Eccentrics Hiding in the Crowds
Detail of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “The Roses of Heliogabalus” (1888), which can be seen in "A Victorian Obsession" at Leighton House (photo: Studio Sebert Photographs)
This is not the best time of year to look at paintings, with the marquee galleries and big shows besieged by holiday and shopping crowds. If, though, you want to see pictures rather than the backs of heads then there are several fascinating exhibitions running in some of the less populated artistic institutions.
Take, for example, A Victorian Obsession at Leighton House in west London. Here is a gathering of 52 paintings from the collection of the Mexican telecoms gazillionaire Juan Antonio Pérez Simón. The show's title has a double meaning: Pérez Simón's obsession with high-Victorian art and the painters' obsession with what Tennyson called "dreams of fair women". The artists on show on the walls of Leighton's Topkapi-in-Holland-Park palace include Leighton himself, Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Alma-Tadema.
Anyone with a taste for social realism should give this exhibition a very wide berth; this is as rich and intense a display of Aesthetic Movement art as you will find (Pérez Simón's collection is the largest outside Britain). Not one of the artists had the slightest painterly interest in their own times but preferred to escape into the Classical or mythological past in the company of beautiful, compliant women and, just occasionally, heroic men.
Leighton's own Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles of 1871 is a good example of why these pictures have had such a dismal post-Victorian reputation. Here are four girls, all to some degree based on his favourite model Dorothy Dene, wandering along a Mediterranean beach in a flutter of wind-blown drapery. There is no narrative or rationale except to show variations of beauty. To modern eyes it is undoubtedly a silly composition. Leighton, though, based his figures on Classical Tanagra statuettes which have highly worked drapery and was aiming for the sort of frieze grouping to be found on the Elgin Marbles. His intent was high-minded.
The exhibition's show-stopper, Lawrence Alma-Tadema's The Roses of Heliogabalus of 1888, reveals the same disparity between intention and reception. At more than six feet across, it is the largest canvas Alma-Tadema painted and shows in minute detail the teenage emperor Heliogabalus literally drowning his dinner guests in an increasingly heavy downpour of rose petals. The painter depicts the guests at the moment they begin to realise that this fragrant jeu d'esprit is turning very macabre indeed.
As with the Leighton the painting is highly skilled — Alma-Tadema was peerless with marble, and imported roses from the French Riviera to get his detail just so. It is his taste that looks so flawed. The painting originally sold for the huge sum of £4,000: in 1960, back on sale, it failed to find a buyer. The pendulum has swung back part of the way but there is still a distance to go before this picture and the others in this show are viewed with the seriousness with which they were painted.