Townshend House

<em>Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Library in Townshend House, London</em>

Anna Alma-Tadema, The Library in Townshend House, 1884

Alma Tadema's Studio

An alternate view of the studio, 1884.

<em></em><em>Miss</em> <em>Anna Alma-Tadema</em>

L. Alma-Tadema, portrait of his daughter Anna in Townshend House, 1883

The studio in which Lawrence Alma Tadema was photographed by J. P. Mayall was on the second floor of Townshend House, where the artist had lived since coming to England in 1870.[1] This house was located in one of the largest and most vital artistic neighborhoods of London, St. John’s Wood, and overlooked Regent’s Park.[2] As Tadema’s contemporary biographer Georg Ebers put it, this was the “part of London which least lacks the light and open air the artist needs.”[3]

Townshend House was not custom-built for its new occupant. However, Tadema made numerous changes to it over the course of four years. In 1874, an explosion of gunpowder and petroleum transported by a barge on the nearby canal considerably damaged the residence. According to Giles Walkley, this gave Tadema the opportunity to invite George Aitchison, the architect who had worked for none other than Frederic Leighton, to alter what remained of Townshend House once again. Thus, by 1884, when Mayall took the photograph, Townshend House had been rebuilt for Tadema by the architect of Leighton House.[4]

In 1882, Mrs. (Mary Eliza) Haweis described the new façade of Townshend House as “painted brown below and pale yellow above.”[5] Helen Zimmern, in an account of her visit, described it as a “mere ordinary-looking London house.”[6] The house was surrounded by a garden, which created a pleasant walkway to the entrance.[7] Like most of those who wrote about Tadema’s dwelling place, Haweis and Zimmern were more interested in the inner design of the house.[8]

If from the outside the house was unremarkable, this impression was corrected once the visitor crossed the threshold. Zimmern, who visited Townshend House in February of 1884, presumably within months of Mayall, described the experience as entering a fairyland, a feeling perhaps more accurately conveyed by Mrs. Haweis, who wrote that the house was “a Tadema picture one is able to walk through.”[9] Inside, Townshend House was an eclectic mix of styles of the East and of Classical Antiquity.[10] Yet it also contained traditional elements of English décor and a room decorated in the style of Baroque Holland. The entire decorative program was characterized by opulence and luxuriousness—windows framed by onyx and gilded walls, Persian rugs, a meticulously designed piano, silks and embroideries from the East—which created and reinforced the visitors’ awe.

For most, Tadema’s studio was the most intriguing room of his house. A “square room, not very large,” writes Zimmern, beautifully decorated and so immaculately kept that it was not even plagued by the smell of paint.[11] The studio was done in the Pompeian style, dominated chiefly by dark tones, with yellow and red panels.[12] In the studio were kept dozens of photographs, sketches, and other visual documentation of ancient architecture, art, and decorative styles for the artist to use as he created his famous scenes of Classical Antiquity. The illustrations of Zimmern's article provide us with a different view of the studio than Mayall’s photograph: for instance, we discover a miniature sculpture of Venus Pudica, which faced the Boy with Thorn from across the room.[13]   

The homes of Victorian artists, especially those of Tadema’s prominence, performed important social functions.[14] Fellow artists, patrons, amateurs, and art aficionados of high social status had to be received and entertained. Tadema was known for being “at home” every Monday and for giving lavish dinners as often as once a week.[15] Townshend House’s location in St. John’s Wood placed it at one of the epicenters of Victorian artistic life. Among the artists who had lived in that neighborhood were Sir Edwin Landseer and Jacques Joseph Tissot, whose house Tadema acquired and moved to in 1885.[16]

Ekaterina Koposova

[1] H. Zimmern, "The Home of Alma-Tadema," The Art Amateur 10, no. 3 (1884): 73; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Tadema, Sir Lawrence Alma-,” by Rosemary Barrow, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, last modified 2011,

[2] Joseph Lamb, “Symbols of Success in Suburbia: The Establishment of Artists’ Communities in Late Victorian London,” in Victorian Urban Settings: Essays on the Nineteenth-Century City and Its Contexts, ed. Debra N. Mancoff and D. J. Trela (New York: Garland Pub., 1996), 59.

[3] Georg Ebers, Lawrence Alma Tadema: His Life and Works (London: W. S. Gottsberger, 1886), 52.

[4] Giles Walkley, “Decadent St John’s Wood: Grove End Road,” in Artists’ Houses in London 1764–1914 (Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, VT: Scolar Press, 1994), 128.

[5] Mary Eliza Haweis, Beautiful Houses; being a description of certain well-known artistic houses (London: Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1882), 32.

[6] Zimmern, "The Home of Alma-Tadema," 71.

[7] Ibid., 23, 71.

[8] Haweis, Beautiful Houses, 23-32, passim; Zimmern, "The Home of Alma-Tadema," passim.

[9] Haweis, Beautiful Houses, 31; Zimmern, "The Home of Alma-Tadema," 71.

[10] Zimmern, "The Home of Alma-Tadema," 72.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Haweis, Beautiful Houses, 30.

[13] Zimmern, "The Home of Alma-Tadema," 74 and passim.

[14] Lamb, “Symbols of Success in Suburbia,” 67, 69.

[15] Louise Campbell, “Decoration, Display, Disguise: Leighton House Reconsidered,” in Frederic Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance, Modernity, edited by Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Prettejohn, Studies in British Art 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 285.

[16] Walkley, Artists' Houses, 127.

Alma-Tadema's studio

Alma-Tadema's studio, illustrations from Some Modern Artists and Their Work, edited by Wilfred Meynell, 1883.

Alma-Tadema's studio

Ascending three bright brazen steps, we reach at last the painting-room. We find a square Pompeiian-looking apartment, full of shelves at one end, wherein innumerable "draperies" lie rolled up, but protruding just enough to be distinguished. The woodwork of these shelves is painted pale yellow, and on this ground various fantastic ornaments have been painted by Mr. Alma-Tadema. Here it is a sleeping man, there strange white birds with unmanageable length of limb strut or doze. The wall, decorated after the Pompeiian taste, is chiefly dark in tones, but panels of yellow and red do not destroy the unity.

It is remarkable that Mr. Alma-Tadema can afford to be independent of the "fashion"--aesthetic or vulgar--so fully, that he has actually done with a Norwich stove. The fireplace in the painting-room is of a modern round shape, certainly not Queen Anne, and still less classical, but it looks right there. The ceiling is very rich, designed by the same hand as all the stencils and ornaments in the house. The deep Pompeiian red, with many-coloured rabesques, encloses panels and medallions of light blue, &c., on which the gods and goddesses disport--Apollo driving his chariot in the midst, amid the golden rays of the sun. The easels stand in a row, the pictures lighted with gas, each in the proper light; and here we may end the brief description of a house indescribable in any short space, like the works before which we now stand still, because wherever the eye rests new little effects appear, with their own interests and associations.

--Mary Eliza Haweis, Beautiful Houses; Being a Description of Certain Well-Known Artistic Houses: by Mrs. Haweis (New York: Scribner & Welford, 1882), pp. 29–30.