During the late nineteenth century journal and newspaper articles that described artists’ homes or studios as demonstrations of their unique creative personalities became fashionable reading. Architectural and interior design were supposed to reflect the individuality of genius. The homes of the painters Frederic Leighton in Holland Park and Lawrence Alma-Tadema in St John’s Wood were described in glowing terms. These grandiose mansions created enormous curiosity. Their owners belonged to the elite of society (Leighton was the first painter to be given a peerage in the New Year Honours List of 1896; Alma-Tadema was knighted in 1899) and through their work they accumulated enormous wealth; they mixed with royalty and aristocracy and enjoyed a lifestyle of comfort, splendour and luxury. So much for our beloved notion of the ‘starving artist’, itself a creation of the nineteenth century.
Lawrence [Lorenz] Alma-Tadema was born on 8 January 1836 in Dronrijp, Friesland, in the Netherlands. The son of a notary, he began his formal art training at the Academy of Art in Antwerp. Influenced by his friendship with the Egyptologist Georg Ebers, he first produced paintings on Merovingian and Egyptian subjects. On honeymoon in Italy he visited Pompeii. His visit coincided with the first systematic excavations of the site. Inspired by the spectacle, he embarked on depicting the classical world. The representation of Roman life started to dominate his oeuvre. In 1864 he secured a lucrative commission from Belgian-born art dealer Ernest Gambart for twenty-four pictures; in 1869 he received a second contract for another forty-eight paintings.
Gambart exhibited Alma-Tadema’s work at his prestigious French Gallery in London. It was in December 1869 that Lawrence first met Laura Epps at the London home of Ford Madox Brown, some nine months after the death of his French wife Marie-Pauline Gressin de Boisgirard.
Laura was half his age. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War made him decide to move to London. Arriving in the capital at the beginning of September 1870 with his two young daughters, Alma-Tadema rented the house and studio at no. 4 Camden Square which was owned by the orientalist painter Frederick Goodall who was then travelling in Egypt. He contacted Laura and proposed to her.
Having married in July 1871, the couple settled at Townsend House, no. 17 Titchfield Terrace, North Gate, Regent’s Park, where Laura acted as stepmother to his daughters. She herself was a painter of sentimental domestic scenes in seventeenth century Dutch settings. A prolific artist who enjoyed enormous success in Britain, Alma-Tadema lived in extravagant style. He redesigned Townsend House to resemble a Roman villa, but in the early hours of 10 October 1874 an unfortunate accident happened. The barge ‘Tilbury’ was third in a train of vessels being towed by a steam tug westwards along the Regent’s Park Canal. It was laden with sugar, nuts, two or three barrels of petroleum, and five tons of gunpowder. The powder caught fire, causing a huge explosion, as the barge went under Macclesfield Bridge at North Gate. It was the greatest explosion in London up to the time of World War I. It could be heard thirty kilometres away and dead fish rained from the sky in the West End. The crew were killed and the bridge destroyed. The explosion also seriously damaged Alma-Tadema’s house. The catastrophe caused such havoc that a detachment of Horse Guards were brought in to help keep order and to ensure safety from wild animals at the nearby Zoological Gardens.
The destruction caused by the explosion offered an opportunity to redecorate the villa all over again. Alma-Tadema invited George Aitchinson to join him in the design of the property. At the time this architect was at the height of popularity. Working in a family practice, he had specialised in wharves, warehouses, docks and railway architecture. In 1860 he was commissioned by painter Frederic Leighton to design a home and studio for him in Holland Park. Work on the house started in 1865. Aitchinson’s involvement with Leighton’s mansion extended over thirty years.
Externally, the new house showed little ornament or embellishment. The south facade, facing the street, was given the appearance of an Italian palazzo. The north side overlooking the garden was dominated by the large studio window on the first floor. Internally the house was relatively modest at this early stage. Extensions followed later. Construction of the Arab Hall started in 1877 and created a sensation. The model was an interior contained in the twelfth-century Castello della Zisa at Palermo. Some outstanding craftsmen were involved in its construction, including the potter William De Morgan, the sculptor Edgar Boehm, and the artist and book-illustrator Walter Crane amongst others. Crane’s design for the gold mosaic frieze was made up in Venice and shipped to the site in sections. The early tiles used in the building of the Hall, mostly brought over from Damascus (antiquarian interest and art robbery were indistinguishable at the time), form a unique collection in itself. Through his work for Leighton, Aitchinson was engaged by a number of artistically-inclined clients to remodel their London homes. Alma-Tadema was one of them.
