A large collection of 130 paintings by Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912) are now on show at the Leighton House Museum, Kensington.

Alma-Tadema specialised in depictions of Ancient Rome, often incorporating beautiful women, usually beautifully dressed, lounging on marble seats with a backdrop of flowers and the bright blue sea. A rather darker theme was his famous “The Roses of Heliogabalus” which showed the debauched Syrian teenage emperor Heliogabalus (203 – 222) enjoying the sight of his guests at one of his orgies smothered under tons of flower petals dropped on them, one of a number of perversions that got him assassinated by the Praetorian Guard, with the blessing of an outraged Senate and people of Rome, when he was 18.

In a lighter vein Alma-Tadema also scandalised some Victorian critics with “In the Tepidarium” showing a naked and red-faced young woman lying on a couch in a Roman baths cooling room, her mouth open and her modesty barely covered with an ostrich feather, a presentation some felt was eroticism masquerading as Classicism. The picture was sold to the Pears Soap Company to be used as advertising, but this never happened and it is now residing in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool, also well worth a visit for art lovers.

Alma-Tadema’s meticulous depictions of the ancient world resulted in some of them being used for source material for sets by Hollywood directors for such films as Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926) Cleopatra (1934) The Ten Commandments remake (1956) and Gladiator (2000) The exhibition features clips from some films, alongside the paintings that inspired them.

“Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity” till October 29.

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