Discover a Whole New World …

aladdin-the-musical-1From Broadway to the West End, Disney’s Musical Comedy Aladdin has been taking audiences on journeys to a whole new world for the past four years. Premiering on 26th February 2014 at the New Amsterdam Theatre in Manhatten, Aladdin soon flew to London in 2016, landing at the Prince Edward Theatre, taking the place of the successful Miss Saigon.

Based on the Number One Movie of the Year 1992, Aladdin brings to the stage some of the most loved Disney characters and songs for everyone, young and old, to enjoy. With magic tricks, pyrotechnics and lots of dancing, it is an experience unlike any musical production in the West End so far.

The well-known tale tells the story of a poor young man living on the streets of the Middle Eastern city of Agrabah who is granted three wishes from a genie in a lamp, which he uses to win the heart of the princess Jasmine and defeat the evil Grand Vizier. Featuring most of the scenes from the 90-minute animated film, the musical contains new songs and characters, extending the performance by an additional 40-minutes.

Loosely based on the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin, played by Matthew Croke, the co-principal of RMC Academy of Theatre Performance in Sheffield, is a street urchin who first meets and falls in love with Princess Jasmine when he meets her in the marketplace. Running away from the palace and her father’s attempts to find her a suitor, Jasmine is disguised as an ordinary woman and Aladdin has no idea who she really is, although he soon finds out. Arrested by the Royal Guard for supposedly kidnapping the princess, Aladdin is rescued by the sultan’s Grand Vizier who, it turns out, has an evil ulterior motive.

Jafar, the Grand Vizier, is an evil, determined man who wants to become sultan and ruler of the city of Agrabah, but he can only achieve this with the help of a magic lamp. Although he knows the lamp is hidden in the Cave of Wonders, only a “diamond in the rough” can access it, and that diamond turns out to be Aladdin. The street urchin must enter the cave and take the lamp without touching anything else, however, a shiny ruby catches Aladdin’s eye. A single touch causes the cave entrance to collapse leaving Aladdin trapped inside.

 

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Abu

For the majority of the first half, the storyline has stayed almost the same as the film version, with the addition of a few new characters. Those who have seen the animation will recall that Aladdin had a kleptomaniac pet monkey named Abu, however, this was not possible on stage. Instead, Aladdin has three friends, Babkak, Kassim and Omar, who sing and dance with him in the marketplace as well as getting into all sorts of trouble. Although these are never seen before characters, they were originally written for the film but never made the final cut. Reintroducing them into the story allowed Howard Ashman’s (1950-1991) upbeat song Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim to be heard for the first time. This is a great tribute to the lyricist who died shortly before the release of the film to which he had devoted so much time.

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Iago and Jafar

Another animal in the 1992 version of Aladdin was Iago, the sultan’s sarcastic, rude parrot who teamed up with the evil Jafar. Likewise to Abu, it was not possible to have a talking animal on stage, so Iago became a man. Working as Jafar’s personal assistant, Iago’s character has a comedic effect with his disrespectful comments and over-the-top grovelling.

Thankfully, the most popular character in Aladdin, and most vital to the plot, receives the portrayal he deserves with fantastic songs, costumes and stage presence. It was going to be difficult to beat Robin William’s (1951-2014) character Genie of the Lamp but award-winning Trevor Dion Nicholas rose to the challenge, not only performing in the original Broadway production but making his debut in the West End, too.

By the end of the Act One, Aladdin has rubbed the lamp, met Genie and discovered he can be granted three wishes. This culminates in the popular song Friend Like Me, also written by Ashman, however, instead of performing the 2-minute film version verbatim, the producers extended it to last an impressive 8-minutes. Full of various forms of dancing and style of music, Friend Like Me pays tribute to other Disney productions, such as The Little Mermaid, and contains a tap dancing element in recognition of the show 42nd Street. Including magic tricks worthy of being in any magician’s repertoire, the final number of the act is thoroughly entertaining causing the audience to fall about laughing several times and wish for more.