In the reconstruction of Townsend House each room was given a distinct theme, downstairs there were a Gothic library, Laura’s Japanese studio, a Spanish boudoir, and upstairs laid out a series of parlours in Moorish, Byzantine, and other styles. Lawrence’s own studio took on a Pompeian look. Anna Alma-Tadema followed in the footsteps of her parents and became an artist producing portraits, interior scenes, and flowers. She made a number of watercolours of the interior Townshend House, including The Drawing Room and The Gold Room. In 1884 she produced a watercolour of her father’s library. The room is furnished with Dutch oak cabinets, a fur-covered couch and a bronze chandelier, designed by Alma-Tadema himself; a Japanese lantern on the ceiling and Japanese matting on the floor; a palm leaf fan, peacock feathers, and batik fabric, all from the Dutch East Indies. The interior pointed to the artist’s native country. To contemporary critics it reflected the inventive genius of its creator. The working relationship between artist and architect in such undertakings underlines how much the balance of power in the arts had shifted. Traditionally, architecture had been considered the ‘mother of the arts’, because it had a maternal role in regard to sculpture, painting, and other decorative arts.
Andrea Palladio presented Regina Virtus (Queen of Virtue) on the frontispiece to each of his four studies on the art of building. She sits there as mother of the arts. The moment that this nurturing relationship with the arts was broken, and each of the ‘children’ had gone out in the world to find his/her own way, architecture itself disintegrated. John Ruskin still upheld that position when, in The seven lamps of architecture, he argued that ‘architecture must be the beginning of arts, and that the others must follow her in their time and order […] the prosperity of our schools of painting and sculpture […] depends upon that of our architecture’. In the course of the nineteenth century the architect lost his prominent position. He was obliged to execute the whims and caprices of his employers. It is not surprising that Ruskin was appalled by Alma-Tadema’s work.
As soon as the building work at Townsend House was finished, Alma-Tadema went out in search of a bigger property and a new project to mark his position as a trendsetter and arbiter of taste in Victorian society. It turned out to be a villa in St John’s Wood, once owned by a fellow painter of Continental descent. Jacques Joseph [James] Tissot was born on 15 October 1836 in Nantes, the son of a Roman Catholic linen merchant. He arrived in Paris at the time of the 1855 International Exhibition.
A number of his early compositions centred on Marguerite, the heroine of Goethe’s Faust as interpreted in opera by Charles Gounod. One of Tissot’s first paintings on the theme, Marguerite in Church, was acquired in 1860 by art dealer Adolphe Goupil, who published a high-quality photograph thereby making the image available to a wide international audience. Tissot had a passion for oriental art. He collected Japanese prints, textiles, and porcelain, incorporating them as accessories in paintings, as well as depicting western-looking women dressed in kimonos. During bombardment in April and May 1871 of the Commune he volunteered as a stretcher-bearer. He sympathised with anti-government feelings and was appalled to see the brutality of the ‘bloody week’ in May when French troops suppressed the revolt, making sketches of what he witnessed.
In June 1871 Tissot travelled to England for a private view of the official French contribution to the International Exhibition, not intending to stay long. He brought with him sketches made during the siege. Shocked by his eyewitness accounts his friends urged him to stay in London. After all, his work was admired in the metropolis and sales were phenomenal. Early in 1873 he settled at no. 17 (later: no. 44) Grove End Road, St John’s Wood, a detached residence that was built in 1825 with substantial grounds, a coach house and stables, and a formal pond ringed by an Ionic colonnade.
He decorated the interior in a mixture of Empire and Victorian styles with a flavour of the Orient. In 1877, artist’s model Kathleen Newton [née Kelly] came to live with him. Of Irish descent, she was born in India where her marriage was arranged to an army surgeon in the Punjab. She soon left him and returned to England. As divorce was not recognised by the Catholic Church, their social sphere shrank to people to whom cohabitation was irrelevant. Kathleen became the main model in Tissot’s pictures from 1878. Their life of domesticity was short lived as his partner died of tuberculosis in November 1882. He left for Paris immediately after the funeral.
The house stood empty for some time before it was acquired by Alma-Tadema. The property next door was owned by his good friend, the enormously successful historical genre painter (later keeper of the Royal Academy) Philip Hermogenes Calderon who was of mixed Spanish-French descent. Both became active members of the so-called St John’s Wood Clique. Calderon was a sociable man, and among his large circle of friends were members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, G. F. Watts, who painted his portrait, and many literary figures, notably George Du Maurier, Anthony Trollope, and Charles Dickens.
