In Britain there is a long cultural and artistic tradition of visualising and “reconstructing” the past. In late 19th century England this was famously and influentially practiced by the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema whose images of scenes from ancient Roman life captured the public imagination and have informed representations of Roman history in art, film, architecture and theatre ever since. As an example his paintings were used as source material by Hollywood directors in their vision of the ancient world for films such as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926), Cleopatra (1934), and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). This was one of a number of aspects explored at a major exhibition of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s work, and that of his talented family at Leighton House Museum in London from July to October 2017. Entitled “At Home in Antiquity” the exhibition was curated by Professor Elizabeth Prettejohn, Peter Trippi, Ivo Blom and Daniel Robbins. Having previously shown at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands and the Belvedere Museum in Vienna this was the largest assembly of Almeda-Tadema’s work for some years and a unique opportunity to examine the practice of historical research through picture making by one of its greatest exponents. The choice of Leighton House as the venue for the exhibition was inspired as it transposed the atmosphere and domestic detail of Tadema’s studio-house in St John’s Wood (now lost) into the Kensington domicile of another high-Victorian celebrity painter: Alma-Tadema’s friend Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) later Lord Leighton. Leighton House Museum was begun in 1865 as a private house (designed by the architect George Aitcheson) and after extensive restoration now houses a permanent collection reflecting the house as the artist originally occupied it. Much of this collection was temporarily removed to allow the Alma-Tadema exhibition to take place and it did occupy virtually every available room and wall surface in the building, in light levels so low at times one had to peer closely to see. The effort was worth it.
Alma-Tadema’s expertise lay in the archaeological accuracy of the artifacts and interior and exterior settings of his work, his realistic treatment of materials – in particular stone and marble and his capture of Mediterranean light and colour. He was very well read and amassed an enormous number of photographs from ancient sites in Italy which he used for the most precise accuracy in the details of his compositions. It was this commitment to veracity that earned him recognition but also caused many of his adversaries to take up arms against his almost encyclopedic works. His approach was in many ways architectural, focusing on the built context and upon artifacts. He drew heavily on his own houses (notably his studio house in St Johns Wood) which served in many ways as an actual stage set and source of inspiration for his historical compositions. How he arrived at this pre-eminent position in the Victorian art world is told in the exhibition at Leighton House, starting with his very earliest work as a young man beginning at the age of sixteen at the Royal Academy in Antwerp in Belgium and then as an assistant to leading history painters Louis De Taeye and later Henri Leys. It was in these apprenticeships that the young Lawrence learned the value of historical research as a prerequisite for making convincing historical pictures. Much of these early works are romantic depictions of early medieval French and Belgian and earlier Frankish and Merovingian mythology. In this the subject matter was aligned with the broader cultural and intellectual National Romantic movements of the day, which in England began with the Gothic revival led by A.W.N. Pugin, George Gilbert Scott, Ruskin, Butterfield, the pre-Raphaelites and the rest and shaped a new sense of national identity based in Anglo-Saxon mythology rather than classical Greek and Roman.
It is interesting therefore that in 1863 that he chose to honeymoon with his new bride Pauline Gressin in Italy for several months, staying in Florence, Rome and Naples and while there visiting the ruins of Pompeii. For an artist sensitive the importance of authenticity in historical visualization, Pompeii must have been an extraordinary experience, it certainly seems to have been, because from this point onward his work switches to Roman genre scenes and he returned to Italy and specifically Pompeii a number of times in later life. His paintings on their return to Brussels, started to explore themes drawn from Roman antiquity often in domestic interiors and scenes. Tragically, six years later in 1869 Pauline died and Lawrence, with by now two daughters decided to move to London. It was here he set up his studio, re-married and began in the 1870’s to progress from intimate domestic scenes of every-day Roman life to grander more spectacular and outdoor subjects of the imperial Roman world.
Victorian Classical Revival and the “Battle of the Styles”
Classicism in European architecture had always been present, sometimes the epitome of taste, sometimes seen as foreign and republican. Nations treated it quite differently, depending on the cultural lens through which they viewed it. In England it was (roughly speaking) one side of the famous ideological and architectural conflict called “the Battle of the Styles” which in the 1850’s revolved around the question of what was an appropriately English style of architecture. This came to a climax in the vitriolic debate over what style the new The Foreign Office in London should be built in. Architecture in Britain in the 1850’s was at a point of moral crisis, not just about which style to build in but in its attitude to religion, nationality, empire, history, modernism, truth, morality and gender. It led to public debates between Decimus Burton and Augustus W.N. Pugin and in France it led to controversy over the work of Violet-le-Duc. It was essentially the Gothic revival of the late 18th Century challenging the supremacy of Classicism for the embodiment of good taste. Ultimately in the end Sir George Gilbert Scott was obliged to abandon his original Gothic design for the Foreign Office in favour of a style which can be loosely described as in the Italian Renaissance manner sometimes called the ‘Free Renaissance’ but essentially classical in its derivation though much influenced by the Venetian palazzos.
A Model for Imperial Britannia
What the ‘Battle of the Styles’ did was release the floodgates for a much wide variety of architectural styles in the later Victorian decades, and it’s often difficult to find a label for them because they are so hybridized. It is easy therefore to entertain the idea that they were all variations to greater or lesser extent on the singular theme of an entrenched bipolar conflict between Republican ideals embodied by classicism and those of monarchy embodied by the “Gothic” in architecture. This would be to misunderstand the irresistible direction of ideological and social travel in the latter third of the nineteenth century in England. The experiment with the medieval as a source of inspiration became exhausted both intellectually and artistically for public buildings in the early 1900’s because Britain itself was changing, from a nation state with overseas ambitions to an imperial power with an overseas empire. The exemplar of Imperial Rome better fitted this direction of travel and it was offered up in education and architecture in England and through the work of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema among others in art as well. As British power approached its apogee, Alma-Tadema visualised through the painted image the ancient empire that was the model for Britain’s modern imperial adventure and in which the Victorians themselves were often the main protagonists in these visual dramas. Alma-Tadema’s technically adept presentations of the ancient Roman world, its myth and history were popular during his life-time because they were convincing in their detail and attractive to Victorian society in their morals and sentiments. This was to change after his death, along with attitudes to religion, nationality, empire, history, modernism, truth, morality and gender, just as they had done before and just as they continue to do. “At Home in Antiquity” as an exhibition prompts genuinely provocative questions about the role of art as a mirror to political and social ideals, even as a propagandist medium, but while one may agree or disagree with those ideals and the values they embody, it is hard not to admire the technical dexterity, scholarship and artistic bravura of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.