with tears in his voice', and George Du Maurier ('a nightingale singing in the orchard full of pink apple blossom was not as sweet'). Keene was also a regular guest at Birket Foster's house 'The Hill', at Witley in Surrey.
The fan inscribed by George Boughton 'To Rosalie from a friend' (lot 126) is decorated with seven portraits of girls by artists including Dicksee, Alma-Tadema and Marcus Stone. W.P. Frith, soon to be seventy years old, provided 'Rosalie' with his self-portrait. But this is also a musical fan. It is inscribed by the pianist Charles Hallé, who was Joseph Joachim's regular accompanist and conductor of the Hallé concerts in Manchester, his brother William Hallé and Ludwig Strauss. Whoever 'Rosalie' was, her parties brought together the 'stars' of the day. The musical parties held by Leighton are well-documented, but the finest musicians of the period performed regularly at several houses in London. These included Alma-Tadema's homes in Regent's Park and St John's Wood; 1 South Audley Street, designed by Aitchison for the banker Stewart Hodgson and decorated with Leighton's paintings of Music and Dance; and 10 Kensington Palace Gardens, home of the industrialist Ernst Benzon.
The linking of music, art and drama is made explicit in the largest of the autograph fans, which is inscribed on both sides with over thirty names. The line-up of the musical and theatrical celebrities is dazzling: the violinists Joachim, Paderewski and Hallé's wife Wilma Norman-Neruda; the Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti; Henry Irving, Ellen and Marion Terry, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Several Punch artists are present, including George Du Maurier, John Tenniel (who draws his own Punch on the fan), Harry Furniss and Linley Sambourne. The Academy is represented by Luke Fildes, Alma-Tadema and Dicksee, but there are also the names of women artists, Alma-Tadema's wife Laura, Marianne Stokes (a close friend of Sambourne's wife Marion) and Clara Montalba, who moved with her three sisters between Venice and their studio on Campden Hill.
© Westminster City Archives
Professor Caroline Dakers, professor of cultural history, University of Arts London is the author of The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society and Clouds: Biography of a Country House, both published by Yale University Press. The text was taken from the Christie's Catalogue Sale:
View painter's art: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)