Biography of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. Page 5
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
by Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D. 1994
Chapter 5: Integration into English Society (1873-5)
Lawrence Alma-Tadema An exedra
ollowing their return from the continent at the beginning of the year, Alma-Tadema finished Portrait of Miss Kate Thompson (No 152, 1873). At this time many of his friends were pressing him to become a naturalized British subject including his physician Sir Henry Thompson, his solicitor George Lewis and F G Stephens.
Alma-Tadema decided to proceed with the formalities. There were two routes to citizenship: naturalization or the receipt of personal letters of denization from the Queen. Alma-Tadema chose the latter course because the former was only given to those who had already lived in England for a period of five years, whereas the granting of letters of denization was both quicker and more prestigious. These rights allowed Alma-Tadema complete assimilation into English life. He was proud of being an Englishman, and occasionally signed his autograph, 'Vive Great Britain!'
Improvisatore (No 142, 1872), Alma-Tadema's entry to the French Gallery's 20th Annual Exhibition in March, was painted to prove to some of his colleagues that colour was a product of light. Many of his friends felt that colours could be distinguished at night. As an experiment he tied brightly-coloured ribbons to various trees in his London garden and asked his friends to identify them in the dark which they were unable to do. Improvisatore was his only nocturne, and was closely related to an earlier oil, An exedra (No 117, 1869).
Between April and October 1873, very little work left Alma-Tadema's studio. The largish painting entitled The cherries (No 155, 1873) was finished in August. It was painted as his diploma for the Cercle Artistique, Litteraire et Scientifique d'Anvers. Alma-Tadema produced the painting hurriedly without expending much effort on it.76
Lawrence Alma-Tadema A sculpture gallery
Concerned at the lack of output, Gambart wrote to his old friend Stephens on April 9th, 1873. The letter mentioned two large pictures by Alma-Tadema: A sculpture gallery (No 164, 1874( and A picture gallery in Rome (No 165, 1874(:
I am glad to hear you give me such a good account of his [Alma-Tadema's] large pictures which he intends for the R. A. of next year. I hope to have them here next winter but with him no reliance can be placed and he may, just like Hunt, arrive three years after his calculations.77
In this instance Gambart's comments about Tadema's punctuality proved untrue. The two large pictures were completed a year later. Alma-Tadema was usually careful to meet deadlines, but the newly acquired Townshend House had become a major project in which to try his skills as an architect, designer, and decorator. After buying the house in 1871, the Alma-Tademas began to remodel it to their own tastes.
During March 1874 Alma-Tadema completed three important pictures. Two were exhibited in the Royal Academy in April, Joseph, overseer of Pharaoh's granaries (No 163, 1874) and the long awaited A picture gallery in Rome (No 165, 1874). The latter's associated painting, A sculpture gallery (No 164, 1874) was completed slightly earlier in time for the Paris Salon and then exhibited in November at the Berlin Academy where it was awarded the Great Gold Medal by the German Emperor, earning the artist honorary membership of the Academy.
A sculpture gallery was first seen in England at the next Royal Academy in April 1875 where it received a mixed reception. The Illustrated London News called Alma-Tadema 'another outsider'. His biographer, Edmund Gosse, wrote that: 'great improvement in the colour of his picture was noticeable at once, and from this time he threw off the last remains of his conventional Belgian tones'.78 Ruskin wrote contemptuously, 'It is the last corruption of this new Roman state, and its Bacchanalian frenzy which Alma-Tadema seems to hold it his heavenly mission to portray.'79 Ruskin further commented:
A work showing artistic skill and classical learning, both in a high degree... The artistic skill has succeeded with all its objects in the degree of their unimportance... The execution is dexterous, but more with mechanical steadiness of practice than innate fineness of nerve.80
These two largish oils were commissioned by Gambart, 'as a memento of long-subsisting business relations'. Treasured by him in his villa at Les Palmiers in Nice, they were depictions of 'men of business' (A Picture Gallery in Rome), and 'Portraits of myself and my family' (A Sculpture Gallery).81 These two canvases met with sufficient approval at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions of 1874 and 1875, that they led directly to Alma-Tadema's election as an Associate of the Academy in January 1876.
