Gold Snake Armlet, Designed by Lawrence Alma-Tadema for his wife Laura.
Sir Lawrence met Laura in 1869 and it can be assumed that the armlet was ordered from the Wyon brothers sometime between then and when it appears in the ‘Sculpture Gallery’ painted 1874. The snake armlet was most probably a wedding gift to his future wife Laura. The inspiration for the design is almost certainly derived from a comparable ancient Greek bangle found in a tomb at the Greek settlement of Roccaglorisa, La Scala, Italy and now in a museum in Rocca. It dates from the 1st half of the IV century BC. A similar snake bracelet to coil once around the arm was found at Pompeii. Sir Lawrence made a tour of Italy in 1863 and again in the winter of 1867-8 and it’s probable that he would have seen a similar piece whilst there. What is evident is that Sir Lawrence added to the design of the bangle with the use of horse’s heads to flank the snake.
Gold Snake armlet IV BC, Found in Necropolis at the Greek settlement of La Scala, Italy
Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born in Dronryp, Holland in 1836. As he grew up he showed some artistic ability and the start of a methodical nature. In 1852 he enrolled as a student at the Antwerp Academy. Lawrence later became assistant to the historical painter Baron Hendryk Leys and lived in the household of an archaeologist, Louis de Taye. From Leys and de Taye Lawrence began to develop his interest in and knowledge of archaeology and history and assisted Leys in painting historical murals in the Antwerp Town Hall.
The themes for his early paintings derived from the history of the Merovingians. This little known and bleak period preoccupied him until 1862 when he visited London for the first time, during the International Exhibition. He was really impressed by the Elgin Marbles and the ancient artefacts at the British Museum and turned increasingly to Egyptian and Greek themes in his work. In 1863 he married a French woman, Marie Pauline Gressin de Boisgirard, and spent his honeymoon in Italy. There he intended to study the architecture of early Christian churches; instead he became fascinated by the Roman remains, marble and the newly- excavated ruins at Pompeii. He immediately added Roman subjects to his repertoire. Within a few years such works took prominence. Soon afterwards, Lawrence and his wife moved to Paris where he met Ernest Gambart, an important art dealer with pan European connections, he entered into a long term contract with him and soon moved his studio to Brussels.
The 1860’s were marked by a double tragedy: his only son died of smallpox and in 1869 his wife died leaving him to support their two daughters, Anna and Laurence. By the end of the decade Tadema’s work was attracting a growing following in London to where he moved with his daughters in 1870.
The following year he married his seventeen year old pupil Laura Epps. The daughter of a doctor and member of a family celebrated in the Victorian period for the manufacture of cocoa.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Paintings Where the Armlet is Featured
The Tadema armlet is made to wrap four times around the arm, both ends with snake head terminals, set diamond eyes, flanked on either side by four stylised horse’s heads their eyes alternately set turquoise, ruby, sapphire and emerald. The body of snake is engraved in Greek script: ‘Laura Theresa Alma Tadema’, with laurel leaf decoration.
Contained in original leather case, the interior silk lined, tooled in gold with makers name and address all headed by the Imperial Crown.
‘The Sculpture Gallery’ (opus CXXV) painted 1874. (223.4×173.5cm)
This is the largest painting produced by Sir Lawrence. Lawrence used himself and his family to pose for this painting, his wife Laura Theresa wearing the armlet to the centre, his two children Laurence and Anna standing to the right, on the left, seated, Lawrence and to his right, rather strangely, a woman that resembled his first wife Pauline de Gressin de Bois Girard whom he married in 1863, she died in 1869.
The Roses of Heliogabulus Painted 1888 (132.7 x 214.4 cm)
Laura is seen to the left, engulfed in petals, wearing the armlet.
The painting is part of the Perez Simon collection and has been shown in London from November 2014 to March 2015 at the Leighton House Museum as part of the exhibition A Victorian Obsession. This is the first time since Alma Tadema’s memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1913.
‘The Fridgadariam’ (opus CCCLL) painted 1890. (45.1×59.7cm)
The armlet is also used in ‘The Fridgadariam’ as a prop placed on a shelf in an alcove to the right of the main subject, which again is modeled by Laura Theresa.
History of the Wyon family
JS & AB Wyon. Jewellers and Goldsmiths, Chief Engravers of Her Majesty’s Seals, 237 Regent Street, LONDON W
From the 18th century four generations of Wyon’s worked as medallists and seal makers. They designed and seal engraved the master dies for the Royal Mint, their signature is seen on many pre declamation coins. Their production included medals for important organisations as well as military and royal presentations.
Joseph Shepherd Wyon (1836-1873) – Studied in the schools of the Royal Academy, where he distinguished himself. In 1858 J S Wyon was appointed Chief Engraver of Seals, in succession to his father.
