Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema was one of the the most famous painters of his day. The price he paid for Victorian superstardom was twentieth century obscurity. Yet the images that he created inform our idea of what history looks like, all those sword and sandal movies are straight from his paintings. Now the largest collection of his works seen together in the UK are on display in the home of one of his greatest friends, Lord Leighton.
Leighton House is pretty splendiferous, it has a blue tiled Arab Hall complete with golden dome and tinkling fountain, and Alma-Tadema’s muscled historic heroes and diaphanously clad women fit right in. Movie makers have taken inspiration from his paintings: there is a section of the exhibition devoted to showing you clips of the paintings and the movies. Star of this show is an image that looks beautiful but depicts horror. The Roses of Heliogabalus shows the eponymous Roman emperor watching with glee as his guests are drowned in rose petals.
Not all the images are so gory. Victorian artists had a taste for building fancy houses, Alma-Tadema’s had one room filled with panels painted by the artist’s friends. The house is long gone but the panels survive and are on display here.
Visiting Leighton House is worth a detour even when there is no special exhibition on, although the last time I visited was to see Flaming June, Leighton’s most famous work come home for a visit. Alma-Tadema at Leighton House is special as the two were such firm friends in life.
ALMA-TADEMA: AT HOME WITH ANTIQUITY at Leighton House
7 July – 29 October 2017
OPEN: Wednesday – Monday 10.30am – 5pm (sometimes there are special late events on Thursdays check the website for details
ADMISSION: Adults £14.
TOP TIP: National Trust members get half price, so remember to bring your membership card if you have one!