Biography of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. Page 4
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. 1994
Chapter 4: London (1870-2)
he outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war caused a number of continental artists to flee to Britain, among them Aimé-Jules Dalou, Gustave Doré, Henri Fantin-Latour, Mariano Fortuny, Alphonse Legros, Alfred Sisley and J.J.J. Tissot. For Alma-Tadema the decision to move was influenced by a number of considerations: security of patronage, the death of his wife, new-found friendships, and above all his infatuation with Laura Epps.60 Gambart certainly felt that the move would be advantageous to the artist's career. In stating his reasons for the move, Tadema simply said:
I lost my first wife, a French lady with whom I married in 1863, in 1869. Having always had a great predilection for London, the only place where, up till then my work had met with buyers, I decided to leave the continent and go to settle in England, where I have found a true home.61
With his small daughters and sister Artje, Alma-Tadema arrived in London at the beginning of September 1870. He rented the London house and studio, at 4 Camden Square, of another of Gambart's artists, the orientalist painter Frederick Goodall, who was then travelling in Egypt.
Alma-Tadema wasted no time in contacting Laura, and it was arranged that he would give her painting lessons. During one of these he proposed marriage. As he was then thirty-four and Laura was now only eighteen, her father was initially opposed to the idea. Dr Epps finally agreed on the condition that they should wait until they knew each other better.62
Detail from A Roman Emperor, AD 41
Gambart, who had commissioned the well-known French engraver, Auguste Blanchard, to do a plate of The vintage festival (No 122, 1870) now ordered from Alma-Tadema a second version, a reduced replica, for purposes of engraving, The vintage festival (No 130, 1871). By placing such an order the dealer was following his earlier practice, where he had encouraged William Powell Frith and Holman Hunt to make second versions of their most important works. Later, when this replica was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, it won the gold medal.
The two large works, the replica of The vintage festival and A Roman Emperor, AD 41 (No 131, 1871) were completed within a month of one another. Contrary to Gambart's opinion, Laura appeared to have inspired Tadema to paint faster and better than before. She even modelled for his painting In the temple (No 132, 1871).
Knowing that he could not stay at Goodall's indefinitely and being anxious to find a new home worthy of his bride 'to be', Alma-Tadema went house hunting. In May of 1871, the Tadema family and Miss Laura T. settled upon a home, which would be their abode for the next fourteen years.63 The small but lovely Townshend House as it was called, was locate at 17 Tichfield Terrace, North Gate, Park Road on the north side of Regent's Park just across the park from Laura's parents.
According to a letter to Vosmaer, the artist worked on Une f�te intime (No 135, 1871) and Fredegonda and Praetextatus (No 136, 1871) from 4am to 9:30am on his wedding day before getting married at 10 o'clock the 29th of July 1871! He pressed himself hard to finish these two commissions, no doubt needing the commission money to begin married life. After the ceremony the couple left immediately for the continent.
Alma-Tadema wanted to show Laura the places where he had spent his youth. They visited Brussels first, and saw his friends at 51 rue de Palais, then Antwerp, retracing his life in reverse order. Between August 8th and 15th they travelled to The Hague to visit Hendrik Willem Mesdag and Carel Vosmaer, and then to Leeuwarden and to his birth-place Dronrijp, before returning to London in early September.
Alma-Tadema was, at that time, the only artist in England to paint archaeologically oriented domestic antique genre. Others of the Classical School felt that his presence in England strengthened their own Neo-Classical position in the Royal Academy. Contemporary Classical artists included Edwin Long, Philip H. Calderon, George Storey, Thomas Armstrong and William Blake Richmond. To them Alma-Tadema was a valuable addition to a late but flourishing Classical movement. The Art Journal saw him as 'The bright painter whom everybody admires... the public for his triumphs of technique and his brothers for the legitimate means by which these triumphs are compassed.'64
England had never wholeheartedly accepted strict Classicism, but from about 1864, the year Leighton became an Associate of the Royal Academy, a strong movement in the Classical direction began to gather momentum. Not since the days of the first Neo-Classical movement of the late eighteenth century, with James Barry, John Mortimer, Benjamin West and John Flaxman had interest in this stylistic direction run so high. In this context the sculptor John Gibson, and painters William Frost and Edward Armitage formed a link between the first and second revivals of Classicism in England.