The basic composition of A picture gallery in Rome was first conceived in 1867, but it was not until 1874 that it reached its final summation and definitive form. Tadema had studiously compiled a record of many of the most famous pictures by ancient artists. Philoxenos of Eretria is represented by his Battle of Issus, Timonachos of Byzantium by his Medea and Timanthes by the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, to name but a few. The painting reviews the Who's Who of ancient art and led to Harry Quilter's criticism:
From an art point of view such pictures have only great value if they are to be considered as pictorial schoolbooks, but to this Mr. Alma-Tadema would hardly consent.82
By May 1874 Alma-Tadema had already painted at least forty pictures for Gambart's second commission and he was exhausted. Holiday plans were being made, including a visit to the Paris Salon, but these were curtailed by concern over the health of Laura's father. Dr Epps died on May 28th and it is thought that the Alma-Tademas left for the continent in early June after the funeral. Although dates and details are not recorded, they appear to have been absent from their studios during June, July and the first part of August.
We know that they went to Holland in 1874, for according to Ellen Clayton, 'That year  and in 1874, she [Laura] visited Holland again.'83 It is quite possible that they visited H W Mesdag and Carel Vosmaer in The Hague during this trip. The completion on August 30th of two small paintings; an interior study, Munster Cathedral (No 172, 1874) and Landscape near Munster, Westphalia (No 173, 1874) gives an indication of their itinerary. Alma-Tadema's A breezy day in August (Landscape near Innsbruck) (No 195, 1875) was also begun during this continental journey.
Water pets (No 171, 1874, see illustration p.138) had been in progress for some months and was completed soon after the Alma-Tadema's return from the continent. Antistius Labeon AD 75 (No 174, 1874) was finished in time for the Autumn exhibition at the Glasgow Institute. A great deal of time and energy was given to this painting of Antistius Labeon which was dedicated to Alma-Tadema's late father-in-law who is also portrayed in it.
In need of further rest, the Alma-Tademas were invited to Penkill Castle in Scotland by William Bell Scott and Miss Alice Boyd. According to Scott the visit was memorable, 'He made a number of rapid little pictures, leaving a space for the figures which was to give them value [afterwards].'84 An example of what Scott meant by this space for the figures can be seen in Alma-Tadema's Landscape with figure beside fence (No 175, 1874) in which the landscape is sketched in the background, silhouetting a figure suggested by the bare canvas.
As the Alma-Tademas travelled home from Scotland on October 2nd 1874, they heard the news that a barge loaded with gunpowder and benzoline had exploded on Regent's Canal. The accident occurred just before five o'clock in the morning as a six-barge convoy moved along the canal from Camden Town to St John's Wood, on the north side of the park. The explosion caused considerable destruction over a wide area.
Many houses were destroyed or damaged, including several belonging to Alma-Tadema's artistic and literary friends. The Alma-Tadema house was the hardest hit in the road.85 A M Eyre commented that it was fortunate that Alma-Tadema was away at the time, because his bed and bedroom sustained serious damage.86 With the help of the eminent architects, George Aitchison and William Burges, the unsafe structure was shored up and before long the Alma-Tademas were decorating again.
For the following months, Alma-Tadema contented himself with water-colours and the finishing of seven small oil sketches for quick sale or trade. The completed sketches brought in much-needed money without monopolizing his energy and the architects were content to take some of them in payment for their work. His home now demanded most of his attention. 'I have been swamped with avocations!' he confessed to Vosmaer.87
Torn between his profession and the desire to complete his home, Alma-Tadema needed money as quickly and effortlessly as possible. To this end Vosmaer and Tadema planned to publish the artist's designs for the decorated studio ceiling, although the latter lamented his need to, 'Make some pennies out of it'. Only a few designs were ever printed.88
Following the delay caused by the explosion, Tadema settled down in his half-finished house and resumed work. Between May and October 1875 he produced ten pieces, of which two (No 193 and No 194) were major contributions to his oeuvre. After the dance (No 194, 1875) was Tadema's first major nude. This sensual work escaped attack by the Victorian critics, possibly because of its Classical veneer. Although it received favorable reviews in the Summer Exhibition of 1876, it was overshadowed by his other entry, An audience at Agrippa's (No 197, 1875).