Interior Design and Artistic Presentation of Laurence Alma-Tadema's Residence

Wen-Ting Wu, Postdoctoral Researcher, Institute of Art History, National Taiwan University

The Chinoiserie that emerged and flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries continued to flourish in Europe in the 19th century. With the arrival and circulation of Oriental art, crafts, everyday objects, and books in large numbers, the accounts of travelers, and the publication as well as dissemination of both texts and images of the Orient, Oriental matters developed into a specialized sphere of knowledge, especially in the fields of art and design.

Another development of Chinoiserie in the 19th century was the combination with other exotic cultures, such as the Islamic culture of the Near East, Egyptian civilization, and African tribal culture, which became "exoticism" at that time. With the boom of archaeological activities in the occident countries, the unearthing of artifacts from ancient civilizations, and the transcription, copying, and circulation of these artifacts in written and pictorial publications, 'exoticism' has created a new era of taste across time and space. This period taste is particularly reflected in the interior design and furnishings of the Victorian era (1837-1901) in England, where people truly lived in this "exotic" context. In this article, we take the interior of the house designed by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) as an example of how this house reflected the style of the period and influenced his artistic work.

Laurence Alma-Tadema was a renowned Dutch-born neo-classical painter and designer in Victorian England. His paintings emphasize the setting of architectural spaces and the careful selection of objects to match the thematic scenes, representing scenes and themes from ancient Greek Roman, Byzantine, Egyptian, or Near Eastern Islamic cultures. This is due to the interiors he designed in his own house and his rich exotic collection, which also inspired many other aspects of his design, such as the appearance of furniture and musical instruments. (*1) His paintings depict classical Greek columns and vaults, or exotic plants, almost exclusively from his interior furnishings or gardens (Fig. 1). His house, located at 17 Grove End Road, St. John's Wood, London (now converted into apartments, the address of which has been changed to No. 44; alternatively, No. 34), was purchased from the painter James Tissot (1836-1902) in 1884. (*2) He spent two years redecorating the entire interior space with a variety of exotic objects from the Far and Near East in an attempt to make each element of his home differentiated and "different" from the other. In his garden, exotic plants and giant sunflowers grow wildly, and they often appear in his paintings (Fig. 4). The old colonnade, which used to belong to Tissot, stands in the garden, with a large tank next to it gushing into a fish pond on one side. Alma-Tadema's house had three floors, one in the basement, and one can see from the architectural plan, his studio was the main part of the house, occupying more than half of the first floor, with ancillary spaces such as a silver-plated semicircular niche next to the studio, a modeling room, a square niche, and a hall decorated with painted panels (above which was the gallery). Other spaces are the atrium that runs through both floors, as well as the smoking room, the dining room, the library, and the studio of his wife Laura Alma-Tadema (1852-1909). Laura was also a known painter at the time, and her studio, designed by Alma-Tadema in the classical Dutch style, was small and simple, hidden away in the family area on the first floor. This configuration highlights the imbalance in the distribution of space and gender in Victorian homes of the middle class and above, especially the balance between the private space of wives and husbands. 

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Fig. 1. Unconscious Rivals, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1983. Oil on canvus, 45.1 x 62.8 cm, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, UK.

As the most important space in the house, Alma-Tadema's studio can be accessed through four different entrances, including a steep staircase decorated with shiny brass that leads visitors to believe that they are entering an Alhambresque style architectural space, but the actual interior is in the ancient Greek and Roman style, with a circular vaulted ceiling and an exotic mix of interior furnishings and art collection (Fig. 2).

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The square niche on the right side of the studio, for example, is equipped with windows made of Mexican onyx, which look like stained glass and transform sunlight into warm tones of light (Fig. 3). A Chinese screen stands beneath the window, a low Moorish-style octagonal table and teapot in front, a low fence of Chinese wooden coins on the floor. On both sides of the wall in front of the niche are couplets in Chinese, written in the hope of everlasting spring in the green forests, mountains and the universe, and of a family that loves art, literature and history. In front of the niche is a grand piano. Here, we can see a natural blend of building materials from Latin America, Islamic furniture, and Chinese literature and art. (*4)

