Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA, A Family Group, 1896. Photo: RA/ John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Object of the Month - September 2017


Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA, A Family Group, 1896

Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA gave A Family Group to his wife Laura (née Epps) as a present for their silver wedding anniversary. Laura and her brother and sisters are shown inspecting a painting that symbolises the relationship between husband and wife. On the far right is the artist's wife Laura. Like her husband, Laura was an artist, having met when she was a student of Ford Madox-Brown. Next to Laura are her sisters, first Emily Williams then Ellen Gosse, who were talented artists themselves. At the left is their brother, Dr Washington Epps. The family members are identified by their red hair and sensitive expressions. Alma-Tadema was said to have 'grown fond of them all'.

The four siblings are captured looking at a diptych of two self-portraits painted by Lawrence and Laura to commemorate their marriage 25 years earlier in 1871. The diptych can be identified by the flowers on the door. A yellow Dutch tulip is presented alongside a white English rose, symbolising the nationalities of the husband and wife. Although in this painting, the flowers are presented on the same door, in the original diptych there is one flower on each side. They are likely to have been presented alongside one another here to retain the symbolism of both husband and wife in the composition that cuts off part of the diptych.

In the top left corner, captured in a mirror, we see the artist at work wearing a straw hat. In 1893, Laura had painted the self-portrait, Satisfaction, where her husband - wearing the same hat in a garden - can be glimpsed reflected in a mirror. Lawrence Alma-Tadema's inclusion of himself in the hat is likely to be an homage to this work, supported by the green patterned background of the reflected image, which could represent a garden.

Although in this painting we can only see a glimpse of the setting, Alma-Tadema lived in an opulent house that featured in many of his paintings. He collected archaeological drawings and photographs of classical sites and ruins, which acted as source material for many of his works. This thorough and eclectic approach extended to his home where styles ranged from traditional Dutch to Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Pompeiian, Byzantine and Japanese.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema studied at the Royal Academy of Antwerp in Belgium from 1852 where he was inspired by the artist and Professor of Archaeology Louis De Taye. He then travelled to Italy where his enthusiastic exploration of Pompeii is evident in his subsequent works. He was promoted by the dealer Ernest Gambart in England where he settled in 1870. He was made Associate of the Royal Academy in 1876 and Royal Academician in 1879. He was knighted in 1899 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1907.

A Family Group and four other works from the Royal Academy Collections are on display in Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity at Leighton House until 29 October 2017.