Leighton House is a grand redbrick late-Victorian dwelling tucked down a leafy road in Holland Park, West London. The house as it stands was built by the artist Frederic Leighton between 1866-95, not only to showcase his collection of artworks and exotic taste for all things Orientalist, such as blue Iznik tiles and pink stained glass windows of trefoil designs, but to also act as his new artist’s studio from which he could paint. Leighton moved in London’s eminent art circles, which at the time straddled Romanticism and Academicism.
This was a group of Pre-Raphaelites and historical genre painters who sought realism, but as an idealised effigy.
One of the most accomplished painters of this group, who went on to become a dear friend of Leighton, was Lawrence Alma Tadema. Born Lourens Alma Tadema in 1836 in Dronrijp in the Netherlands, Alma Tadema moved to London after completion of his training at the Royal Academy of Antwerp and assumed the anglicised moniker Lawrence. He settled in London for the rest of his life, joining Leighton and his circle of bohemian artist pals. Both Alma Tadema and Leighton were hugely famous in their day for their brand of Victorian Neoclassicism and Aestheticism.
Their work's commanded vast sums from important patrons and Leighton was even the first artist to ever be awarded a peerage (although he holds the record for shortest duration held, dying just the following day), while the pair were important enough to be buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, the popularity of their works didn’t stick and by the 20th century their reputations were laughable.
It wasn’t until a small handful of collectors began buying their works at auction from the 1990s onwards (led by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber himself) that their reputation (and prices) began to bounce back. In only the last generation scholars have finally taken note of Alma Tadema’s importance – rather than being viewed as a painter of sickeningly twee chocolate-box motifs that have no real depth, they are now understood as rigorous exercises in both analysis of history and painterly technique.
Alma Tadema would spend weeks, months and years preparing for his history works (which are unquestionably the most successful of his oeuvre). He would study ancient Greek and Roman ruins, making minutely detailed sketches of mosaics, chairs, columns and tiles, both in London museums and while on various European trips. On visits to the ruined Roman city of Pompeii near Naples, Alma Tadema would take measurements of the buildings and spend hours studying the marble surfaces so when he returned to London he could recreate them as faithfully as possible in the backdrops of his scenes. The attention to detail shows the sign of someone with a lifelong obsession for accuracy – both in terms of historical content and the way he portrayed them with realism – figs are covered in a matt dust, water quietly drips from fountains in to fish ponds, animal pelts soften the steps of worn leather sandals that crack at the bends.
The exhibition at Leighton House follows Alma Tadema's career as footsteps through history in his role of both artist and time-traveller. Unsurprisingly the show, which is the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in London since 1913, is structured chronologically. It begins with some of his earliest portrait works where it is clearly visible he was trying to find his feet.
The show then forks in to two avenues; the first being an up close and personal examination of the artist and his domestic life. Photographs of his London home-cum-studio (complete with green marble-clad studio) and self-portraits by his daughter Anna fill the panels of a temporary display erected inside Leighton’s studio. It provides a charming insight in to Alma Tadema's role as a family man. The other avenue however is what we all came to see – his brilliant blue-sky and creamy-marble filled Classical visions.
These only make up perhaps a quarter of the 130 works on show, but they are clearly the highlights. They jump from the walls with their vivid palettes and heart-breaking realism. Candle lit interiors and moonlit gardens highlight the artist's skill at creating drama with light, while the floating silks and cottons of costumes are almost touchable. The characters (with their obviously Victorian ginger hair, pale skin and languorous demeanour) are brimming with subtle glances and stares. Each work contain a cinematic quality unlike anything else seen before or since – something picked up by the curators who have a video showing just how Alma Tadema’s work have inspired film makers across the decades – most recently Ridley Scott who based the look of his 2000 epic Gladiator on Alma Tadema’s style.
The show builds upstairs with a peppering of smaller historical scenes, such as An Audience with Agrippa (1875) and A Solicitation (1878) that capture Tadema’s combined power and whimsy. However it is in the final room where the exhibition crescendos with two of the artist’s most important works, both of which are owned by private collectors hang side by side.
The Finding of Moses (1904), which sold at Christie’s in 2010 for $36 million, is perhaps the masterpiece of Alma Tadema’s last decade, and highlights the end of the Victorian love affair with all things Ancient Egyptian. Illustrating how the artist fell out of fashion so shockingly, the work was sold in the 1960s just for frame. The painting shows men in loincloths carrying the Pharaoh’s daughter who finds a baby Moses amongst the reeds. The detail from the candy-coloured flowers to the glistening jewellery is breath-taking.
The second of these momentous works is The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The works tells the tale of a tyrannical Roman emperor who drowned guests at his dinner party to their timely deaths in a sea of rose petals for his own entertainment. Alma Tadema had fresh rose petals brought in every fortnight to his London address from the South of France so he could capture their pinkness so finely throughout the winter that he worked on the canvas. And his attention to detail seems to have paid off – the work has every texture and colour under the sun and is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Alma Tadema’s career. The phrase ‘feast for the eyes’ doesn’t begin to cut it for this work, which is on a rare loan from a private collection in Mexico.
The show highlights both Alma Tadema’s impressive public persona as master-painter of romantic history and virtuso depicter of realism, but also illustrates how behind closed doors he was a quieter family man. He clearly had two passions in his life, his work and his relationships. Those both shine through in this small but punch-packing show, which helps finally bring Alma Tadema’s name to the place it has always deserved to be.
Alma Tadema: At Home in Antiquity, 7 July-29 October 2017, Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 8LZ. Open daily from 10am to 5:30pm, except Tuesdays.