In my last blog I looked at the lives of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s two wives, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard and Laura Theresa Epps and how, in a way their two lives were intertwined. In this second part of the blog I am looking at Alma-Tadema’s Ladies but in this blog I am looking at the lives of his two daughters, Laurense and Anna Alma-Tadema.
In the painting above, entitled Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, which her father completed in 1883 we see fifteen year old Anna, standing at the door of the library at Townshend House. In her hand is a vase of carnations and she wears an Aesthetic dress probably made of Indian cotton, with a shell necklace. Look how the artist has mastered the depiction of the different textures of the various surfaces whether it be clothes or inanimate objects.
On September 24th, 1863, twenty-seven-year-old Laurens Alma-Tadema married a French lady, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard in Antwerp City Hall and the couple went on to have three children. Their first-born, a son, died aged six months of smallpox. The couple then went on to have two daughters, Laurense in August 1865 and Anna in 1867. Both children were born in Brussels.
Laurense, Anna, their father, and his sister Atje moved to London in 1870, a year after Marie-Pauline’s death. Lawrence Alma-Tadema re-married in 1871. His second wife, who was sixteen years younger than him, was Laura Epps the English daughter of a homeopathic doctor. Laurense and Anna were home-schooled by their father and step-mother.
In 1874 Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted one of his largest works, The Sculpture Gallery which measured 223 x 174cms. In this work, which depicts an Ancient Roman temple setting, he has included depictions of his two wives and two children as well as himself. We see his second wife Laura Theresa wearing a gold armlet in the centre of the work, and to the right of her are her two children Laurense and Anna. Lawrence Alma-Tadema is seated on the left and to his right, sitting upright hold a purple feather fan is thought to be a portrayal of his late wife, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard who died five years earlier.
Anna developed her father’s and step-mother’s love of art and by the age of seventeen had become a talented artist. She focused on painting the elaborate interiors of the family home, as well as portraits and flower paintings. Her gift as an artist can be seen in a set of watercolour and pen and ink depictions she completed in 1884 and 1885 of the family’s first London home, Townshend House close to Regents Park. The detail is truly amazing and these works were almost certainly due to the influence of her father. Her painting entitled Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study in Townshend House, London was completed by Anna in 1884. The interior of Townshend House was designed and furnished by her father. He managed to create a set of ornate and diverse interiors in a variety of styles ranging from traditional Dutch to Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Pompeiian, Byzantine, and Japanese based on his journeys. The setting in this work is the interior of a comfortable library. The intricate detail amazes me. At the back of the room we see a very comfortable couch made even more so with the addition of a fur covering. It is almost a day-bed to be used by a weary reader who has come to the library for some peace and quiet. The room is bright due to its dual aspect stained-glass windows and in the evening the candle-lights of the bronze chandelier, which Alma-Tadema designed, will illuminate the room. The room has many pieces of heavy Dutch oak furniture which probably reminded Anna’s father of his birthplace. On the ceiling to the left there seems to be a Japanese lantern or it could be an upturned parasol. The floor is covered by a tatami matting, which was used as a flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms. Hanging from the fireplace is a large palm leaf fan and on top of the fireplace mantle is a vase full of peacock feathers. Just take your time and look at everything that Anna has painstakingly depicted in this very busy room.
In a small (27 x 19cms) watercolour and ink painting The Drawing Room which Anna completed in 1885 we see another room in Townshend House. We are standing in the Gold Room and looking through the archway into the Columned Drawing Room albeit the columns themselves are hidden. In the work we see one of a suite of ornate drawing rooms in the family’s home. In this work take a close look and see how she has mastered light and the texture of the objects. Look at how she has depicted the full-length brocade curtain which seems to act as a room-divider. Look at the way she has illustrated the shiny surface of the floor lit by a light source emanating from an unseen window to the right. Anna exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893.
Finally, we have her work entitled The Gold Room which she completed in 1884. This watercolour depicts a view into the Gold Room which was named thus because its walls were overlaid with gold leaf. The centre of the painting is dominated by the large ornate piano which has inlays of ivory and tortoiseshell. On the right we see a sumptuous full-length curtain made of Chinese silk. If you look carefully at the window in the background you will see that the leading of it forms the family name, “Alma-Tadema”. We cannot but be amazed by the talent of this seventeen-year-old girl at how she has managed to create the rich and bright surfaces we see as well as the various textures of the objects. The inclusion of an antique bust on a pedestal was probably testament to her father’s interest in Roman and Greek history. The painting was shown at the 1885 Royal Academy exhibition and is housed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City Missouri.
