In the “About” section of my blog I state quite categorically that I am not a painter. This has now changed in as much as I have now started to dip a paintbrush into paint and touch it to a canvas. Why? As people know my great interest is in art history but people always seem surprised that I have not rattled off a few masterpieces. They constantly ask me why I do not even try to paint. I have now started on that long artistic road and have fallen by the wayside so many times I often wonder why I persevere, but persevere I do. Having said so many times in my blog that I like detailed paintings I tried to emulate the great painters who seem to find it so easy to depict buildings but of course, as you will have guessed, I fail miserably. How artists manage to add so much detail in their work both amazes and frustrates me. Maybe I should paint a few coloured squares or a series of dots instead and then have a highfalutin reasoning behind my depiction! However, whilst I struggle on manfully with my efforts, I want to talk about and show you the work of a genius in this field of cityscape art. Let me introduce you to the English Victorian painter Louise Rayner.
Louisa Ingram Rayner was born in Matlock Bath in Derbyshire on June 21st, 1832. Her middle name, Ingram, came from her grandmother’s family. Whilst she was young she was always known as Louisa but as she grew older she preferred the name, Louise. She was the fourth of nine children. Louise had four sisters and one brother, all of whom became artists. Her father was Samuel Rayner an English landscape artist, who was known for his depictions of buildings and their interiors, including abbeys, churches and old mansions and her mother was Ann Manser Rayner who was an expert engraver of black marble.
At the age of ten, she and her family left Derbyshire and returned to London and it was here that she would spend most of her early life. It was whilst on a family holiday in Herne Bay, when she was fifteen, that she took up drawing and, soon after, she began to study painting seriously, at first with her father who played a major part in her love of art and later under guidance from her father’s artist friends such as George Cattermole, who like her father worked for John Britton, an English antiquary, author and editor, Edmund Niemann, the highly successful British landscape artist who worked mostly in oils. Another of her father’s friends was David Roberts, the Scottish painter who completed long sketching and painting tours of the near East, the Holy Land and Egypt but also specialised in architectural and topographical scenes.
His influence on Louise Rayner is very apparent when we look at the first painting she submitted to the Royal Academy in 1852 entitled The Interior of Haddon Chapel, Derbyshire.
Louise Rayner, like David Roberts, depicted cities and their often crumbling buildings as well as stately homes and their surroundings. During her most active period, Louise, like her father before her, painted a large number of church interiors, and exteriors but what she would really become known for, was her depictions of ancient streets and picturesque yet dilapidated in many of the cities and towns of Britain and Northern France, all of which she always populated by numerous figures. She was a prolific painter and her works appeared at the Royal Academy exhibitions between 1852 and 1886.
Louise Rayner first began exhibiting her watercolour paintings in 1860 at the Society of Female Artists, which was founded three years earlier and has held an annual exhibition in London of the work of women artists ever since. Louise continued to live at the family home and in the early 1860’s this was located in Brighton.
Louise is first recorded as first visiting Chester in 1869. Her paintings from this period are very detailed and charming in a chocolate-box sort of way. They encapsulate the olde worlde charm of Chester and the other towns which she depicted. Most of her works feature people going about their daily business, such as street sellers and people out shopping.
However, midway through that decade, she went on sketching journeys which resulted in beautiful paintings of historical England and Wales. One of her favourite places to visit was the Roman town of Chester (Deva) and it is recorded that Louise was living in Chester at 2 Ash Grove, off the Wrexham Road, in Chester in 1869.
What first grabbed my attention about the Rayner family was the picture above, a painting by Louise Rayner of Aberconwy House within the walled-town of Conwy. It is a place I pass a number of times each week and up until two years ago, I lived just fifty yards from this building.
..………and this is how looked this afternoon !
Another Welsh town she visited and depicted in one of her paintings was Wrexham and above we have her work entitled Street View, Wrexham which she completed in the 1880’s.
Again the local newspaper’s art critic praised her work.