 

Act two begins with the first of Aladdin’s wishes: to be a prince so that he can try to persuade Jasmine to marry him – cue the lengthy, amusing number, Prince Ali. This leads on to the awe-inspiring flying carpet scene where Aladdin takes Jasmine to see the world.  Whilst up in the air on a carpet held up either with invisible strings or real magic, the pair sing the most famous song from the film A Whole New World. Written by award-winning lyricist Sir Tim Rice (b1944), the romantic song is a stark contrast to the upbeat, fast numbers that preceded it, the only exception being Proud of Your Boy, which was cut from the original screenplay.

It does not take long for Aladdin to realise that pretending to be someone he is not causes more problem than it solves. Jasmine has recognised him from the marketplace but believes he is a prince. On top of that, Jafar and Iago trick Aladdin into getting arrested and thrown into the dungeons. Thankfully, Genie releases him with the use of a second wish, but what should he do with his third wish? Aladdin had initially promised Genie he would release him from his lamp but he also needs help rectifying the situation his first wish got him into.

Before he has a chance to decide, Jafar gets his hand on the lamp and wishes to become sultan. With everyone in the palace under his control, the new sultan wishes for more power and becomes a sorcerer. However, Jafar’s greed for strength and influence results in his downfall. Aladdin, with no help other than his own intelligence, convinces Jafar to wish to be an all-powerful genie, thus tying him to a lamp, cursed to spend the rest of his days granting wishes.

Although he could still wish for the princess’ hand in marriage, Aladdin chooses to set Genie free. Moved by his actions, the sultan (now restored to his rightful position) declares Princess Jasmine may marry whoever she pleases, be he royalty or commoner. So, Aladdin gets his other wish after all!

 

It would not be Disney without a happily-ever-after ending, however, Aladdin is full of hidden messages and morals, which makes the ending even better. Having three wishes fulfilled (as long as they do not involve love or death, Genie is banned from granting those type) seems like a fantastic opportunity, however, it also causes unforeseen problems. Aladdin thought to become a prince would improve his life and win him the heart of Jasmine, instead, he ends up insulting the princess and landing himself in prison.

Likewise, Jafar thought having his wishes granted would lead him to be the most powerful man in the kingdom. The power hungry villain was blinded by his greed and easily tricked into wishing to be a genie and sealing his fate, literally, in a lamp. With great power comes great responsibility, the obligation to grant everyone else three wishes!

As both Jafar and Aladdin discover, attempting to be someone you are not is not the right way to go about things. Jasmine loved the street urchin she met in the marketplace, not the arrogant prince who flaunted his wealth. Jafar pretended to be a trustworthy Grand Vizier but eventually received punishment for his wicked ways.

The biggest theme, however, is imprisonment and freedom. Genie, although powerful, is tied to his lamp, destined to do his master’s bidding for the rest of eternity. Jasmine and Aladdin, one rich, one poor, are both limited by their lifestyles. Aladdin is always looked down on for being homeless and a disappointment to his late mother, whereas, Jasmine has no rights as a woman and must do everything her father wishes. The lifting of these restrictions on each of the characters makes the ending all the more perfect.

10795844-1368522398-146359The West End musical Aladdin has only been running in London for two years but if the film is anything to go by, it will be one of the more successful shows in theatres. In 1992, Aladdin was the highest grossing film of the year ($217 million) and won a Grammy for the song A Whole New World. This phenomenal achievement was for an animated movie that only contained six songs, whereas the newer stage version has fourteen.

Disney was fortunate to have the eleven times Grammy Award-winning composer Alan Menken (b1949) on the team to produce both the film score and agree to work on the musical performance two decades later. Along with the lyricist Chad Beguelin, incredible new songs were produced for the stage that made the music much more impressive than in the original film. Of course, Rice’s A Whole New World needed to be kept in the script as well as Howard Ashman’s original songs and a few that never made it into the film. Ashman, who died of complications due to AIDs in 1991 would be proud to know that people are finally hearing more of his great works. Known as “our friend … who gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul …”, the added snippets of songs from A Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are a perfect tribute to him.