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As mentioned earlier, the Alma-Tadema residence was also full of collections from Asia, according to a list of property provided by his daughter Laurence after her father's death, which included a Chinese vase unearthed from an Egyptian tomb. (*5) The list of furniture used in his studio to decorate spaces and painting scenes includes chairs from China, Japan, and Burma. (*6) With these artifacts from ancient civilizations and cultures, though not necessarily antiquities, the painters were able to create a historical or archaeological space. Alma-Tadema's design should have been inspired by her mentor Henri Leys (1815-1869). Henri Leys (1815-1869), who was also well known at the time for his house design, which consisted of a Chinese room, a room with a mix of Gothic and Neo-Renaissance styles, and a Flemish-style dining room. The space of the house was set up like his paintings and traveled through different time and space. (*7) Such an approach is also seen in the work of contemporaneous architect William Burges (1827-1881) at his Tower House in Holland Park, London. His design attempts to restore the space from the 13th century, but fills it with many embroideries, enamels, metalware, carpets from China and Japan, and crafts from East Asian and Islamic cultures juxtaposed in a French Neo-Gothic architectural space, (*8) creating a new style in an old time and different space.

The sale in 1913 of over 1,500 pieces of furniture and collectibles from the Alma-Tadema residence in an eighty-eight-page catalog reveals the incredible number and diversity of his collection. A key factor that must be noted in the relationship between his exotic collections, displays and the fashion of the time is the holding of the Universal Exposition. Take for example the Universal Exhibition, which opened in London's Hyde Park on May 1, 1851, under the auspices of Prince Albert (1819-1861), an exhibition that had a huge impact on the collecting tastes in the Victorian era. Printed publications and research articles on Eastern and Near Eastern Islamic cultures since the 18th and 19th centuries show that knowledge has been integrated, and the circulation of archaeological results from various countries has contributed to the dissemination of knowledge related to the exhibits, their diversity and high quality. This magnificent exhibition of the empire features more than 20,000 exhibits from around the world and attracts more than six million visitors. According to the official exhibition catalog published at the time, the thousands of items on display came from not only Britain and its 33 dependencies, but also from 29 other countries and their colonies or dependencies. (*9) The Universal Exposition has promoted the trend of collecting exotic items, and it has become popular for middle-class families and above to have a few items from the Near and Far East in their houses. A comparison of the 1851 exhibition catalog with the 1913 auction catalog of the Alma-Tadema collection shows that there are many similarities between his collection and the exhibits listed in the exhibition catalog.

The vaulted interior of Alma-Tadema residence is reminiscent of a sacred space such as a cathedral, and combined with the world's objects inside, the house is like a mini-museum, and such setting is certainly reminiscent of a cabinet of curiosities. Due to the promotion of the Universal Exposition and the aforementioned specific integration and circulation of the world's natural history knowledge, the setting of the cabinet of curiosities has been extended to the middle-class collection and display, only on a different scale. In addition, since Alma-Tadema is an artist himself, his curiosities are displayed in all corners of the house, breaking the limits of space. He has mounted his collection of paintings in the form of several panels on the three sides of the hall to the side of the studio, so that the paintings can be exhibited from time to time (Fig. 5). This design and the space of the silver-plated semicircular niche (Fig. 3) were combined by the painter to form the setting for the painting A Favourite Custom (Fig. 6).

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The interior of Alma-Tadema residence is a work of art that he has created and from which he has created many more works of art. He was already the subject of many articles in European and American art magazines and art critics. William Gaunt (1900-1980), an art historian of Victorian era, commented: The family lived in their own paintings. The contemporary historian Elizabeth Prettejohn (1961- ) commented that Alma-Tadema's entire house and studio was a laboratory for experimenting with various artistic effects. (*10) The scenes in his paintings also became the reference for several movie scenes in the next century, for example, the director of Gladiator in 2000, Riley B. Scott. Ridley Scott and Arthur Max (1937-), art director of Gladiator, used details from many of his paintings, such as temple architecture, mosaic floors, and statues, to create the palace of the Roman emperor Lucius Aurelius Commodus Antoninus (161-192), and the interior furnishings or objects, such as incense burners, referenced the paintings The Way to the Temple (1882), also the costumes and street scenes. (*11) It is also worth noting that Alma-Tadema's paintings were often reproduced in the form of prints at that time, which increased the popularity and circulation of his works. Together with the interior design that was the basis of his paintings, they not only reflected the 'exotic' tastes of the Victorian era in England, but also influenced and inspired various artistic creations of that time and later generations.

Brief bibliography:

Ash, Russell. 1973. Alma-Tadema: An Illustrated Life of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1836-1912. London: Shire Books.

