As a new chronological display of Tate Britain’s permanent collection is unveiled this week, Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Britain shines a light on the work of two very different contemporaries as they are displayed side by side in the gallery

A Favourite Custom by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and La Hollandaise by Walter Richard Sickert
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
A Favourite Custom 1909
Oil on wood support: 660 x 451 mm frame: 957 x 751 x 83 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1909
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Walter Richard Sickert
La Hollandaise c.1906
Oil paint on canvas
support: 511 x 406 mm frame: 722 x 630 x 104 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1983
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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Favourite Custom 1909

It is a surprise to find Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema hanging next to Walter Sickert because he looks like a painter from a different era. His idealised classical nudes made a success of the traditional style and were bought straight away for the nation. A Favourite Custom showed the coldest of the Roman baths, the frigidarium, in accurate archaeological detail, flattering the classical learning of educated Victorians. They are, however, more modern than they look. Hygiene was a newly important social and health concern in cities like London. The beautifully painted surfaces – wet skin, silken hair, diaphanous fabrics, flowers, silver, glass, mosaic and marble – are intensely physical. These luxurious materials appealed to a consumerist bourgeoisie. The greys, mauves and whites suit the cold setting and enhance the eroticism of the warm pink bodies. Alma-Tadema is often accused of painting ‘Victorians in togas,’ but he saw it the opposite way, ‘the old Romans were human flesh and blood like ourselves, moved by the same passions and emotions’.

Walter Richard Sickert La Hollandaise c. 1906

Walter Richard Sickert was part of the progressive Camden Town Group who were committed to painting the ‘material facts’ of city life. Unlike Alma-Tadema, Sickert shows his nude model just as he observed the working class women who he employed to pose for him. The setting is a dim, run-down, rented room. An iron bedstead features prominently and a mattress with crumpled bedclothes. The model has an ordinary non-classical figure and her pose is awkward. A shadow conceals her facial features. The title does introduce a literary touch however; it translates as ‘The Dutch Girl’ and may be derived from a minor character who is a prostitute in a novel by Balzac. Its place on the wall emphasises the grim dirtiness of the woman’s surroundings, in direct contrast to the luxurious cleanliness of the Alma-Tadema. It also allows us to compare the way Sickert’s bravura brushstrokes explore the beauty of light and surface. The left breast and thigh glow in bright light, the pale skin emphasised with blue and olive tones as well as grey under-painting. Sickert wrote, ‘the chief source of pleasure in the aspect of a nude is that it is in the nature of a gleam - a gleam of light and warmth and life.’

BP Walk Through British Art opens 14 May at Tate Britain. The display is a complete chronological re-hang of the collection and features artworks from 1540 to the present day.

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