 

Of course, the stage musical could not work without the phenomenal set design arranged by a whole team of people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The scenes are truly impressive, not just for the way they look but for the way they function too. Just like the dancers, the sets had to be choreographed to move when they needed in order to transform into a different scene at the given time. During songs, particularly Friend Like Me, the set design is constantly moving as Genie uses his magic. Only the performers get applauded at the end of the show, however, the design team ought to be given greater recognition.

Members of the ensemble, for many of whom Aladdin is their debut West End performance, need to be appreciated too. Whilst they may not be a named character, they play a number of different roles, know most of the songs, learn hundreds of dance steps and are extremely quick at getting changed in and out of various costumes. In essence, these performers are the backbone of the show.

It is safe to say that Aladdin is a must-see show. It may not have the timelessness of other productions such as Les Misérables, but its upbeat, comic value makes it an entertaining, thoroughly enjoyable show. Suitable for all ages, Aladdin is the perfect show to see as a family outing or friends’ get-together, as proved by the rapidly selling tickets.

Tickets are available to purchase from Delfont Mackintosh Theatres at a variety of prices. Book online, by phone or in person at the Prince Edward Theatre in Old Compton Street, London. 

The Making of Harry Potter

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the first book in the Harry Potter series written by J. K. Rowling. Since then, what began as a bottom-of-the-shelf novel has become an international sensation that is unlikely to fade from society any time soon. Three years after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published, a film production team discovered the story of the young boy who discovers he is a wizard and developed an idea for a film. Filming began in 2000 at a studio in Leavesden on the outskirts of London, a town that has become a significant location on the map.

Warner Bros. Studio is situated on the old land belonging to Leavesden Aerodrome, an airfield that produced fighter planes during World War II and, later, Rolls-Royce aircraft engines. After closing in 1994, the hangars were converted to create suitable soundstages and recording rooms, which would eventually become home to the Harry Potter film cast and crew for over ten years. Now that all eight Harry Potter films have been produced, the studio has converted the place into a shrine-like museum for Potter fans to visit. Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter reveals the secrets and unbelievable talents of the various departments involved with the biggest film series in history.

Arriving at the studios near Watford is an exciting experience for all Harry Potter fans. Before entering the building, there are photo opportunities with statues of giant chess pieces that featured in the first film and enlarged posters and newspapers containing articles from the fictional publications in the wizarding world. After getting through security checks, visitors can spend some time (potentially hours) in the huge, unfortunately overpriced, gift shop whilst they await their timed entry to the studio. As the ticket holders queue up to enter the magical world of Harry Potter, the smallest set in the films, the cupboard under the stairs, provides a teaser of the delights to come.

After a brief introductory film, visitors assemble in front of a large set of doors, which are eventually pushed open (either by a member of staff or a lucky visitor who is celebrating a birthday) in a way that is comparable with Harry’s first experience of the room on the other side. This is the Great Hall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where students have their meals or magnificent feasts and balls. With huge, arched windows, real flagstones, brick walls and enormous torch holders, the hall resembles the inside of an ancient church or Westminster Hall in London.

The Great Hall is set up with two of the four lengthy tables, which the students sit at, and the staff table at the top. Models of eight of the adults stand in front of the latter as though welcoming visitors to Hogwarts. Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster, is positioned behind his golden owl podium, poised to give one of his memorable speeches.

Missing from the hall, however, is the enchanted ceiling that enthrals first years on their arrival at Hogwarts. Instead, scaffolding and lighting fixtures fill the space, which, in the films, were replaced with computer-generated visual effects to give the sense of a neverending night sky or fill the hall with floating candles.

 

Once visitors have left the Great Hall, they can view the rest of the studio at their own pace. Staff encourage everyone to take their time because, being a one-way tour, it is not possible to return to sections. In order to see everything, visitors are advised to be prepared to stay for three hours, although most people spend many more hours there.

A great number of film settings are on show, fully intact as they would have been during filming. These are surprisingly smaller than the films suggest and it is the clever skills of the cameramen that make the rooms or locations look bigger. The Gryffindor Boys’ Dormitory looks particularly tiny with child-size beds that were originally built for the 11-year old actors, forgetting that they would grow up to be gangly adolescents.

