Tag Archives: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Miracle Nightmare on Seventh Street”

I kept going back to those pictures of the Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar that I posted yesterday, trying to figure out why they seemed so familiar. Sometime this morning, I finally made the connection.

They reminded me of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “The Roses of Heliogabalus”, which I saw at the Leighton House Museum the last time I was in London.

There’s a grim story behind the bright, pretty scene portrayed in “The Roses of Heliogabalus”. According to legend, the Roman emperor Heliogabalus (sometimes known as Elagabalus) had a false ceiling installed over his dining room, and filled the space above it with rose petals. When the ceiling was released, the mass of petals would fall to earth, smothering his unwanted guests.

Since the mass murder of barroom patrons is frowned upon by the Liquor Control Board, I have no doubt that the management of the Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar will stick to the more traditional way of letting its clientele know when it’s time to go, by blinking the lights and shouting “Last Call!”

Still, it might be a good idea to leave a little early, just in case.

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This Time, Sir Frederic Leighton Meets Alexander McQueen

The London Fashion Week collaboration between the Leighton House Museum and British fashion photographer Ram Shergill continues.   Shergill has been coupling his own photographic works with specific paintings by Leighton.  This is the fourth of five match-ups.

They seem to be getting more literal.


“I particularly like this image of Leighton’s ‘Head of an Italian model’ as it has a certain realness about it.  I love the darkness of it as it takes me right back to the time when I first started photography.  There is something quite dark and macabre about this portrait.The image reminds me of when Alexander McQueen showed me some of his art and photography books and said that he was into ‘the macabre’ – something that mesmerized me.  This image captures a ‘sensual’ macabre for me as it is a magnificent portrait of a beautiful profile. But there also seems to be something sinister in the way the subject is looking up as if to pray, or to perhaps reflect on something that he has done or is intending to do.  Since meeting McQueen, my work has always contained this edge. The palette is similar to some of the great paintings by Caravaggio who has inspired various works by me.  The lighting lends itself to the display of light-coloured fabrics in combination with the pale skin tones of the human body.”

—Ram Shergill


I spent the first two weeks of Spring in London this year, and one of the things that influenced my choice of time and location was the scheduling of two exhibitions that I really wanted to see: A Leighton House exhibition of 50 pictures from the Pérez Simón Collection, including Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’ s “The Roses of Heliogabalus”, was in its final days…

…and an Alexander McQueen retrospective was opening at my favourite museum, the V&A.

It never occurred to me to link the two.

Leighton House Museum

Leighton House Museum is the former home and studio of the Victorian artist Sir Frederic Leighton.   I’ve posted earlier about the curious financial history of Lord Leighton’s best known painting, Flaming June, and its upcoming visit to the United States.

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“Flaming June,” by Sir Frederic Leighton

Returning to Leighton House was at the top of my list of things I wanted to do in London, for two reasons.

The first reason was that the jewel in the crown at Leighton House is one of my favourite rooms:  The Arab Hall.  I could have spent hours in this beautiful, serene, three-storey work of art.

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Arab Hall

The second reason was that Leighton House was hosting an exhibition of more than fifty rarely exhibited pictures from the Pérez Simón Collection, which is the largest private collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside Great Britain, now that the Forbes collection has been dispersed by Malcolm Forbes’ massively inept heirs.   Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, a Mexican telecommunications billionaire, is one of the world’s foremost private art collectors. His taste is wide-ranging—he buys what he likes, not what’s fashionable—and his collection exceeds 3,000 paintings.

I hadn’t known just what was in his Victorian collection, and was delighted to find that it included one of my favourite paintings:   Waterhouse’s  “The Crystal Ball.”

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“The Crystal Ball,” by John William Waterhouse

But the clear star of the collection, w/a room to itself, was Alma-Tadema’s “The Roses of Heliogabalus.”

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“The Roses of Heliogabalus,” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

I posted some notes about “The Roses of Heliogabalus” last fall, before I’d decided to spend early Spring in London, and long before I’d learned of this exhibition.

I had a hard time leaving Leighton House.  I walked through the full exhibition two or three times, with long visits to the Arab Hall at the start of the show and  “The Roses of Heliogabalus” at the end.  But I had plans for the evening, and finally had to say goodbye to Holland Park.

Sunday Morning — Victoriana of the Week

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“The Finding of Moses” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Last Sunday’s “Victoriana of the Week” mentioned this painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

“The Finding of Moses,” which sold for £265 in 1942, failed to find a buyer when it was offered at £250 eighteen years later, when Victorian art was out of fashion.

Things changed later in the 1960s, after critics and collectors found a new appreciation for the Victorian painters.   When the painting that had failed to sell in 1960 came up for auction at Christies in 1995, it sold for £1,750,000.  Fifteen years later, it sold again.

For $35,922,500.

Sunday Morning — Victoriana of the Week

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“Bluebells.” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

At first glance, you probably wouldn’t guess that the painter of “Bluebells” was Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, since much of his best-known work consists of paintings showing scenes from classical antiquity.  Once you know it’s his, though, it seems obvious.  The colors, the poses, the composition—it’s all classic Alma-Tadema.

The story of the changing critical perception of Victorian art is well known.  It went out of fashion in the early 20th Century, and by the 1950s, some Victorian paintings were being sold at thrift shop prices.   Alma-Tadema, one of the most popular and most financially successful Victorian painters, fell particularly hard.

Things turned around in the 1960s, which saw a major re-assessment of the Victorians.  One of the factors contributing to that re-assessment was an exhibition of Alma-Tadema’s paintings at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, which was held over the objections of Thomas Hoving, the museum’s director.

Wikipedia gives the happy ending to the story:

“In 1962, New York art dealer Robert Isaacson mounted the first show of Alma-Tadema’s work in fifty years…Allen Funt, the creator and host of the American version of the television show ‘Candid Camera,’ was a collector of Alma-Tadema paintings at a time when the artist’s reputation in the 20th century was at its nadir; in a relatively few years he bought 35 works, about 10% of Alma-Tadema’s output.  After Funt was robbed by his accountant…he was forced to sell his collection at Sotheby’s in London in November 1973.  From this sale, the interest in Alma-Tadema was re-awakened.  In 1960, the Newman Gallery firstly tried to sell, then give away (without success) one of his most celebrated works, ‘The Finding of Moses’ (1904).  The initial purchaser had paid £5,250 for it on its completion, and subsequent sales were for £861 in 1935, £265 in 1942, and it was ‘bought in’ at £252 in 1960 (having failed to meet its reserve), but when the same picture was auctioned at Christies in New York in May 1995, it sold for £1.75 million.  On 4 November 2010 it was sold for $35,922,500 to an undisclosed bidder at Sotheby’s New York, a new record for the artist and a Victorian painting.  On 5 May 2011 his ‘The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra:  41 BC’ was sold at the same auction house for $29.2 million.”

Sunday Morning — Victoriana of the Week

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“The Roses of Heliogabalus”, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

It’s gloriously colourful, but it’s a picture of an attempted mass murder.  Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “The Roses of Heliogabalus” is based on a story about the Roman emperor Heliogabalus, who, according to legend, attempted to suffocate his unsuspecting guests in flowers, which were dropped from a false ceiling.

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