The Tepidarium by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
As an 8 or 9 year old kid I couldn’t read big words on tiny labels, so I called this painting ‘Intrepidarium’. I was also mistaken in thinking that it was of Cleopatra because she looked like she was having a staring match with a snake. But it’s not a snake it is a strigel, a tool used for scraping skin off, after a good soap. This is apt. This picture was acquired by Lord Leverhume who owned Port Sunlight factory. He made soap, a substance that was pretty alien to me at the time.
I always made an innocent bee-line for this painting, fascinated by the pretty fairy-tale lady. But now I am older, and have had the benefit of some desultory, obligatory (but easily skive-able) art history lectures. If you look up the artist, Alma-Tadema, on Wikipedia he is described as ‘the world’s foremost painter of marble and variegated granite’. This is too demure, he is the foremost painter of noody ladies for the delectation of the Victorian male gaze.
Even now she seems very real, her face has a slightly discomforting pink sheen of sweat on it. The fan acts like some kind of mauve merkin. She’s on a skin rug would probably smell a bit and give you a nasty itch. She has hairstyle that comes into fashion in the 1980’s.
My intrepid good-time girl seems to get around. She pops up in odd places. Hollywood loves Alma-Tadama, and used his work to inform the sets of Ben Hur, Cleopatra and the Ten Commandments and, more recently, Gladiator. And here is our lass popping up as a giant mural in Al Capone’s gaff, in the Untouchables in 1987.
She has also turned up in an episode of Inspector Morse. It was the episode were an upper class Oxford couple are up to no good. The baronet’s favourite painting is stolen, only to be returned by a dashing college drop-out gardener who rows it across the Isis in a little wooden boat.
But the baronet was up to shenanigans in a home-made ultra-soft porn photo studio in the mansion attic, using the pretty french au pair as a model. The shocking discovery leads Lewis to exclaim ‘That’s not art – it’s Michelle Réage!’ Lewis is in agreement with many critics. John Ruskin didn’t think much of Alma-Tadema, and called him the worst painter of the 19th century.
I don’t like his work either, and I’m a tad annoyed that this picture is the one that filled me with wonderment at an early age. It’s like admitting to seeing Donovan for your first ever gig, not Dylan. But I’m fond of it all the same.
Where to see… ‘The Tepiderium is in the wonderful Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight on the Wirral. The Morse episode is Ghost in the Machine, keep your eyes glued to ITV3, it’ll come round. That and The Untouchables are out on on DVD