Gryffindor was one of the four houses students were sorted into on their first day at Hogwarts. Throughout Harry’s education, he shared a dormitory with his best friend Ron Weasley and three other boys, Neville Longbottom and Dean Thomas, whose initials can be seen on the trunks underneath their respective beds, and Seamus Finnigan. In the set next door, the Gryffindor Common Room shows the cosy area where Harry, Ron and their friend Hermione Granger would sit to relax or do their homework at the end of the school day. Decorated mostly in red (the house colour), the set decorators sourced medieval-looking tapestries to adorn the walls, old carpets and worn armchairs. Since none of the other house dormitories or common rooms appear in the films, there are no sets to reveal how the rest of the students lived.

The film sets of a couple of other rooms from Hogwarts are included in the tour, Dumbledore’s Office and the Potions Classroom. Dumbledore had a private office at the top of one of Hogwarts’ highest towers. It was only accessible through a secret stairwell, which was protected by a stone Griffin. Phenomenally, designers created this sculpted staircase, which, after the correct password was given, would rise out of a 12ft-hole in the ground.

Dumbledore’s office contains a huge collection of items that reflect the professor’s personality. Fascinated with the night sky, many references to astronomy can be seen around the room. There are also many mythical and fictional artefacts that are a key part of the Harry Potter stories. These include the Sword of Gryffindor and the memory cabinet.

The hundreds of books that line the shelves around Dumbledore’s desk are actually old British phonebooks covered in leather-like materials to give the impression of ancient tomes. Also in abundance are portraits of former headmasters. During production, these portraits numbered 48 and were often paintings of crew members dressed up to look like wizards.

The Potions Classroom set is also jampacked with props, particularly jars, of which there are hundreds. In the story, potions lessons were held in a dark classroom within the school’s dungeon, therefore, designers needed to make the set look as gloomy and dusty as possible.

 

Hagrid’s Hut is also an impressive set, as is the kitchen of Ron Weasley’s house. Rubeus Hagrid was the groundskeeper at Hogwarts and lived in a hut separate from the main castle. Since he was a half-giant, the contents of his hut needed to reflect his size, therefore, large furniture and props were produced. It was also rather crowded and full of cages containing real and fictional animals. On the other hand, The Burrow, belonging to the Weasleys, was a far more cosy set. Although much of the set contains typical items from the homes of “normal” people (or Muggles) many of them have been enchanted (or mechanised). Visitors can make the pans wash themselves, the iron move independently and knitting needles weave wool together by waving their hands over touch-sensitive pads.

Other sets include the green and red-bricked Ministry of Magic, the evil Professor Umbridge’s office, and the sinister Malfoy Manor. Although these were only small, many dedicated hours were taken to make them perfect for the various films. The fireplaces within the Ministry of Magic reached almost 30-feet high and were based on buildings that existed in Victorian London.

Up until this point in the tour, the sets had been rather small, however, three rather large and extremely impressive scenes soon follow. The first is the Forbidden Forest, which, as the name suggests, is a dangerous wooded area on the border of the school grounds. During the first film, scenes were shot on location at Black Park in Buckinghamshire, however, this often caused problems, for instance, unreliable weather, so the production team built their own in Leavesden instead. The tree trunks were built on a monumental scale, sometimes reaching 14-feet wide.

Parents of young children need to be aware that the Forbidden Forest set is particularly dark and involves smoke machines, scary noises and enormous spiders that dangle from the trees. Fortunately, the spiders are not real and are only physical animatronics, but that does not make them look any less terrifying, particularly the 18-foot spider hiding under the tree roots.

 

The next major set was only used during the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. This was Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, where students board the train, the Hogwarts Express, on 1st September to take them to school. For the first seven films, any scenes involving the platform were filmed at King’s Cross Station, but for ease of filming, a platform complete with track and train was produced for the very last parts of the series.

