20 December 2017

Lawrence Alma-Tadema and William Morris



A recent conference at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London, "Alma-Tadema: Antiquity at Home and On Screen," coincided with the appearance of an exhibition of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's work at Leighton House Museum entitled "Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity."  Organized by Peter Trippi, Elizabeth Prettejohn, and Ivo Blom, the exhibition appeared at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands (the artist's hometown), followed by the Belvedere in Vienna, and then finally Leighton House Museum.  

William Morris (1834-1896) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) were contemporaries, but very little seems to connect them in terms of artistic ideals and interests other than an overlapping circle of friends, including Edward Burne-Jones.  Alma-Tadema was also a founding member of Morris’s Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, founded in 1877.  Morris wrote to his daughter Jenny on October 17, 1888 about the elaborate decorations undertaken by Alma-Tadema at Townshend House, near Regent’s Park, where the artist lived from 1871-5: “I don’t admire them: they appear to me too much made up of goose giblets and umbrellas.”  The artist’s daughter Anna Alma-Tadema created a series of watercolors of the house, including a view of the study, that suggests the wide range of artistic interests and inspiration, including what Charlotte Gere has identified in the exhibition catalogue as a dado of resist-dyed cotton from the Dutch East Indies. Perhaps these were the goose giblets? Nonetheless, critics considered the kind of artistic living fashioned by Alma-Tadema at Townshend House to be commensurate with the approach to interior decoration advocated by William Morris.  Moncure Conway considered the house to be “the most complete rendering of the effects at which William Morris and Burne Jones have aimed in their efforts at beautifying London households.”

Anna Alma-Tadema, "Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Study in Townshend House, London. Cooper-Hewitt

  
But the visual records suggest that Alma-Tadema was interested in the work of William Morris. The exhibition featured the stunning Epps Family Screen, painted in cooperation with the artist’s student Laura Theresa Epps, who would later become his wife.  The six-fold screen, now in the collection of the V&A, shows Laura’s family at dinner, gathering below an inscription from Aesop’s fables celebrating family unity.

Portrait of the Epps Family ("Epps Family Screen"), c. 1871, V&A
 
They gather in a dining room hung with Morris’s Pomegranate wallpaper, designed c. 1865. The design may have been a favorite of Laura’s, as it appears in a watercolor by the artist Ellen Epps from 1873, Laura Alma-Tadema Entering the Dutch Room at Townshend House (now in the collection of Peter and Dorothy Wright).

Ellen Epps (later Gosse), "Portrait of Laura, Lady Alma-Tadema," 1873. Private collection.


The d├ęcor paid homage to the artist’s Dutch identity, albeit with an eclecticism characteristic of the Aesthetic movement: Laura strides through a doorway mostly hidden by an Old Dutch cabinet filled with linen, but the dado below Pomegranate appears to be comprised of Japanese tatami mats.

In addition to these connections, the symposium suggests the range of exciting new work on the artist’s studio.  Each day of the two-day event addressed different themes in Alma-Tadema's art. Day one considered the studio houses, including those of Alma-Tadema and other artists (especially Leighton House), studio-houses abroad, and the cultural life of the extended Tadema family.  The second day addressed films set in classical antiquity, including the influence of Tadema's paintings on depictions of life in the ancient world in other media, such as tableaux vivants, theater, and film.  The Paul Mellon Centre has provided recordings of the talks on the first day, including plenary lectures by Christopher Reed and Mary Roberts.

Leighton House Museum was a fitting venue for an exhibition that explored the range of meanings that attached to domestic life in the art of Alma-Tadema (1836-1912).  Many of the subjects of this "Victorian classicist" addressed domestic life in antiquity.  Perhaps less well-known to audiences is the extent to which Alma-Tadema also orchestrated his own domestic and working life in two studio-houses he created in St. John's Wood, with his wife Laura (also an artist) and his daughters Laurence and Anna, who was also an artist.  In 1883, the artist acquired a new house, one that had originally been enlarged by the artist James Tissot.  He set about extensively remodeling the house and gardens, adding such practical features as a changing room and washing facilities for models.  And it was at Grove End House that Alma-Tadema set about creating "Casa Tadema," an architecturally sophisticated space adorned with the artist's collection of antiques and curios.

Environments such as this one create a dialogue between the inhabitants’ work and life.  It is this kind of associative property of the artist’s studio that Theodor Adorno highlights in his essay “Valery, Proust, Museum.”  The studio is the place of art’s immediacy, where it is protected for the “barbarity” of the museum.   This approach brings to mind the range of domestic spaces in which one can explore the art and life of William Morris.  The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow was the Morris family home from 1848 to 1856, and today it is a gallery that considers the artist’s life and work as well as the art produced by Morris’s circle of friends and colleagues.  Red House in Bexleyheath was commissioned by Morris from the architect Philip Webb in 1859.  The family lived there until 1865, and it is currently a National Trust property that is open to the public.  It was at Red House that Morris founded “the Firm” of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.  Morris’s political convictions came to the fore during his time at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, overlooking the Thames, Morris’s residence from 1878 until his death in 1896.  It is still a private house and is not open to visitors.  Those in search of a Kelmscott experience will have to explore Kelmscott Manor in the Cotwolds, opened to the public during certain times thanks to the Society of Antiquaries in London.  These residences and the range of Morris’s artistic production make it difficult to name a single “artist’s studio home” for Morris.  Yet the diversity of the Morris “studio-home” environments provides it own sort of richness, from the idea of the artist decorating the interior at Red House to the meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist Society at Kelmscott House.

--Morna O'Neill, Associate Professor of Art, Wake Forest University

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