The studio from the side entrance, Townshend House by Emily Williams, £50,000 at Bonhams.

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The north London home of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) must have been a real eye-opener to visit.

In 1885, he and his second wife Laura moved to 44 Grove End Road*, St John’s Wood, the former residence of the artist James Tissot who had returned home to France not long before.

Over the next decade the couple spent an extraordinary £70,000 renovating and expanding the property, a huge sum at the time, creating a spectacular villa with a series of open-plan spaces articulated by arches. Its numerous rooms were all individually decorated, many in an opulent classical aesthetic.

With rooms dedicated to Greco- Roman, Egyptian, Byzantine and Arabic styles, not to mention the Japanese and Chinese rooms and the three-storey artist’s studio with vast windows, ‘Casa Tadema’ as it became known was described by The Pall Mall Gazette as ‘The Palace of the Beautiful’.

Striking feature


Image of the Hall of Panels at Alma-Tadema’s house (from 1913 auction catalogue).

One of the most striking features was the Hall of Panels: a large space featuring white walls and alcoves inset with painted panels by artists such as Frederic, Lord Leighton, John Singer Sargent, Sir Frank Dicksee, Alfred East and Sir Edward John Poynter.

Some had been brought from Alma-Tadema’s previous house but many were painted specifically for the setting.

The artists were seemingly given something of a free rein to choose what they wished to paint – they were described as ‘substantial visiting cards’ by one critic but they can also be regarded as personal messages to the Alma-Tademas from friends, family and colleagues.

Subjects ranged from scenes of ancient Rome to marines, landscapes and painted interiors. Among the latter were views of the Alma-Tadema residence itself as well as pictures of his former home at Townshend House, near Regent’s Park.

The size of the panels was 2ft 8in (81cm) high but there was some variation in width. By 1902, all 45 niches were filled and the scheme was described by the writer and actor Rudolph de Cordova as ‘unique in London, unique in the world’.

Following Alma-Tadema’s death in 1912, the contents of 44 Grove End Road were sold at auction by Hampton’s in London and the panels were dispersed. Over the years, a number have passed through the trade, being sold by dealers such as Agnews and the Fine Art Society, while a group also emerged at Sotheby’s Belgravia in 1974.

They have since been spread far and wide with examples such as Sargent’s Javanese dancer now in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon and another by Leighton ending up in the collection of Ann and Gordon Getty.

An effort to regroup them for a 2016-17 exhibition at the Fries Museum in Netherlands (which travelled to the Belvedere in Vienna and Leighton House in London) admirably located 17 of the original 45 panels.

Group emerges

It was, therefore, a significant moment when a group of six were consigned to Bonhams’ (27.5/26/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) 19th Century and British Impressionist Art sale on March 29.

They had been acquired by Jim Fitzpatrick, owner of The Irish News, and had hung in the newspaper’s offices since he acquired them in the early 2000s from London dealer The Fine Art Society. Fitzpatrick died aged 92 last year but the main reason for the sale was The Irish News moving offices in Belfast.

Two of the panels, both dating from the 1880s, were by Tadema’s sister-in-law Emily Epps Williams (fl.1869-90) and the others were by Valentine Prinsep (1838-1904), John O’Connor (1830-89), Edith Hipkins (1854-1945) and Charles Green (1840-98).

All six sold at the auction for a combined £92,200, going to six different buyers – two to UK private collectors, a couple to US-based private collectors, another to an Italian private buyer and one to a US dealer.


The studio from the side entrance, Townshend House by Emily Williams, £50,000 at Bonhams.

The top-seller by some distance was a view of Alma-Tadema’s studio in Townshend House. It was painted by Williams, an artist who exhibited several times at The Royal Academy and The Grosvenor Gallery but who has largely fallen off the radar.

The 2ft 8in x 7½in (81 x 19cm) oil on panel was signed with the artist’s initials and showed the brightly lit studio from the side entrance up a flight of steps.

The studio, which was double-height and adorned with a shining aluminium-clad semi dome, was filled with numerous artefacts including a Japanese basket stool and a replica of the Hercules bowl by the window, as shown here. The painting also depicted a known Alma-Tadema work on the easel, the watercolour An Old Story.

The estimate for the panel was £5000-7000 which was not too far removed from the prices fetched by all the others in the sale. However, this one gave a glimpse of Alma-Tadema’s working practices and therefore had extra appeal to collectors and scholars of the artist’s work.

