The Alma Tadema Armlet

A gift from Lawrence Alma-Tadema to his wife Laura Theresa.


The Tadema armlet is made to wrap four times around the arm, both ends with engraved snake head terminals, with diamond-set eyes, flanked by stylised horses’ heads, their eyes alternately set with a turquoise, ruby, sapphire and emerald. The body of the snake is scaled and engraved in Greek script: ‘Laura Theresa Alma Tadema’, with laurel leaf decoration.  The jewel is a symbol of their love and features in a number of his most iconic paintings, including ‘The Sculpture Gallery’ painted in 1874, ‘The Roses of Heliogabulus’ (1888) and ‘The Frigidarium’ (1890).

Weight: 400 grams
Length: 12 cm
Diameter: 9.4cm


The jewel  was commissioned from the firm J.S. and A.B. Wyon, chief engravers of Her Majesty’s Seals, as indicated by the lid satin within the original leather covered double opening fitted box for the jewel. The Imperial Crown surmounts the firm’s name.

Established in the 18th century, four generations of the Wyon family worked as coin and medal engravers, and seal makers, designing and seal-engraving the master dies for the Royal Mint.  Their production included medals for distinguished organisations as well as military and royal presentations.

Joseph Shepherd Wyon (1836-1873) studied at the Royal Academy Schools, where he distinguished himself.   He was appointed Chief Engraver of Seals in 1858, in succession to his father Benjamin Wyon (1802-1858).   Some of his medals were made in collaboration with his brother Alfred Benjamin Wyon (1837-1884), including a number for the Corporation of the City of London.  Alfred himself studied at the School of Painting of the Royal Academy and became Chief Engraver of the Seals in 1873 when his brother died, retaining the post until his own death.

Given that jewellery did not form part of their usual repertoire, it is likely that Sir Lawrence was introduced to the Wyon brothers through the Royal Academy, and their distinguished reputation for metal engraving prompted him to commission the jewel from them rather than from the better-known jewellers of the period.


Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Paintings featuring the Armlet

‘The Sculpture Gallery’ (1874)

The Sculpture Gallery’, illustrated above, is the largest painting ever created by Alma-Tadema.  The artist and his family posed for this work, his two daughters Laurence and Anna standing to the right, next to Laura wearing the armlet.  The bearded Alma-Tadema sits to the left with his arm outstretched, next to Laura’s sister Ellen Gosse (wife of Sir Edmund Gosse) and brother Dr. Washington Epps.  They represent prospective clients or patrons visiting an ancient art gallery or sculptor’s studio.  In the background, a colonnaded market-place can be seen, as well as a male figure leaning on a table surrounded by functional objects and decorative works of art.

An enslaved man, recognizable by the crescent-shaped tablet hanging around his neck, displays a basin ornamented with Scylla, the mythological sea-serpent.  Identifiable ancient works of art surround the group, including the ‘Infant Hercules Strangling a Snake,” from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples to the left, and on the right, the seated statue of Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, from the Capitoline Museum in Rome.  It was understood in Alma-Tadema’s day to be a much earlier Roman work representing Agrippina, the wife of Germanicus.   The ornately carved marble table, on the right, is from the Casa Rufi in Pompeii on which sits a silver kylix copied from an original that formed part of the Roman treasure found at Hildesheim.  The bust of Pericles wearing a Corinthian helmet is from the Vatican Museums.

Tadema’s friend Sir Edward Burne-Jones stated ‘No man has ever lived who has interpreted with Alma-Tadema’s power the incidence of sunlight on metal and marble’, and nowhere is this more aptly demonstrated than in this work.   Within a comparatively subtle palette, the glistening qualities of the kylix and of the sculptural snake bracelet are testimony to his technical prowess, as are the rich properties of marble evident in the contrasting treatments of the pillar supporting the Scylla basin, the carved table, and the ‘Infant Hercules’.

The work was commissioned by Alma-Tadema’s agent Gambart for his villa in Nice; it took only a year to complete, which was remarkable given its scale and complexity.    It was exhibited at a number of international exhibitions including the Paris Salon of 1874, the Berlin Royal Academy the same year (where it won a gold medal), the Royal Academy in 1875, and at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle.


‘The Sculpture Gallery’ (1875)

The Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, USA.
76.8 x 59.1 cm

A much smaller painting with the same subject but slight variations to accessories and  background was commissioned again by Alma-Tadema’s agent Gambart in 1875.   The marble pedestal on the back wall has been engraved with a Latin inscription indicating that the Augustan era has just begun.  This painting was to be the last of a series of ancient sculpture and painting gallery pictures.  After his excursion to Rome in the winter of 1876-7, the artist seemed less interested in the overt use of known subjects from classical antiquity in his paintings, his expertise allowing him to invent some of the ancient objects himself.

The painting was reproduced on the slip case of the biography and catalogue raisonné devoted to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema by Vern G. Swanson, published in 1990.


‘The Roses of Heliogabulus’ (1888)

Pérez Simón Collection,
132.7 x 214.4 cm

One of the iconic images of Victorian art, this is one of Alma-Tadema’s best known works.  Laura is seen to the left, engulfed in petals, wearing the armlet.