Another of my favourite towns which I frequently visit is Shrewsbury and the town, as it used to be, is beautifully captured in Louise’s painting, Fish Street Shrewsbury.
Another depiction of the streets of Shrewsbury can be seen in her painting, Old Houses, Shrewsbury.
Louise and her younger brother Richard visited the area around the West Midland’s town of Dudley on one of their subject-seeking art expeditions in 1865 and five years later Louise produced this beautiful painting. The depiction is taken from Market Place and we look down Castle Street with Hall Street to the right. In the background, we can see the Church of St Edmund, locally known as the “bottom church” to differentiate from St Thomas’ parish church in High Street (not in the picture) which is known as “top church”. To the left, on the skyline, we can just make out the upper part of Dudley Castle.
Louise traveled extensively throughout Britain each summer during the 1870s and 1880s, but also took trips to northern France and in the picture above we see her depiction of a street in Rheims. The painting depicts Rheims Cathedral in the background. The beauty of this work lies in the drama of the architecture as we see the cathedral spire rising into the sky whilst below we see the street populated by locals. Look how she has used a blaze of sunlight, raking between the buildings, to highlight a man on the right trying to gain entrance to his house.
As it is for everyone, age takes its toll and as she grew older Louise’s artistic talent began to fade probably due to her failing eyesight, unsteady hands and the ability or enthusiasm to travel to towns to seek out new views for her work. Louise exhibited for the last time at the Royal Academy in 1886, and the last time anywhere in London in 1893. She had reached her peak well before she had almost decided to lay to rest her paint brushes at the age of 76 in 1908. The Rayner family dynasty was starting to come to an end. Frances Rayner Copinger died in 1889 and Louise’s mother, Ann, the following year. In 1890 Louise and her sister Margaret set up a teaching studio in Chester but on “retiring”, she and her sister went to live in Tunbridge Wells in 1910. In 1908 the youngest Rayner sibling, Richard, dies aged 65. On August 20th, 1920 her sister and companion Margaret died and Louise Rayner moved to Southwater Road, St Leonards on Sea, a seaside town close to Hastings, where she remained until her death on October 8th, 1924, aged 92.
What surprises me the most is that despite her intricate cityscape paintings, and watercolours, Louise Rayner is not seen as one of the great artists of the nineteenth century. Maybe it is because of the similarity of her work, but can you really get tired of a good thing? I will leave the last word to Peter Watson, the art correspondent of The Observer newspaper, who wrote about Louise following his visit to the Christies Glasgow auction in November 1974. He wrote derisively about the event itself but praised Louise’s work.
“…Louise Rayner won’t be to everyone’s taste – very dense, detailed paintings-cum-drawings of Victorian streets teeming with life: cats fighting, dogs smelling, spivs spivving, washing hanging, flirts leering, babies vomiting, parents spanking. And not a give-away either (priced at several thousand) but they do have a lookatable quality which possibly justifies the price…”
I hope you have enjoyed the last three blogs charting the lives of the Rayner family. Having just completed this one on Louise Rayner and her architectural cityscapes I am going to return to my own canvas, give up my aspirations of depicting a cityscape and just spray a few colours of paint on it and maybe a few zig-zags !!!!!!!
Besides the usual sources such as Wikipedia I got most of my information about the Rayner family from an excellent and comprehensive website entitled DudleyMall.
Samuel and Ann Rayner had nine children of which six excelled artistically like their parents. Having looked at the life of the parents in my previous blog I want to focus on the talents of their children.
Their first-born child was William but he died at childbirth and so the title of eldest child fell on to the shoulders of their daughter Ann Ingram Rayner who, to save confusion with her mother, was always known as Nancy. She was born in London in 1826 during the time when the family were living at 11 Blandford Street, Portman Square, Marylebone. A year after she was born, the family moved to Museum Parade in Matlock Baths, and her early years were spent in Derbyshire.
