The other weekend I visited the Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity exhibition (7 July – 29 October 2017) at Leighton House Museum. Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912) was a Dutch-born artist who settled in London in 1870 following the death of his first wife; he is best known today for his striking renditions of opulence and excess in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome – his depictions of the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea are so inviting you almost want to dive into the canvas. According to the Museum’s website, the exhibition ‘explores Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s fascination with the representation of domestic life in antiquity and how this interest related to his own domestic circumstances expressed through the two remarkable studio-houses that he created in St John’s Wood together with his wife Laura and daughters’.
Perhaps it is because I do a lot of work around provenance that when I visit exhibitions my eyes are invariably drawn first to the object label to find out the lender’s name. In this particular exhibition I counted three oil paintings on loan from the V&A’s collection. But I later discovered from documents in the V&A Archive (ref. MA/2/A3) that another painting on display – Self-Portrait of Lourens Alma Tadema (1852, Freis Museum, Leeuwarden) – has a V&A connection. In fact, this very self-portrait had been in its custody between 1921 and 1957.
This photograph of Alma-Tadema’s self-portrait has been pasted into one of our photographic guardbooks. The label beneath states that it was ‘Lent by the Misses Alma-Tadema. Loan No. 5’. Indeed, it was one of seven pictures that Alma-Tadema’s daughters, Anna and Laurence, chose to lend the V&A in 1921 for ‘an indefinite period’, although they were warned that the museum ‘could give no promise to exhibit these paintings’ at the present time. It was possible, however, that ‘two or three at a time’ might be hung on public display at a future date.
Accompanying the loan was a gift of their father’s unfinished Cleopatra at the Temple of Isis at Philae (ca. 1855–1912) and Study of Columns at Philae (ca. 1850–1912); both paintings are part of the exhibition at Leighton House Museum, nos. 129 and 119 respectively.
In 1929, Anna Alma-Tadema called in to see the V&A’s Director, Eric Maclagan, to explain that she wished to withdraw four of the seven paintings currently on loan. According to Maclagan’s typed record of this meeting, it was her intention to bequeath the ‘small self-portrait of Alma Tadema himself as a young man’ to ‘a Gallery in Holland (Leeuwarden?)’ following the deaths of herself and her sister. As a ‘temporary measure’, Maclagan suggested that some of the drawings currently on display in the Alma-Tadema Library – ca. 4,000 books, mostly on ancient and classical art and archaeology, 2,000 prints, drawings, tracings and 5,000 photographs, which were housed in a recess in Room 76 from 1915 until 1947, when they were transferred to the University of Birmingham – were removed and the painting hung in their place: ‘she welcomed the idea with enthusiasm’, Maclagan reported.
In July 1943, the V&A was informed of Anna Alma-Tadema’s death (Laurence had died in 1940) and asked if it was ‘willing to continue to hold this picture [the self-portrait] for the Public Trustee until such times as the Testator’s bequest can be complied with’. By this time – and presumably as a consequence of perils of World War 2 – the painting was stored ‘in a strengthened crypt’. The Director replied that he was prepared to do so but could not take responsibility for its safety.
In the event, the V&A retained custody of the self-portrait rather longer than had been anticipated. In 1956, a request from the Royal Academy of Arts for the loan of the self-portrait for its Winter Exhibition of British Portraits (ref. MA/1/R1862) ‘led to the discovery that we are uncertain about its ownership’, as Eric Maclagan’s successor, Trenchard Cox explained in a letter to the Public Trustee Office. It transpired that the letter reporting Anna Alma-Tadema’s death had been ‘misplaced’ not long after its receipt, and Maclagan’s reply, in 1943 and that ‘no further thought was given to the presence of the painting in our stores’ until the loan request from the Royal Academy of Arts.
Following the close of the exhibition, the painting was dispatched to the Freis Museum in 1957, via the Royal Academy of Arts, along with another of Alma-Tadema’s paintings then in the Academy’s custody, presumably his Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Hinke Dirks Brouwer (1852). Fittingly, this painting hangs near the self-portrait in the exhibition at Leighton House Museum; together again in London, perhaps for the first time since 1957.