The painting tells the story of Heliogabalus, the debauched Emperor of Rome (218-23).  Whilst hosting a banquet, he instructed the loosening of a velarium canopy so that his guests would be smothered in a cascade of rose petals.  Wearing pontifical robes and a tiara, the Emperor reclines at the upper table with his mother, Saemius, and other garlanded guests.  A female figure plays the double pipes beside a marble pillar in the background, wearing the leopard skin of a maenad.  A bronze statue of Dionysus with Panther and Satyr, based on the marble example in the Ludovisi Collection, stands in the background with a view of hills in the distance.

The featured tale is probably an invented episode of the Emperor’s life,, taken from the Historia Augusta; although the Latin refers to ‘violets and other flowers’, Alma-Tadema preferred the depiction of rose petals released from a false ceiling.  As they were out of season in London, Alma Tadema is reputed to have had rose petals sent from the South of France each week during the four months it took to paint it.  The sensorial experience of the floating petals and associated perfume emanating from them distracts the viewer from the fact that they are suffocating the Emperor’s guests.

Commissioned in 1888 by Sir John Aird, 1st Baronet for the substantial sum of £4,000, it was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition that same year.   The work was reproduced in La Gazette des Beaux Arts, the Art Journal, and The Magazine of Art, where it was hailed as a ‘masterpiece of execution …in some respects the painter’s ‘chef-d’oeuvre’.

When Aird died in 1911, the work was inherited by his son; a memorial exhibition took place devoted to Sir Alma-Tadema in 1913, a year after the death of the artist, and it was lent to the Royal Academy for the occasion.    The next time it was seen publicly in London was in 2014, when the Pérez Simón collection, which includes this masterpiece, was shown at Leighton House as part of an exhibition entitled ‘A Victorian Obsession’.


‘The Frigidarium’ (1890)

Private collection

The armlet is featured as a prop in ‘The Frigidarium’, placed on a shelf in an alcove to the right of the main subject, once again modelled by Laura.

The painting depicts the cold water section of a Roman thermae at the time of Hadrian.  A balneatrix adjusts the girdle of a patrician maiden, whilst another draws back a richly coloured embroidered curtain in the passageway to allow a semi-nude maiden to pass into the apodyterium from her sunny, but cold, bath outside.  The theme of Roman baths was used no less than seventeen times by the artist, from 1875 to 1909.



Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples:

Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA

(28 June – 28 September 2008)

National Museum of Art, Washington, USA

(19 October 2008 – 22 March 2009).

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA

(3 April -4 October 2009).

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900

Victoria and Albert Museum,  London

(2 April – 17 July 2011).

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

(13 September 2011 – 15 January 2012)


The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900

Fine Art Museum of San Francisco Legion of Honor, San Francisco, USA

(18 February – 17 June 2012)


Art for Art’s Sake: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900

Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, Japan.

(30 January – 6 May 2014)

The inspiration for the design of the armlet derives from ancient Greek prototypes, one of which was found in a tomb at the Greek settlement of Roccagloriosa, La Scala, Italy, and is now housed in the Museo Civico Archeologico of Roccagloriosa.  It dates from the 1st half of the IV century BC. A similar snake bangle that coils once around the arm was found at Pompeii.  Sir Lawrence made a tour of Italy in 1863 and again in the winter of 1867-8 and it is likely he would have seen similar examples whilst he was there.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born in Dronryp, Holland in 1836.  He demonstrated a natural artistic talent from his early youth and in 1852 enrolled as a student at the Antwerp Academy. He later became an assistant to the historical painter Baron Hendryk Leys and lived in the household of the archaeologist Louis de Taye. From Leys and de Taye Alma-Tadema began to develop a keen interest in archaeology and history, assisting Leys in painting historical murals in the Antwerp Town Hall.

The themes for his early paintings derived from the history of the Merovingians. This little known and bleak period preoccupied him until 1862 when he visited London for the first time, during the International Exhibition.   The Elgin Marbles and ancient artefacts at the British Museum made a deep impression on him and he turned increasingly to Egyptian and Greek themes in his work.

In 1863 he married Marie Pauline Gressin de Boisgirard, and took his French bride on honeymoon to Italy.  There he intended to study the architecture of early Christian churches, but instead became fascinated by the Roman remains, marbles and the recently-excavated ruins of Pompeii. He immediately added Roman subjects to his repertoire, and within just a few years these themes would dominate his work.

Soon after his visit to Italy, Alma-Tadema and his wife moved to Paris, but it was in Antwerp that he met Ernest Gambart, an influential art dealer with extensive European connections.  The artist entered into a long-term contract with him and by 1865 moved his studio to Brussels.  The 1860’s were marked by a double tragedy: his only son died of smallpox and in May 1869 his wife died leaving him to support their two daughters, Laurence (1865-1940) and Anna (1867-1943).

It was later that same year that Alma-Tadema would fall in love again during a visit to London: Gambart wrote to the artist William Holman Hunt: ‘Tadema went last Boxing Day to a dance at Madox Browns [sic], fell in love at first sight with Miss Epps, the surgeon’s daughter, and is going to marry her as soon as she names the day – it plays havoc with his painting, he cannot turn to work since’.

Indeed Alma-Tadema had to persuade Laura’s father, Dr. George Napoleon Epps, that he would no longer be able to continue painting unless permission were granted for him to marry the physician’s daughter.  She was only 17 when they met and it was during art classes he gave her the following year that he proposed to her.  Dr. Epps finally relented and they were married in 1871.