Nancy started her artistic studies at the age of ten and soon proved to be very talented. In her teenage years she was probably influenced by contemporaries of her father such George Cattermole, a fellow draughtsman working for John Britton. Another was Octavius Oakley, who had developed into a specialist of portraits in watercolour and was, like Samuel Rayner, given commissions by the Duke of Devonshire. Oakley tutored Nancy in the art of portraiture and Nancy’s ability at painting portraits was initially down to his work with her. Other luminaries who influenced Nancy were the Scottish painter, David Roberts who had been a long-standing friend of the Rayner family. When he returned from a sketching trip to Spain he gave Nancy one of his original pencil sketches. Samuel Prout, one of the masters of British watercolour architectural painting, was also a great inspiration to Nancy.
Nancy was the first of Samuel’s children to become an Associate of the Old Watercolour Society. The Society albeit supportive of watercolourists was a male-dominated society for it was only the male Associates who could progress to become full members of the Society and share in its profits and become administrators. Female associates were barred from this transitioning. At the time of Nancy’s election as an Associate there were only three other Associate female painters, Maria Harrison, Eliza Sharp and Mary Ann Criddle who were also affected by this ruling. They were well in the minority as there were 26 male members and 17 male associates. After sustained pressure from the ladies with regards this unfair treatment the Old Watercolour Society changed the rules and appointed them Honorary Lady Members. However, they still were not allowed to share in the profits of the Society.
Nancy then had her first painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1848, at the age of twenty-two, and was elected a Member of the Old Watercolour Society two years later. The sale of her paintings went well and she received many commissions and patronage. Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester was known to be one of Nancy’s patrons.
Her 1850 painting entitled Summer Pastimes, which is also known as Portrait of the Gloucester Children depicts two young children playing. It is thought that the children are in fact the Duchess’s children or maybe her grandchildren as if you look at the window on the right you can see a flag flying over a castle tower, signifying that is part of the royal estate.
Nancy Rayner’s life came to an early end in November 1855 at the age of twenty-nine and so her artistic life was cut short. As a talented painter, maybe if she had lived longer, she would have been as famous as her father or her famous sister, Louise.
Rhoda (Rose) Rayner
The second daughter of Samuel and Ann Rayner was Rhoda, known as Rose. She was born 1828 whilst her parents were living in the small Derbyshire town of Matlock Baths. Her artistic journey began as a teenager when she was taught how to create models using clay and she began to produce jugs and vases. Her late venture into the world of painting was probably due to her love of clay modelling and pottery and she would spend much time making and decorating her pottery figures. It was not until seven years later, around 1850, when she was twenty-one, that she began to paint with watercolours like her siblings. Four years later, in 1854, some of her paintings were seen at art exhibitions. One of the great artistic influences on Rose was the rise of the pre-Raphaelite painters.
Although her interests remained in watercolour painting and pottery her great love was teaching and it is thought that throughout her life she was involved in the private tuition of children whose parents could afford to give their children a good start in life. Rose was fortunate to be able to travel widely in Europe. The fact that she travelled so much and so far from home, like her trip to Russia in 1880 would mean that she had either become very prosperous or that she travelled as part of a wealthy family’s retinue.
Rhoda Rayner exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere between 1854 and 1866, and it is thought it was during this period that she began to call herself Rose.
In the late 1870’s life changed for her. The marriage between her younger sister Frances and her husband Charles Coppinger in 1866 had come to an end. Frances left her husband and went with her daughter Annette (Netta) back to live at her parents’ home in New Windsor. It was in 1879 that Samuel Rayner died and it is thought that Rose’s share of his inheritance allowed her the independence to live on her own at 103 Dalberg Road in the London borough of Lambeth and following Frances’ return home Rose offered to look after Netta who was eleven years old.
In 1881 she completed a painting entitled Russian Balloon Seller, Streets of Petrograd. She had probably made preliminary sketches when she was visiting Russia in 1880 with her niece Netta and completed the work in her London studio.
Rose and Netta were still living together in 1891 according to the census of that year. Their home was now Hampstead in London and the census gives Rose’s occupation as Artist, Figure Painter, Sculptor and Annette’s occupation as piano music teacher.
