Victorian Opulence Overload At Leighton House Museum
Roman diners look startled as a false ceiling gives way to unleash a torrent of rose petals, designed to smother and kill them. The Roman emperor Heliogabalus watches on as his unusual punishment takes effect — even a Bond villain couldn't come up with a death scene this bizarre. Maybe you're with us in wondering whether you can actually smother people with rose petals. Probably not, and we're not suggesting you give it a go.
This, most likely fictional, scene features in the Roses of Heliogabalus painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who is the subject of an exhibition at Leighton House Museum in Kensington.
This overblown style of painting was all the rage in Victorian times, making him a bestseller. These days, the style is very much out of fashion and Romantic scenes are thought of as mawkish by many, though we're still partial to them.
Leighton House is showing us a side of this Anglo-Dutch painter that we weren't familiar with, including many of his subtler early works. These include family portraits using duller colours, portraying his friends and family in more domestic settings — none of the opulent locations and lighting usually associated with Victorian painting.
The downside to this is that dull palettes tend to make for dull paintings and Alma-Tadema's works fail to distinguish him from any other Victorian portrait or society painter. One exception is a dark Egyptian scene where the first-born son of the Pharaoh has died. While his mother weeps the Pharaoh holds the limp corpse in his arms and stares into the distance with eyes filled with anger and vengeance.
What we really want to see is some over the top Victoriana and the exhibition doesn't disappoint. The finding of the baby Moses is set against a beautiful sunset as slaves carry him and the daughter of the Pharoah in a very sentimental scene. It may be over the top, but it's these kinds of fantastical scenes we enjoy the most — if you're going ridiculous, we prefer it if you go all in.
There are plenty of scenes of men and women in fine clothing with a backdrop of blue skies, and even bluer seas — from courting couples to blissful domestic family scenes. It's pure postcard territory and we're certain it'll divide people.
A nice additional touch is to use film footage from the likes of Gladiator and The Ten Commandments to show how these paintings inspired set designs in cinema.
The opulent trappings and architecture of Leighton House Museum are the perfect place for this Victorian art overdose.
Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is at Leighton House Museum until 29 October. Tickets are £14 and the museum is open every day except Tuesdays.
Last Updated 16 July 2017