Coming from a medical family, it was only appropriate that the three daughters of Dr George Napoleon Epps should have learned to paint – a social skill which would have helped each secure a good marriage.
The oldest, Emily (c 1842-1912) was taught by the leading Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter John Brett, and married to become Mrs Emily Williams. The middle daughter, Ellen (1850-1929) was taught by Ford Madox Brown, and married the poet Sir Edmund William Gosse (1849-1928). After their husbands died, Emily and Ellen shared a studio, but neither really achieved fame in their painting. It was the youngest daughter, born Laura Theresa Epps, who was to become the best-known, as Lady Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (1852–1909).
The year 1869 had been a disaster for the Alma-Tadema family. Although Lawrence’s career as a painter had been starting to flourish, his wife Pauline had not been well for a long time, and died of smallpox. His own health had faltered, but his doctors in Brussels could not agree on a diagnosis. This left him with one option: to go to London to get a second opinion.
This he did in December 1869, and was quickly invited to Ford Madox Brown’s house, where he met the two younger Epps girls, then aged nineteen and seventeen. Lawrence fell in love with Laura, the younger, at first sight, although he was nearly thirty-four himself. He returned to his family in Brussels, still infatuated with young Laura. Then in July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and the whole Alma-Tadema family – Lawrence, his two young daughters, and his sister Atje, who acted as housekeeper – fled to London.
This gave Lawrence the ideal opportunity to court Laura Theresa Epps. He first offered to teach her to paint, and then made his proposal of marriage. Her father was unhappy, but relented on condition that they got to know each other better; the couple married in July 1871, and at the age of only nineteen Laura found herself an artist’s wife, step-mother to Laurense and Anna (then seven and four years old), and trying to start her own career as a painter.
As did Lawrence, Laura numbered each of her paintings in sequence as ‘Opus’ with Roman numerals, a robust way of preventing copies and fakes, but of little help in dating her works. In some cases, I think that the dates attributed to her paintings have been mistakenly taken from those numbers, and have tried to arrange the paintings below in order according to the opus number as well as attributed date.
Despite her new and demanding roles, Laura was quick to achieve recognition in her painting. Her first work to be exhibited at the Salon in Paris was in 1873, and that same year she started to exhibit at the Royal Academy in London. I do not know if her early painting The Tea Party (date not known, Opus 7) was one of those. It shows, I believe, Laura’s step-daughter Laurense, playing with her dolls.
Laura developed a particular interest in recreating scenes from the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, perhaps out of respect for her husband’s and step-daughters’ origins, as much as for her fascination in Dutch paintings of the period. The Bible Lesson (date not known, Opus 58) is one of her earlier examples, which also shows her love for Dutch painted tiles of that time.
Just as Lawrence researched his classical paintings to achieve great accuracy and authenticity, so Laura did the same for her historical paintings, such as A Carol (date not known, Opus 61), which shows a group of children singing carols outside the entrance to a dwelling.
World of Dreams (1876, Opus 76) introduces another theme which was to be developed in Laura’s mature works: the reflection and transmission of images in mirrors and windows, which adds great depth to what would otherwise be a shallow view. Here a nurse/nanny (or possibly mother) has fallen asleep, exhausted, on a large illustrated family Bible, which is open at the start of the book of Amos.
She was one of only two British women artists to have work accepted for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878.
Almost all her paintings are set indoors. The sole exception that I have found is With a Babe in the Woods (c 1879-80), which explores the popular Victorian (and more enduring) theme of the young, homeless unmarried mother. Its foliage and trunks are painted much more loosely than the backgrounds in her other works, in a Barbizon style.
A Looking out o’Window, Sunshine (?1881, Opus 81) is by far the most outstanding of her paintings that I have found, with its captivating portrayal of childhood, radiant lightness, and its play of reflections on the glass of the window. It is also composed so as to reverse the normal balance in brightness between indoors and out: in reality, of course, outdoor light levels would have been much greater than those indoors, but the artist has managed to ‘cheat’ that by her choice of light colours in the interior wood, clothing, and chair.
The Persistent Reader (date not known, Opus 88) is a more overtly Dutch historical scene, of a young couple: the woman appears bored as she waits for the man to finish poring through books before they can go out together. Just as Lawrence made great play of the period detail in his classical scenes, Laura not only accomplishes the same in every last fixture and fitting, but adds reality in the rather wonky chandelier, for example.
The Pledge (?1904, Opus 89) is another Dutch period scene which may have been intended as a ‘problem picture’. A young man and woman are clearly making some sort of pledge to one another over glasses of white wine. But who is the second man, at the right? Is this a matter of the heart, or perhaps something more sinister? ‘Problem pictures‘ had become very popular by the 1890s when this was most probably painted.
A Knock at the Door (1897, Opus 90) is Laura’s most explicit painting in terms of dates. It is set in 1684, during the period of peace between the Second Treaty of Westminster (1674) and Treaty of Nijmegen (1678), and the crisis in relations with England which arose in 1688. She has also not only provided an Opus number (90), but a date for this painting of 1897.
We see an attractive young woman, apparently checking that she is looking at her best in a mirror, presumably just before she receives a visitor. On either side there are brief glimpses of open windows.
Love’s Beginning (1896, Opus 100) shows a familiar scene of a young couple whose relationship is just starting, with another reflection on the open window.
At the Doorway (1898) is an unusually static scene, in which there is odd ambivalence in the image seen behind the standing woman: it appears to be the reflection on dark, glazed tiles of the garden outside, rather than any image formed by the tiles themselves.
Battledore and Shuttlecock (date not known) shows the predecessor to modern badminton, which was often played by young women in full dresses, indoors, as seen here. Laura also plays with her family monograms in the tiles on the floor.
Girl on Stairs (date not known) appears to be a simple sketch of one of the children in the household.
In Good Hands (date not known) is another period domestic scene, of one of the older daughters keeping watch over a younger brother as he sleeps beside his windmill toy, in a four-poster bed. The girl rests her feet on a foot warmer as she sews to pass the time.
Although her Love’s Curse (date not known) has cracked badly, and this is not a good image, it shows a woman recluse in an apparently similar situation to that of Tennyson’s Mariana.
Laura died – three years before Lawrence – in 1909, and the following year a memorial exhibition of her paintings was held at the Fine Art Society. Although the great majority of her works remain in private collections, a few have entered public collections and thus remain accessible.
I am fascinated by these few paintings out of her total output of well over a hundred, and wish that I could learn more about them.
Alma-Tadema: Classical Charm is an extensive survey of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings, and a unique opportunity to see so many together. It is open now at Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, until 7 February 2017. It then moves to the Belvedere in Vienna, Austria, where it runs from 23 February to 18 June 2017. It finally moves to Leighton House Museum in London (Frederick, Lord Leighton’s house and collection), where it runs from 7 July to 29 October 2017.