Another 1885 painting highlighted Anna’s ability to replicate detail onto canvas. It was her watercolour work entitled Eton College Chapel which she completed when she was just twenty years of age and was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Of Anna and her great artistic skill her father’s biographer, Helen Zimmerman, wrote in her 1902 biography, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema R.A., that she was:
“…a delicate, dainty artist who has inherited much of her father’s power for reproducing detail…”
In 1886, the family moved to a larger house, No. 17 Grove End Road, St. John’s Wood, London, which had previously been owned by the painter James Tissot. Anna’s father carried out major refurbishments to the house and had extra studios added so that all four in the family could paint! A room, thought to be on the upper floor in this house was the setting for Anna’s 1899 painting, The Closing Door. It is a beautiful painting, full of mystery and atmosphere. Once one has enjoyed the detail of the inanimate objects in the room our gaze goes to the central character of this work, the lady and soon our head is filled with questions. So what story is unfolding before us? Look at the woman – how is she feeling and why? I suppose we recognise that something has badly upset her. Look how she has roughly grasped the bead necklace and broken it. If you look carefully you can see beads on the carpet. Look at her facial expression –wretchedness, bewilderment, and fear are all recognisable. So, what has brought her to this state of bleak despondency. A lover’s tiff, a break-up of a relationship? All possible. Maybe if we look at some of the objects on the table we may get a clue. A small vase of anemones symbolising the death of a loved one for in Greek mythology, the anemone sprang from Aphrodite’s tears as she mourned the death of Adonis. In Victorian times, the anemone was looked upon as a symbol of dying love or departure of a loved one to the “point of no return”. So, has her “loved one” died or abandoned her? Next to the vase is a bottle of violet ink, the colour of which has associations with modesty and humility which probably tells us more about the lady herself. The final mystery associated with this painting is the door. Look closely at it and you will see fingers grasping it as if to close it. Is this another sign of somebody “leaving”? Or is this somebody about to enter which is causing the lady to be afraid? So many questions and only the artist knows the answers.
In 1902 Anna Alma-Tadema painted Girl in a Bonnet with Her Head on Blue Pillow It is a haunting painting with the girl seeming to stare at us as we observe the work but, on closer scrutiny, it is a blank stare. She shows little interest at what is going on her around her. Something is troubling her. She feels helpless and alone. Her hands are clasped tightly together in a pleading manner. What solace does she crave? We, the observers, want to help her but how? Is this simply about an unknown stranger or is this about the artist herself and her mood?
Following the death of her father in 1912, the value of his paintings fell drastically, and this loss of family revenue adversely affected the finances of his two daughters who lived their latter years in poverty. Anna Alma-Tadema, who never married, died in 1943, aged seventy-six.
Anna’s elder sister was born Laurense Alma-Tadema in August 1865 but she is always referred to as Laurence Alma-Tadema. For this portion of the blog there will be few paintings as Laurence, unlike her sister, father and step-mother was not an artist.
She was a novelist, playwright, short story writer, and poet. Her first novel, Love’s Martyr was published in 1886. She wrote in various genres during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.
She also submitted work to various periodicals such as The Yellow Book, a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897. She also edited a periodical. Many of her works were privately printed.
She left the family home and went to live in the Kent village of Wittersham in a cottage named The Fair Haven. She became an active member of the local community, and involved herself with music and plays. She even had a place built which could accommodate a hundred people and was to be used by the villagers to stage music concerts and plays and where the children of the village could be taught many local handicrafts. She named it the Hall of Happy Hours. In 1907 and 1908 she gave a series of readings in America on her literary work The Meaning of Happiness, which proved to be very well-liked by her American audiences.
She was an ardent activist and often spoke on the plight of the Polish people who were being displaced from their homes by the Austro-German troops in World War I. She was a close friend and ardent admirer of Jan Paderewski, the Polish concert pianist and composer, politician, and spokesman for Polish independence. Laurense was secretary of the Poland and the Polish Victims Relief Fund from 1915 to 1939 and her name appeared on many of their propaganda posters. On her book tour in America, she spoke on the plight of the divided Poland and asked her audience to support the Polish people’s cause.
Laurense died in a nursing home in London on March 12th 1940, aged seventy-five. Laurense like her sister Anna never married and one wonders whether either ever loved somebody and whether they missed “married bliss”. Laurense’s poem If One Ever Marries Me would make one believe at least she was resigned to a solitary life.
If no one ever marries me,—
And I don’t see why they should,
For nurse says I’m not pretty,
And I’m seldom very good—
If no one ever marries me
I shan’t mind very much;
I shall buy a squirrel in a cage,
And a little rabbit-hutch:
I shall have a cottage near a wood,
And a pony all my own,
And a little lamb quite clean and tame,
That I can take to town:
And when I’m getting really old,—
At twenty-eight or nine—
I shall buy a little orphan-girl
And bring her up as mine.
I visited the exhibition At Home in Antiquity which features many paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It is being held in London at the Leighton House Museum until October 29th. It is a “must-see” exhibition of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s works as well as works by his daughter and second wife.