In 1908, Rose’s younger brother Richard died, aged 65 and Rose moved to a new house and went to live next door to Richard’s family in Orpington Kent. Her niece Netta worked in a hospital during the First World War where she met a Canadian, Robert MacGregor, and when the war ended the couple were married and went to live in Canada. Rose died aged 92, in Orpington, Kent, on January 12th, 1921, just a few months after Netta and Robert sailed for Canada. Rose was the longest-lived of all her sisters.
Frances Rayner Copinger
Frances Rayner was the sixth child of Samuel and Ann Rayner. She was born in Piccadilly, London on August 19th, 1834 and along with her older brother Samuel and older sister Louise was christened at the Newman Street Apostolic Catholic Church in Marylebone the following February.
Frances’ artistic path differed to those of her elder siblings as she never exhibited any of her paintings until she was twenty-five years of age, and then only on one occasion in 1861 did she have a painting of hers, a watercolour, Church of St Andre, Antwerp, appear in a London gallery. It was exhibited in the Suffolk Street gallery in London. The one thing she had in common with her father was her love of architecture and especially the architecture of old religious buildings.
One of her great loves was travel and she journeyed throughout Europe on a number of occasions and from these travels was born a number of paintings featuring places in Europe. Frances Rayner married Charles Copinger in February 1867. It was Copinger’s second wife, his first wife Mary had died in 1866. From his first marriage Charles had five children and with Frances he had a daughter Annette Frances who was born on October 26th, 1867 and a son Ernest Edwin born in 1871. Following her marriage, Frances and her husband lived in Brussels for some years, but by the time of the census in 1871 she and the family had returned to England and were living in the London borough of Islington. The census reports her occupation as an artist and her husband’s occupation stated as being a clergyman of the Catholic Apostolic Church. There was one other occupant of their household, Copinger’s sister Clara, who acted as a governess for the children.
The marriage between Frances Rayner and Charles Copinger ended shortly after the birth of their son but there is no record of a divorce, which was very difficult to procure in those days. Notwithstanding that, Charles simply left Frances and went off to America and in Baltimore in 1878, with or without divorce, he married his third wife Mary Margaret May. They went on to have two daughters and a son. Charles Copinger died on May 9th, 1913.
After the breakdown of her marriage in the late 1870s, Frances left her husband and took the children to live with her mother and father but probably because of the problems of space in her family’s house, her daughter Annette went to live with Frances’ sister Rose. In the 1881 census Frances is noted as living with her son Ernest as a lodger in a house belonging to the Sevenoakes family in New Windsor on the outskirts of London.
Frances Rayner died in 1889, a year before the death of her mother, Ann. She was 55. At the time of his mother’s death, her son Ernest was about eighteen years of age. When Frances died Ernest went to live in Camberwell with his Aunt Grace who had married Frederick Catty in 1869 and the couple had five children of their own. Ernest became a merchant’s clerk when he was nineteen. He died in 1904
Of all the Rayner children the most talented was Louise and I will dedicate my final blog to her life and her beautiful works of art.
In the next few blogs I want to explore the lives of an amazing artistic family. Today I am starting this voyage of discovery by looking at the lives of the heads of the family, the mother and father and in the next blog, I will investigate the life and works of some very talented artistic children.
Samuel Rayner was born on April 15th 1806 at Colnbrook a to the west of London. He was the third of five children of Samuel Rayner Snr., a farmer and a dealer in corn and his wife Margaret Rayner (née Ingram). In 1812, when Samuel was six years of age, his parents moved from Colnbrook to London, and set up an ironmongery business at No. 7, Blandford Street, Marylebone. Five years later, on May 26th 1817, Samuel Rayner Snr. died suddenly at the aged thirty-nine, leaving his widow to carry on the business with the help of their children. A year after this sudden death, on November 21st, 1818, Samuel Snr’s grandfather Thomas Rayner, a painter himself, who is thought to have encouraged his grandson to sketch and paint, dies at the age of eighty-six.