On this set, visitors can photograph each other pretending to run through the wall like the characters do in the films in order to access the platform, although, the most exciting part is climbing inside the carriage of the Hogwarts Express. The bright red train has become one of the most iconic vehicles within the film industry, however, it already had a long history prior to Harry Potter. This Great Western Railway 4900 Class 5972 Olton Hall locomotive was once a passenger carriage, the very first to traverse all the different lines in England. The steam engine began work in 1937 and retired in 1963 until it found fame on screen.

Inside one of the carriages, different compartments are set up to show how they appeared in each film. Although the decoration remained the same, the contents differed as the characters got older, beginning with sweet wrappers and ending with more grown-up-looking luggage. At the back of the train, the popular sweets trolley can be seen packed full of magical looking confectionary.

 

 

Eventually, the tour leads to the most impressive of all the Harry Potter sets, Diagon Alley.  In the books and films, Diagon Alley is a magic town hidden within the City of London. Only witches and wizards can access the alley and students go there every summer to buy their books and equipment for the new school year. The set is built to look and feel like an actual street with buildings on either side. Fans will be thrilled to see shops such as Gringotts Bank, Olivander’s, Flourish and Blotts and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Set designers were inspired by scenes described in the works of Charles Dickens, therefore, walking along Diagon Alley also feels a little like going back in time.

 

Due to their nature, not all the film sets are inside. Within the backlot of the studio, where the animal actors once lived, are a few more important locations featured in the films. Although Harry’s home, or rather the home of his horrible Uncle, Aunt and cousin, was usually shot on location, a replica of his house on Privet Drive was also built. Visitors can enter the building and peak into the lounge, which shows the state of the room when thousands of letters inviting Harry to attend Hogwarts flew down the chimney.

Parked outside the house is another famous vehicle from the series, which appeared in the third film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Unlike the Hogwarts Express, which was a preexisting train, the Knight Bus was created specifically for the film. In the story, Harry takes the Knight Bus to London when he runs away from home. Being a magical bus, only wizards and witches can see it; it can also change shape and travel at illegal speeds in order to navigate the busy streets.

Designers built the bright purple bus from pieces of vintage London double-deckers. Due to having three floors, the Knight Bus reaches 22-feet and is significantly thinner than average buses. Although visitors cannot board the bus, they can peer into the rear end to see the peculiar interior.

One thing that can be physically experienced is walking across a section of the Hogwarts Bridge. J. K. Rowling never wrote about this bridge, however, it was added to the script for the third film and appeared in several thereafter. Only one section was ever built, the rest being computer-generated, but there is enough for visitors to get a sense of the rickety wooden structure. Made from old-looking wood complete with roofing (a blessing if it is raining), the Hogwarts Bridge is an impressive feat of architecture.

 

It is not only film sets that make up the Harry Potter studio tour. As already mentioned, models of the characters feature within some of the settings, for instance, the Death Eaters seated around the table in Malfoy Manor. There are also other displays of models dotted around dressed up in various costumes. Within the Great Hall at the beginning of the tour, models of the majority of Hogwarts staff stand together dressed in the typical costume they wore throughout the eight films. Around the sides of the hall are figures dressed in Hogwarts uniforms and robes. Each house has bands of different colours running through the material: Gryffindor red, Ravenclaw blue, Hufflepuff yellow, and Slytherin green.

After leaving the hall, the elaborate costumes that featured during the Yule Ball scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are on display. Visitors are particularly drawn to Hermione Granger’s impressive pink gown, which fans can buy replicas of in the gift shop although, these are really expensive. The casual clothes that Harry and his friends wore are also exhibited, showing how their appearance changed as they got older.

Some may wonder why there are two models of the headmaster Albus Dumbledore wearing vastly different robes. The reason for this is the original actor, Richard Harris (1930-2002), died between films two and three. When Michael Gambon (b1940) took over the role, instead of trying to force him into the medieval-style clothing that Harris wore, the costume department gave Dumbledore a quirky make-over.