Morris, Kathleen M. & Alexis Goodin ed. 2017. Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and the Marquand Music Room.Williamstown: Clark Art Institute.

Moser, Stephanie. 2020. Painting Antiquity, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth & Peter Trippi ed. 2016. Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Klassische Verführung. München: Prestel.

Catalogue of the Well-known and Interesting Collection of Antique Furniture and Objets d’Art formed by the Late Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A., Including Valuable Picture, and The Archaeological Library, 1913. London: Hampton & Sons.

Inventory of Furniture, Textiles, Ceramics, Glass and Antiques Framed Pictures and Drawings etc., 1935. Oxford University: Bodleian Library.

Notes:

*1   He is known for his furniture designs for New York financial tycoon, collector, and president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Henry Gurdon Marquand (1819-1902). The complete set includes sofa seats, round tables, coffee tables, and classical piano cases (all made by Johnstone, Norman and Company, London) are in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and private collections, respectively. For more information, see: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O21544/armchair-alma-tadema-lawrence/; and Kathleen M. Morris & Alexis Goodin ed., “Gallery: The Marquand Furniture Suite”, Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and the Marquand Music Room, Williamstown: Clark Art Institute (2017), p. 127-135.

*2.  See the biography on the British Museum website: "Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema" https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG17194 (accessed on May 5, 2022)

 

*3.  Russell Ash, “London Life”, Alma-Tadema: An Illustrated Life of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1836-1912,London: Shire Books (1973), p. 16. Some of the sources of Ash's arguments: J. Elmsley Inglis’s outline sketches in the Art Journal, special number (1886), p. 30.

 

*4.  This is the display in the May 31, 1889, photograph by The Architect magazine. According to a 1910 photograph by Art Journal, the couplet has been removed and the display has been altered, e.g., a Moorish cabinet stands in front of the right side of the niche.

 

*5.  Stephanie Moser, “Chapter 9 Learned Artistry: The Methods and Preparatory Materials of Alma-Tadema, Poynter and Long”, Painting Antiquity, N.Y.: Oxford University Press (2020), p. 398, 548. Original data: Inventory of Furniture, Textiles, Ceramics, Glass and Antiques Framed Pictures and Drawings etc. 1935, listed by Laurence, daughter of Alma-Tadema (in Bodleian Library, Oxford University, MS Eng. Misc. c. 792).

 

*6.  Take the example of his chair collection, which contains the following items:

--a pair of heavy wooden Tai Shi chairs from the Chinese Ming Dynasty

--Chinese rattan chair --a sofa amphora with genuine Persian saddlebags

--a square sofa chair, filled with springs and hair, upholstered in Genoese velvet in pale purple and antique gold, decorated with beads and tassels

--A bench designed by Alma-Tadema, originally placed in a semicircular niche in the mansion

--A pair of sofas of different materials by Alma-Tadema, one side of carved cedar and the other of Sycamore maple, with inlaid mother-of-pearl decoration, cushions of striped silk and leather straps, and heavy brass handles

--Burmese wooden bench with open ends, carved with masks, flowers, leaves and other decorations, cushioned with old metal silk brocade

--Another similar bench with a rattan seat and a soft cushion made of embroidered Chintz (Indian printed cotton)

--A German peasant wedding chair with traditional symbolic carved design and painting, engraved with name and date, with perforated panel back and rattan seat

--five other chairs, similar to those listed above

--two Japanese rattan round stools and two other stools of different types  

 

See above for details: Catalogue of the Well-known and Interesting Collection of Antique Furniture and Objets d’Art formed by the Late Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A., Including Valuable Picture, and The Archaeological Library (London, 1913), p. 5-7.

 

*7.  Stephanie Moser, “Chapter 9 Learned Artistry: The Methods and Preparatory Materials of Alma-Tadema, Poynter and Long”, Painting Antiquity, N.Y.: Oxford University Press (2020), p. 410.

 

*8.  Ibid.

 

*9.  Alphabetical & Classified Index to the Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851. It was published at the same time as the Universal Exposition.

 

*10.  Stephanie Moser, “Chapter 9 Learned Artistry: The Methods and Preparatory Materials of Alma-Tadema, Poynter and Long”, Painting Antiquity, N.Y.: Oxford University Press (2020), p. 412.

 

*11.  Ivo Blom, “Das Zweite Leben des Lawrence Alma-Tadema”, Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Klassische Verführung, Elizabeth Prettejohn & Peter Trippi ed., München: Prestel (2016), p. 196-199.