This late English brand of Classicism was essentially escapist, a preoccupation shared by the 'Gothics'. The Classical antique represented a world of cultured education rather than Gothic mysticism. Leighton, Poynter and Alma-Tadema occasionally ventured into Medieval subjects, but symbolism was foreign to their artistic temperaments.
This coterie formed relationships with one another quite early. Poynter had met Leighton in Rome during 1853, whilst Leighton and Alma-Tadema had come into contact originally in Brussels in 1866.65 Although Poynter and Alma-Tadema did not meet until 1870 at Burlington House, their art was to develop along somewhat similar lines. Their brand of Classicism might be termed 'Bourgeois Classicism', or as James Whistler quipped, 'Five O'clock Tea Antiquity.' Its later exponents included Arthur Hacker, Henrietta Rae, John William Godward and Herbert Draper.
The general aim was to create an exalted didactic art, in a supposedly Hellenistic spirit, but more specifically without reference to contemporary life. In this last respect Alma-Tadema was an independent. He believed that although eras change greatly in appearance, people change very little, hence he painted the Romans almost exactly as he would his fellow Victorians. As William Gaunt put it, 'Alma-Tadema made the ancient world as bourgeois as a Dutch kitchen.'66
Furthermore, Alma-Tadema's painting was a perfect mirror of the Victorian imperialist self-image. Seeing themselves as inheritors of an empire, many Englishmen revelled in Alma-Tadema's affirmation of their society, loaded with historical associations. They were much taken with an artist who could prove in paint that the Romans were not too different from the wealthy merchant class of Great Britain. Hence the claim that he portrayed 'Victorians in togas'.
Alma-Tadema was more closely related to the aesthetic cult than were most of the Classicists. With Albert Moore, Thomas Armstrong and Walter Crane, he was concerned with design and formal values for the apprehension of truth and beauty, but associated the idea of beauty with idealism and moral purpose. To men like Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, James Whistler, Algernon Swinburne and Aubrey Beardsley, such associations were unthinkable. Nevertheless, William Meynell, in 1879, insists that Alma-Tadema was a member of the Aesthete's Cult.67 Meynell has gone a little too far, for an analysis of Alma-Tadema's own words and works convinces one that he was a true academician.
Opposition to Alma-Tadema's art came from two influential sources: John Ruskin, the prime Pre-Raphaelite advocate, and Thomas Carlyle, who favoured Japanese art over the 'Greek prejudice' of the period.68 Ironically, both Pre-Raphaelitism and Japonisme made important contributions to Alma-Tadema's stylistic development into the late 1860s and 1870s. By 1871 he had met and befriended most of the major Pre-Raphaelite painters and it was in part due to their influence that the artist brightened his palette, variegated hues and lighter brushwork.
Thrusting his barbs at the Academy and Alma-Tadema's Classicism from the platform of his Academy Notes, Ruskin wielded considerable leverage over public taste. Yet by the 1870s he had lost the power to mould that taste against the development of Classical and Japanese influences. Charles Holme, Chairman of the Council of the Japan Society of London, revealed Ruskins's artistic inflexibility:
Mr [Bernard] Quaritch once showed me a letter from Mr Ruskin. He had been in the habit of sending him great books of art and Mr Ruskin asked him not to send any more of those Japanese works as they disturbed him, and it was too late for him to enter into those matters. It was too late for him to readjust his ideas on Japanese lines.69
Japanese prints must have seemed artificial to Ruskin. Their bright colours, flat planes and formal values, together with his inability to moralize on their content, led him to view them as mere decoration. But the Classical painters, more accustomed to the audacity of line in Attic vases and the perspective and colour of Pompeian frescos, were more able to utilize the Japanese print. Both these influences were dominant in the development of Tadema's style.