Only devoted fans would have noticed Imelda Staunton’s (b1956) wardrobe change during her role as the notorious Dolores Umbridge. With an inclination for the colour pink, her wardrobe got pinker and pinker as her power grew. Three outfits can be seen in her equally pink office during the tour.

 

By the time the final film had concluded in 2011, the prop department had either made or purchased over 5,000 pieces of furniture, 12,000 books, and 40,000 packaging designs. Tens of thousands more props were also used in the films that do not fall into those three categories and a great number of them are on show around the tour. For some props, Victorian style objects were purchased with the intention of adapting them to look like a wizard’s device, whereas, others were built entirely from scratch.

The amount of work the prop department, graphics department and artists did for the Harry Potter series is absolutely phenomenal. They were all extremely dedicated members of the crew and spent hours making objects that barely had any screen time. Some of the most impressive are the Goblet of Fire carved from the trunk of an English Elm; doors, such as the Gringotts Vault Door, which was full of motorised moving parts; and the Magic is Might statue carved from foam and painted to look like stone.

 

Other props that were vital to the making of Harry Potter include wands and broomsticks. Each character had a unique wand meaning the prop department produced over 3,000 throughout the filming process. These were made from various materials, such as wood, plastic, and rubber, and were intricately carved so that each one had its own distinct look.

The broomsticks, on the other hand, were less prevalent in the films, most frequently appearing during a game of Quidditch – a wizarding sport. As a result, the prop department did not need as many brooms as they did wands, however, they needed to be carefully designed. Not only did the brooms need to be sturdy enough to take the weight of the actors, they needed to be light enough for an owl to carry; most of the animal scenes were not computer generated, they involved many, well-trained creatures. Three of the brooms are in a display cabinet to show the range of designs. These are named Nimbus 2000, Nimbus 2001, and Firebolt. 

After visitors have perused the Quidditch equipment, there is the option of “riding” a broom themselves. Dressed in Hogwarts robes, individuals can sit on a stationary broom in front of a green screen to have their photograph taken. During the printing process, the screen is replaced with a Harry Potter scene background, which makes a lovely memento of the day.

 

Towards the end of the tour, after everyone has had a chance to try a glass of Butterbeer or some Butterbeer flavoured ice cream, the secrets of the magical creatures in the Harry Potter films are revealed. From actors wearing prosthetic make-up to robots built from steel and foam, the Creature Effects team used every technique imaginable. A lot of computer-generated technology was needed to produce the final, moving shots of the creature, which, in itself, is like a type of magic.

The curators of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour saved the best part to the very end. Described as the “crown jewel of the Art Department” a huge model of the Hogwarts castle fills an entire room. Viewed from a balcony as well as at ground level, the hyperrealistic model is absolutely breathtaking. The construction of the model took almost 100 pairs of hands to complete and was fitted with over 300 fibre optic lights. Everything is built to scale and includes bits of gravel and real plants to make it look as authentic as possible.

For footage involving the exterior of the castle, the filming department combined shots of the model with digital effects to make it look like a real, fully functioning castle. This alone sums up the extent the studio workers were willing to go to make Harry Potter the perfect fantasy film series.

 

The Warner Bros. Studio Tour has won many awards including Best UK Attraction 2017 and Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence 2017. It cost £41 (adults; children are £33) to enter, which may seem like an enormous fee, however, it is worth every penny. Families can spend the entire day at the studio, either having lunch in the cafe two-thirds of the way through or at the restaurant at the beginning/end of the tour. All the staff are extremely helpful and jump at the chance to reveal further information about objects on display. Whether you are an avid fan or fairly new to the Harry Potter world, you are guaranteed to have a magical day.

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At Home in Antiquity

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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Coign of Vantage, 1895 (detail). Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty

Earlier this year (7th July – 29th October 2017), Leighton House Museum in Kensington put on the largest exhibition of an illustrious Victorian artist to be shown in London since 1913. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity displays over 100 paintings that reveal the artist’s interest in both the domestic life of antiquity and his own home life.