After a prolonged bidding battle, it was knocked down at £50,000, by far the highest price among the few works by Williams ever sold at auction.


The drawing room, Townshend House by Emily Williams, £12,000 at Bonhams.

The other panel by the artist at the Bonhams sale was a view of the drawing room at Townshend House.

Painted in 1885, it showed the striking black and white floor created by Alma-Tadema and dated from the same year as another well-known painting of the same setting by his daughter Anna Alma-Tadema (1867-1943), a work she painted as a teenager which is now part of the Royal Academy’s collection.

The two works show the same lantern hanging from the highly decorated ceiling and the heavy brocade curtain hanging as a room divider.

This panel was slightly wider at 7½in (19cm). Estimated at £5000- 7000, it sold at £12,000.

Another panel of a window seat in Townshend House by Hipkins took £8500 against a £5000-7000 estimate. Alma-Tadema had been close to the artist’s father, the eminent musicologist Alfred James Hipkins (1826-1903).

Thinner example


An Indian water carrier by Valentine Prinsep, £9000 at Bonhams.

Also selling above estimate was one of the thinnest panels in the collection, a depiction of an Indian water carrier by Prinsep.

Measuring just 5¾in (15cm) wide, it was painted by the artist in his trademark style which, like Alma Tadema’s, was much influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites.

Showing an Indian girl going down the sacred steps to the Ganges to fill her pitchers, the subject was also familiar for the Calcutta-born artist who returned to India in 1877 and later published his journals inspired by his experiences on the sub-continent.

The panel had previously been part of the Forbes collection of Victorian pictures but was unsold at the Christie’s sale of the collection in 2003 against a £7000-10,000 estimate. Here it was given a lower pitch of £5000-7000 and it duly attracted interest, taking £9000.

An equally slim panel by O’Connor depicting a view in Vicenza sold above estimate at £8500, while, completing the set here, a panel titled A bit of old Hampstead by Green went below estimate at £4200.

* Alma-Tadema’s home at 44 Grove End Road (now number 17) is a Grade II listed building and last went on the market in 2006 for £17m. The Alma-Tademas moved there after Townshend House was damaged when a barge transporting five tons of gunpowder exploded nearby on Regent’s Canal.

Leighton and Millais portraits


Sea Echoes by Frederic, Lord Leighton, £320,000 at Bonhams.

Victorian highlights at Bonhams included portraits of young women by two of the big names in the sector.

Sea Echoes by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-96) depicts a young woman holding a sea-shell to her ear and was described in the catalogue as a ‘beautiful and sensuous painting’. It was a Royal Academy exhibit from 1862.

The model features in a number of Leighton’s paintings of the early 1860s and there was a tentative suggestion that she was one of his two sisters, Alexandra and Augusta.

It dates from a period when the artist was exploring figurative compositions with a story-telling element and could be regarded as a significant work from the earlier part of his career.

The 20¼ x 17½in (52 x 45cm) oil on canvas had been acquired by a member of the vendor’s family from Sotheby’s in January 1960 – indeed, it had been previously untraced since then.

Estimated at £250,000-350,000, it drew interest from a number of parties but came down to a battle between a UK private buyer and an overseas collector before it was knocked down to the latter at £320,000.

While higher prices have been recorded for larger works, this was the highest price at auction for a work by the artist in this smaller format.

Not forgotten at £240,000


Forget-Me-Not by Sir John Everett Millais, £240,000 at Bonhams.

Also making a significant sum and a useful contribution to the bottom line at Bonhams was Forget-Me-Not by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96). Another Royal Academy exhibit from 1883, the sitter in the picture is unknown but it is thought to have a likeness to the artist’s daughter Effie.

The 2ft 9in x 2ft 1in (84 x 64cm) signed oil on canvas showed the young Victorian woman with a touch of an aristocratic lady of a bygone age, recalling portraits of the Georgian era. It was, therefore, somewhat removed from his works as a radical young Pre- Raphaelite.

After his death, it remained in the collection of the artist’s wife, Lady Millais, and stayed in the family until a Christie’s sale in 1900. The private vendor here had inherited it, their family having acquired it in the early 1960s.

Estimated at £200,000-300,000, it drew competition from a UK-based private collector who was eventually seen off by a British art agent bidding on behalf of a private collector.

It sold at £240,000.