The vintage festival (No 122, 1870) was painted with a stronger palette in response not only to Alma-Tadema's viewing the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and Japanese artists, but also to his freshly repainted studio with its brightly-coloured walls. Certainly in A Roman Emperor AD 41 (No 131, 1871) this direction was recognized by many and according to Ellen Gosse:
In this version he ventured into an entirely new scheme of colouring to the despair, it is said, of certain of his clients, who saw in his departure an alarming tendency towards Pre-Raphaelitism.70
Alma-Tadema's initial encounter with Japanese art had come during his first visit to London in 1862. Later at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris an even larger Japanese contingent on display must have attracted the painter's attention. By 1871 William Michael Rossetti noted:
Alma-Tadema and others dined at Chelsea. Alma-Tadema, whom I now meet for the second time but the first so as to see anything of his ways... seems to have a remarkable energy of character, and a frank hearty manner and tone of opinion on any subject that is started. He is a devoted admirer of Japanese art - going, I think, as far as anyone I know. He decidedly prepossesses me!71
Meynell wrote of Alma-Tadema's interest in oriental art, 'What is Japanese is pure Japanese and no half-occidentalised corruption.'72 In decorating his new home, Townshend House, near Regent's Park, Alma-Tadema employed many styles: Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Byzantine and Japanese, but in all cases each room was stylistically correct. The Japanese room was designed with the help of William Burges, the Neo-Gothic architect who, according to Elizabeth Aslin, had been collecting Japanese prints as early as the 1850s.73
E W Godwin, a friend of both Burges and Alma-Tadema, who became the country's most important architect and designer in the Japanese manner, worked on Townshend House. Japanese rooms were something of a vogue in the period, but these often proved little more than a pastiche. Tadema, however, laid great stress on the room's authenticity. After his death the executors of the estate sold the contents of the Grove End Road house, where the Tademas moved in 1885. Hampton's sale catalogue (1913) gives a clear idea of the immense volume of Japanese objects and decorations amassed by Alma-Tadema. Included in the sale were Japanese lacquer, porcelain, pottery, bronzes, screens, kakemono, books, gourds, woodwork and, above all, woodcut prints.74
The first major work completed by Alma-Tadema in 1872 was The first reproach (No 140, 1872), in which he used Laura's image. The painting was also his first entry into the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, in June. For the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition in London he entered a recently completed oil, An Egyptian widow in the time of Diocletian (No 141, 1872, see illustration p.136). In reverting to the theme of The mummy in the Roman period (No 82, 1867), Alma-Tadema also reproduced the earlier oil's heaviness and dryness of colour.
In July Alma-Tadema completed his second version of the Egyptianesque, Death of the first-born (No 145, 1872) which was sold to Gambart as part of the second commission despite the fact that it was the artist's favourite work. Alma-Tadema was so attached to it, that he bought it back from Gambart in 1879 at double the price the dealer had paid.75 The painting was exhibited at the Academy in Berlin, where it won the small gold medal, conferred upon Alma-Tadema personally by the German Emperor. Yet, when it was shown at the Royal Academy in London the following year, it received little attention.
Soon afterwards he completed the oil Greek wine (No 148, 1872), a work of little significance but for the fact that it was the first to have a catalogue inventory number painted on it by the artist. Previously Alma-Tadema had merely kept a register of all his paintings from about 1851 until November 1872, when he changed his method of signing his work. From 1867-8 onward it became particularly important to keep accurate records of Gambart's commissions. After the artist's move to England his growing financial success caused his work to be copied and forged making him anxious to find a more efficient system. In 1872 he assigned his earlier pictures numbers, and then in November began to paint an 'opus' number under his signature.
Greek wine was inscribed with an Arabic 106, rather than the Roman numerals for which he became known. It is the only known picture inscribed in this manner, although 'Opus CVII' Goldfish (No 150, 1872) may also have been signed in Arabic numbers, before being repainted (No 396, 1900) and the addition of a much later opus number in Roman numerals. The water-colour, 'Opus CVIII' On a Roman stair-case (1872) was the first work to be signed with Roman numerals.
Later in the year of 1872 Laura's health improved, and in December the Alma-Tademas left for a holiday in Belgium and Holland with some of her drawings as gifts for the Mesdags, with whom they were to spend Christmas in The Hague.