Leighton House was the perfect location for an exhibition of an artist who portrays many ancient foreign scenes in his work. Originally the house of Frederic, Lord Leighton, 1st Baron Stretton (1830-96), a famous British artist of a similar era to Alma-Tadema, the house is full of decorative art and furnishings from all over the world.

The exhibition prevented visitors from appreciating the full extent of the house’s decor, however, the ‘Arab Hall’, fitted with an indoor fountain, remained untouched by the display. Here are a collection of ceramics, textiles, woodwork, windows and tiles from Leighton’s travels to the Middle East, particularly Damascus in Syria, and date as far back as the 17th-century.

The rest of the house is decorated in a similar fashion, however, Alma-Tadema far outshone the setting. His paintings are so exquisitely detailed, it was impossible to focus on anything else in the room. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity has certainly been a star attraction for the museum this year.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema OM RA (1836-1912) was born Laurens Alma Tadema in a small village in the Netherlands. His father died when he was only four years old, leaving his mother to singlehandedly raise six children, three of whom were from her husband’s previous marriage. His mother encouraged the learning of artistic skills, however, intended her son to train to become a lawyer.

In 1851, however, at the age of fifteen, Laurens suffered a physical and mental breakdown that was misdiagnosed as a fatal case of consumption. Assuming he did not have long to live, Laurens was left to spend his days at leisure, often drawing and painting. Fortunately, the young man regained his health and decided to pursue a career in art.

A year later, at sixteen, Tadema moved to Belgium in order to study at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. Although he did not complete the course, he found himself a position as a studio assistant to Lodewijk Jan de Taeye, later working for the Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys (1815-69) who introduced him to the history of Belgium and France. Settings of these areas between the 5th and 8th centuries became a key topic of his early work. A few of these were displayed in the drawing room at Leighton House.

 

 

Although painted with exceptional skill, Tadema’s themes were not very popular amongst the clientele of the 1860s. As a result, Tadema decided to change tact, something that was sparked by his marriage to Marie-Pauline Gressin Dumoulin on 24th September 1863.

The happy couple’s lengthy honeymoon took place around Italy in cities such as Florence, Rome and Naples. The ancient facades inspired Tadema to produce Roman genre scenes. As well as Rome, Tadema became equally interested in ancient Greece and Egypt, researching them thoroughly in order to produce accurately detailed oil paintings. Although he was predominantly interested in the ways of life and the architecture of the periods, he also painted a few biblical scenes.

 

 

Tadema and Pauline had two children (their firstborn, a son, died in infancy). Their daughters, Laurence (1864-1940) and Anna (1867-1943) often became the subjects of their father’s paintings. Although his painting style did not alter, these scenes show a remarkable contrast with his imagined scenes. They reveal the differences in the household and fashions of the eras of focus.

Sadly, Pauline died of smallpox in 1869 at the young age of thirty-two. Spiralling into depression, Tadema’s work suffered and he eventually took the advice of his doctor to go to London to seek medical treatment. During his visit, he met the seventeen-year-old daughter of a physician, Laura Theresa Epps, and fell instantly in love. They were married in July 1871.

 

 

Tadema began his life in England with his new wife and daughters who were also artistically inclined. Some of Laura and Anna’s paintings were on show at Leighton House but were greatly outshone by the work of their husband and father.

It was at this time that Tadema adopted the English version of his name, Lawrence, and hyphenated his middle and surname to create a name that would appear at the beginning of exhibition catalogues.

Alma-Tadema became one of the most famous and highly paid artists of his time, receiving many awards including being made a Royal Academician on 19th June 1879. He was eventually knighted in England by Queen Victoria in 1899, the eighth artist from the continent to receive this honour.

As the years progressed, Alma-Tadema’s output dwindled. This was less to do with his age and more to do with a new passion – decorating his home. Various pieces of furniture and photographs of the place in which he lived featured in the exhibition, however, the most interesting was the collection of thin paintings that made up the ‘Hall of Panels’. In a room of his house, forty-five individual door panels were displayed along the walls containing paintings produced by friends and acquaintances of the artist. Seventeen of these were assembled for the exhibition at Leighton House including one by Frederic Leighton himself, The Bath of Psyche (1887). Other artists include John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Frank Dicksee (1853-1928) and, of course, his daughter Anna.