Alfred Benjamin Wyon (1837-1884) – He was a student in the School of Painting at the Royal Academy and learned the art of die engraving under his father, Benjamin Wyon. After the death of his brother Joseph in 1873 he became chief engraver of seals.
They also traded at: 2&3 Lanham Chambers, All Souls Place, London W. It is likely that Sir Lawrence met the Wyon brothers at the Royal Academy and possibly why he commissioned them to make the armlet in preference to one of the more noted jewellers of the time. The Wyons were pre-eminently known as medallists and seal cutters, their jewellery is relatively unknown. A letter exists in the Wyon archives housed at Cambridge University manuscript library, inviting Joseph to attend the ‘Artists General Benevolent Institutional’ annual dinner stewarded by Sir Lawrence, dated 6 March 1874. The brothers both lived very close to Sir Lawrence, Joseph at Cavendish Rd, St Johns Wood and Alfred in Kilburn.
What Happend to the Armlet after Laura Tadema’s Death?
The armlet was last used in ‘The Fridgadariam’ (1890). From then until 1953 we can only speculate as to its history:
In 1909 Laura died, followed three years later by Sir Lawrence. In June 1913 Hampton’s auctioneers sold the contents of Grove House, St Johns Wood, the Alma-Tadema’s home and studio since 1886. Although there were many personal belongings amongst the lots offered, the armlet was not included.
After his death Sir Lawrence’s spinster daughters do not appear to be taken care of generously under the terms of his will. Perhaps he did not trust them with larger sums of money or possibly did not approve of their Bohemian lifestyle. He left the whole of his substantial estate to the Royal Academy and only the income as an annuity to be paid to each of his daughters.
Not much is known about the life of his eldest daughter Laurence except she was a writer, poet and translator her most noted novel being ‘The Wings of Icarus Being the Life of One Emilia Fletcher’. She lived in Hastings and died in 1940. Sir Lawrence’s youngest daughter Anna, under the guidance of her father, showed considerable artistic talent, painting exceptionally good watercolours. Anna never showed her work, and after the death of her father, living the remainder of her life in Paris in relative obscurity until her death in 1943.
The only fact we can be sure of is the armlet was sold by a dealer in Paris to its previous owners in 1953. We can only speculate that Anna had the armlet in her possession at the time of her death in 1943 and that it was sold at auction or directly to a dealer after this date. This can be determined by the fact it has a French gold import mark, a requirement by law for any objects made of precious metal, sold at auction or by a dealer. Furthermore at the time of her death until August 1944 the German army occupied Paris so possibly the armlet could have ‘disappeared’ until its re-emergence sometime before 1953.
Fashions of Desire for Tadema’s Art
Critics of Laurence Alma-Tadema’s work at the time often noted that many of his historical interpretations were not accurate. Ruskin said about Alma–Tadema; “he is a hedonist and depicts life from that standpoint’’.
Other critics of the time noted; “It has been pointed out with a certain amount of justice that some of the Roman types are essentially English and that we are really looking at Englishmen dressed in Roman attire”. This comment conclusively applies to ‘The Sculpture Gallery’ where he used his family as the ‘Roman types’.
Vern A Swanson notes in his 1990 book ‘The Biography and Catalogue Raissonne of the painting of Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema’:
“He was the Picasso of his day; in 1885 the sale price of one Alma-Tadema was enough to buy all the Manet’s ever painted, by 1960 the sale of one Manet would raise enough to buy all the Alma-Tadema’s in existence”.
In 1960 the Newman Gallery in New York, firstly tried to sell, then give away without success one of Alma-Tademas most celebrated works,‘The Finding of Moses (1904)’. The initial purchaser had paid £5250 for it on completion and subsequent sales were for £861 in 1935, £265 in 1942 and it was bought in at £252 in 1960, having failed to meet its reserve. When the same picture was auctioned at Christies New York in May 1995 it made £1.75 million. On 4th November 2010 it was sold for $35,922,500 to an undisclosed bidder at Sotheby’s New York, a record for the artist and Victorian Painting. On 5 May 2011 his ‘The meeting of Anthony and Cleopatra: 418BC’ was sold at the same auction house for $29.2 million.
Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples:
‘Hood Museum of Art’ Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA
28 June – 28 September 2008.
‘National Museum of Art’ Washington, USA
19 October 2008 – 22 March 2009.
‘Los Angeles County Museum of Art’ Los Angeles, USA
3 April -4 October 2009.
The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900
‘V&A Museum’ London, UK
2 April – 17 July 2011.
‘Musee D’Orsay’ Paris, France
13 September 2011 – 15 January 2012.
The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900
‘Fine Art Museum of San Francisco Legion of Honor’ San Francisco, USA
18 February – 17 June 2012
Art for Art’s Sake: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900
‘Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum’ Tokyo, Japan.
30 January – 6 May 2014
Written by Jeffrey A Cadby
Photography credit (pictures of armlet) – Maxim Garcha
Complied by Maxim Garcha for Cadby & Co.