William Strang



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Not on display

William Strang 1859–1921
Oil paint on wood
Support: 210 × 260 mm
Purchased 1922


In A Favourite Custom Alma-Tadema depicts a re-creation of the Roman bath ritual which began after a middy meal and lasted for several hours. During this time the men and women, in separate areas, would wash, exercise, socialise and relax. The subject of the painting is typical for Alma-Tadema who, following his first visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1863, began to reconstruct in his pictures the environment and social customs of the ancient Romans. In the following years he built up an enormous collection of photographs of architectural details and artefacts from these ancient Roman cities. His idiosyncratic use of these visual sources is evident in his paintings which often present recognisable statues and artefacts in unlikely juxtapositions (Barrow, p.98).

This is evident in A Favourite Custom. The stucco work above the door and niches around the walls are taken from the men’s apodyterium (dressing room) which adorned the Stabian baths (4th century BC to 1st century AD), and the fluted ceiling is similar to the men’s caldarium (hot bath) of the Forum baths at Pompeii (1st century BC to first century AD) (Barrow, p.189). In the middle-ground Alma-Tadema includes a detail of the ‘Hildesheim crater’. Alma-Tadema had already included it in A Dedication to Bacchus which he completed in 1889, and was to illustrate it again in 1908 in The Golden Hour. Discovered in Hildesheim in Germany in 1868, this richly ornamented bowl aroused great interest amongst classical archaeologists. Alma-Tadema places these historical details in a striking composition. The eye is led from the two women playing in the frigidarium (cold bath) in the foreground towards the activities taking place in the dressing room behind and the outside world beyond.

The attention to detail and subject matter of A Favourite Custom is typical of the latter part of Alma-Tadema’s career. From the 1880s he began to introduce a certain mild and polite eroticism into his pictures. Despite the controversy surrounding the depiction of certain nudes in art during this period, for example Love and Life by George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) and Edward John Poynter’s (1836-1919) Diadumenè, Alma-Tadema’s paintings were greeted enthusiastically, his nudes merely being regarded as ‘accessories to his archaeological reconstruction’ (Becker, p.262).

A Favourite Custom was Alma-Tadema’s last painting of a Roman bath. It was purchased through the Chantrey Bequest for the sum of £1750. In 1906, three years before this painting, Alma-Tadema was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects’ gold Medal for his contribution to architecture.

Further reading:
Christopher Wood, Olympian Dreamer: Victorian Classical Painters 1860-1914, London 1983
Edwin Becker, ed. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, exhibition catalogue, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam 1997, p.262, reproduced, p.263, in colour

R. J. Barrow, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, London 2001, p.191, reproduced, p.190, in colour

Heather Birchall
February 2003

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Catalogue entry

N03675 LANDSCAPE 1912–21

Not inscribed.
Oil on wood, 8 1/4×10 3/4 (21×27·25), with painted surface, 8 1/4×10 1/4 (21×26).

Purchased presumably from the artist's family (Grant-in-Aid) 1922.

On the frame of this painting appears a faint pencil inscription which seems to read ‘The Cart [?] Road’. It will be noticed that a track does in fact wind along the bottom left-hand side of the picture. David Strang has suggested that the date of the painting must be between 1912 and 1921, and that it is probably of a Scottish scene.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

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