 

 

Laura Alma-Tadema died age fifty-seven in 1909 and her husband was not far behind her. After arriving in Wiesbaden, Germany in the summer of 1912 to be treated for a stomach ulcer, the Victorian artist passed away on 28th June 1912 at the age of seventy-six. He received a state burial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, with the rapid developments of art movements during the first half of the 20th-century, Alma-Tadema’s classical paintings were rejected in favour of the modern experiments of new artists. For a while, his works were forgotten about, however, his depiction of antiquities was discovered by filmmakers, such as Ridley Scott, who used his historically accurate paintings to construct scenery and develop characters.

As part of the exhibition, the curators at the Leighton House Museum set up two adjacent television screens, one to show the painting and the other to play scenes they inspired. Clips were shown from eight films including Gladiator (2000), Cajus Julius Caesar (1914) and The Ten Commandments (1956).

The final room of the exhibition contained two of Alma-Tadema’s most impressive works. The majority of his paintings are exceptional for the way in which flowers, textures, metals and pottery are depicted. Alma-Tadema would source items to use as references and be very perfectionistic about his work. He was also particularly adept at painting stone and marble, earning him the title ‘the marbellous painter’. Evidence of these skills can be seen in The Finding of Moses (1904) and The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888).

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The Finding of Moses, 1904

The Finding of Moses was one of the last major works before Alma-Tadema’s death and was based on the biblical scene in Exodus 2:6. The Pharaoh’s daughter, who had come to bathe in the River Nile, has discovered the baby Moses hidden in a basket amongst the reeds. The scene shows a procession back to Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

Alma-Tadema expertly painted realistic, full-length portraits of shaven-headed male attendants carrying Pharoah’s daughter on an intricately decorated chair. Beside her, two female attendants hold Moses aloft in his basket.

It is evident that Alma-Tadema undertook a significant amount of research to complete this painting. Amongst the decoration on the clothing and the daughter’s chair are symbols indicating her status and hieroglyphics identifying her as the daughter of Ramesses II.

The colours are fairly typical for a dusty Egyptian landscape, however, Alma-Tadema offsets the composition with the inclusion of delphiniums in the foreground, boasting another skill of his. The rich blues and purples turn the painting into something resembling a frieze and are a perfect contrast with the yellows and oranges of the pyramids in the background.

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The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888

The Roses of Heliogabalus is set in an entirely different era. The painting depicts a (probably fictitious) event during the life of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus (204-222). The teenage ruler sits at a banquet table leering down at his guests as a swarm of pink rose petals descend from a false ceiling. Whilst roses and their beautiful colouring generally have positive connotations, this scene is an imagining of something far more sinister, as written in the biography Augustan History (4th century):

“In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his guests in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

As in all Alma-Tadema’s paintings, the Roman citizens are painted in a perfect likeness – almost photographic. However, the most phenomenal aspect is the sheer amount of rose petals depicted, drowning the emperor’s victims. Thousands of petals have been painted on top of the canvas, each one painstakingly detailed. This goes to show Alma-Tadema’s dedication to his work (and his perfectionism).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema was amongst the most financially successful painters of the Victorian-era and it is hard to believe that his work was rejected and ridiculed in the years after his death. Leighton House Museum curated a fantastic exhibition that not only shows off the impressive artworks, teaches the current generation about an artist who deserves to be remembered.

So much can be learnt by looking at Alma-Tadema’s work from artistic technique to historical context. A single painting can be studied for hours, each square inch containing so much detail.

Why this artist is not more widely known is baffling, but now there is hope as a result of the incredible exhibition Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity that Lawrence Alma-Tadema could become everyone’s favourite artist. It will be interesting to discover which artists the museum will reveal to the wider public next.

Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity was organised by the Museum of Friesland, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (the artist’ hometown) and came to London following an exhibition at the Belvedere, Vienna bringing over 130 works to Leighton House Museum as the only UK venue for the show.