Above is Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s innocently titled painting The Tepidarium. And the question you ask yourself is – how did those Victorians get away with it?
Alma-Tadema, a Dutchman who became a giant of the high Victorian art scene, features largely in Victorian Olympus, part of William Gaunt’s trilogy on Victorian painters (The Pre-Raphaelite Dream and The Aesthetic Adventure are the other two), which is one of the most readable and entertaining art histories ever written.
Even in his day, Alma-Tadema was characterised, wildly, by Ruskin as ‘the worst painter of the 19th century’, and his reputation plunged in the 20th century to such a nadir that in 1960 the Newman Gallery found it impossible even to give away, let alone sell, The Finding of Moses, one of his most famous paintings. In 1995, it sold for £1.75 million.
What had happened in the interim? The catalyst for the Alma-Tadema revival was one Allen Funt, the creator of the TV show Candid Camera, whose accountant stole all his money, leaving him obliged to sell his large collection of Alma-Tademas, bought while the artist’s reputation was at rock bottom. The ensuing sale at Christie’s in 1973 sparked new interest in the artist, and he has remained one of the highest-priced Victorians ever since.
It’s not hard to see why – that flesh, that marble, those skies… Not a great artist, but certainly not ‘the worst painter of the 19th century’ – for that honour there is an awful lot of competition.