His son Alfred Marigon Calderon was an architect. His first work after articling was the design of the Alma-Tadema residence. The house was extensively remodelled to an Italianate style. In fact, some 80% of Tissot’s dwelling was demolished for reconstruction. It was the owner’s ambition to create a temple of aestheticism. When it was finished critics described it as being more like an enchanted palace than a London house. A shady and tiled pergola led through the old garden from the gate to the front door which was made of carved wood and surrounded by deep bronze relief. The entrance to the hall was designed in a classic style, and the floors were laid with Persian tiles. It was known as the Hall of Panels, an ‘unending’ series (some fifty in total) of narrow vertical panels painted in brilliant colours against the white walls by friends and visiting artists (twenty six of the panels reappeared at a Sotheby’s auction in 1974; and four panels were sold in The Forbes Collection auction at Christie’s in 2003). Around the hall were various rooms, one of which was filled with choice treasures from China and Japan. Another room had leather-covered walls, old cabinets and highly-polished brasses of Dutch design and workmanship. The house had sixty-six rooms in total, including an atrium, a billiard room, and a large cellar just for mineral waters. Central to the structure was a balcony overlooking a marble basin with a babbling fountain. There were studios for Anna, Laura and Lawrence himself. For Laura’s Dutch-style studio a team of craftsmen were brought over from Holland to fabricate the oak-beamed ceiling and oak wall panelling with matching chimneypiece.
The same team put together the adjoining bedroom from Dutch woodwork and Delft tileware. Lawrence himself occupied a three-story studio with walls of gray and green marble, magnificent stained-glass windows designed by American artist of French descent John La Farge, and capped with a semi-circular dome covered in aluminium which gave a silvery tone to his paintings. The family finally moved into the house in November 1886. The inscription above the door read ‘Where friends meet hearts warm’ and a stream of famous visitors did pass through the door, from Tchaikovsky, Rodin, Henry James, Sarah Bernardt, Ignacy Paderewski, Enrico Caruso, to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and young Winston Churchill. An Arab Hall in Holland Park or an Italianate villa with a Persian entrance in St John’s Wood – these artist’s mansions emphasise the stylistic confusion of the age. In art and architecture, it was an eclectic free for all, a carnival of styles. Eclecticism is the borrowing and combining of a variety of manners from different sources or periods. It does not constitute a specific style, but it fuses a variety of influences. A pluralistic society is by its very nature eclectic. Ignoring the wealth of our past would lead to collective amnesia.
The problem with nineteenth century eclecticism however was identified as early as 1836 by Augustus Welby Pugin in his Contrasts (p.31): ‘Let us look around, and see whether the Architecture of this country is not entirely ruled by whim and caprice. Does locality, destination, or character of a building, form the basis of a design? No; surely not. We have Swiss cottages in a flat country; Italian villas in the coldest situations; a Turkish kremlin for a royal residence; Greek temples in crowded lanes; Egyptian auction rooms; and all kinds of absurdities and incongruities: and not only are separate edifices erected in these inappropriate and unsuitable styles, but we have only to look into those nests of monstrosities, the Regent’s Park and Regent Street, where all kind of styles are jumbled together to make up a mass’.
London’s explosive urban and industrial expansion during the nineteenth century required functional planning. In order to build rapidly and extensively an attempt was made to perfect standard types. Mass construction created a sense of urban monotony because the individual building was less significant than the series to which it belonged. Architecture became standardised, regulated and quantified. Purpose and functionality became prime considerations and the question of style was relegated to secondary status. This is the paradox of the age. Never before had the variety of styles been so great and the tendency towards evenness so visible. Novelty itself was confused, a labyrinth of experiments. The Victorian brand of Classicism/Orientalism was essentially escapist, a vogue for the exotic, a craving for colour in an age dressed in black. Architecture deteriorated into a fancy-dress party. In an age of extraordinary scientific and technological progress, art and architecture were mesmerised by Antiquity and the Orient, by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It caused a dilemma of identity. Alma-Tadema’s painting is an expression of that muddle.
Britain’s overseas expansion moreover stimulated grand comparisons. Roman dignity was claimed for British monarchs. In 1876 Disraeli introduced the Royal Titles Act which raised the status of the English queen to ‘Regina et Imperatrix’. British imperialists were keen to draw the historical parallel with Imperial Rome to justify their expansionist actions. Rome was seen as the most instructive of all histories to contemporary British ambitions. It was an appealing analogy: Rome had been a civilizing force in barbaric times and Britain’s mission was to play a similar role in the modern world. But it was also an ample warning: the decadence and degeneration of the eternal city should function as a continuous reminder to rulers and administrators. Alma-Tadema affirmed such historical comparisons in paint. In his depictions ancient Rome and modern London are on a par. His Roman citizen in front of the temple did not seem to differ from a business man on his way to the Stock Exchange with its imitation temple front. He was a Victorian city-dweller in toga. Modernism redirected art towards the present once again and re-formulated the axiom that architecture is fundamentally current speech, not a dictionary of classical quotation.