In 1821, when he was fifteen years of age Samuel Rayner began to work as a trainee draughtsman for John Britton the antiquary and author. John Britton had published the first of his nine-volume Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain in 1805 and the ninth volume was completed in 1814. When Rayner went to work for him Britton had started on the massive task to publish his fourteen volume-work, Cathedral Antiquities of England which would not be completed until 1835.
Among Britton’s draughtsmen were the brothers George and Richard Cattermole and they and Samuel were involved in producing drawings for John Britton’s fourteen-volume work with Samuel having five of his own drawings engraved for inclusion. George Cattermole who had started working for Britton at the age of fourteen and Samuel became good friends and Cattermole’s work greatly influenced the art of Samuel Rayner.
Samuel Rayner must have learnt the basics of watercolour painting very quickly, for at the age of fifteen, he had his watercolour of Malmesbury Abbey accepted for exhibiting at the 1821 Royal Academy exhibition. Buoyed by that success, Samuel Rayner put forward another watercolour painting of the abbey for inclusion at the 1822 Royal Academy Exhibition and it was accepted. This time the work featured the West Front of the abbey. Presumably his employer, John Britton admired Samuel’s talent and began to train him as an architectural draughtsman and this would often entail him travelling around on sketching trips making intricate sketches of buildings and monuments. It was all about recording accurate details in his drawings. His work was mainly to do with cathedrals and abbeys as well as castles, often in ruins, and old mansions. It was not just the exteriors of these buildings which Samuel Rayner managed to capture on canvas but he tended to focus on the interiors of these great edifices.
During one of his visits to the art galleries in London in 1823 he met Ann Manser, the daughter of William Manser, a successful London publisher and amateur artist. Ann was born on October 29th, 1802 and was almost four years older than Samuel Rayner. As a member of a prosperous family Ann was encouraged to engage in the “lady-like” pastime of painting. For Ann painting was more than just a simple hobby and at an early age she excelled in her artistic ability. However, her friendship with Samuel was frowned upon by her father who probably thought his daughter was too good for “her young man” and that Samuel’s prospects were not good enough to support his daughter. He would also be concerned that although his daughter was twenty-one, Samuel was only seventeen years of age and hardly mature enough to become Ann’s husband.
Ann was not deterred by her father’s misgivings but realised she would not be able to persuade him to change his mind and so the young couple eloped and in 1824 they were married at St George The Martyr Church in Southwark, London. The couple lived at No. 11 Blandford Street, Marylebone, two doors away from Samuel Rayner’s mother’s home and business premises. That same year their first child William was born but sadly died at birth. A daughter was born May 1st, 1826 and was christened Ann Ingram Rayner, but always known as Nancy. Although born after William, Nancy was always regarded as the eldest child of the family. Samuel Rayner’s success at having his paintings accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition continued in 1824 and 1826 with the exhibiting of his paintings of Salisbury Cathedral and Wells Cathedral.
In 1827, when Samuel reached the age of twenty-one he inherited his share of his grandfather Thomas’ estate and also received a very lucrative commission from the William George Spencer Cavendish, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, who resided at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. This commission and his newly-found wealth convinced Samuel and Ann to move, with their daughter, out of London to the quiet Derbyshire countryside and the town of Matlock Baths, although they retained their Blandford Street house in London. They settled into a newly built terraced house in what was then called Museum Parade but is now known as South Parade.
Whilst her husband was working on his watercolour paintings, his wife was busy working on her intricately and meticulous black Ashford marble engravings. Ashford Black Marble is the name given to a dark limestone, quarried from mines near Ashford-in-the-Water, a village in the Derbyshire Peak District, ten miles north west of Matlock Baths. Once the marble is cut, turned and polished, its shiny black surface becomes highly decorative.
Samuel Rayner was kept busy working for the Duke of Devonshire and he also set up a lithographic printing and publishing business in partnership with John Vallance. However, he still dedicated some of his time to his watercolour painting and in 1830 published Rayners Sketches of Derbyshire Scenery Part 1, a collection of writings and lithographs by James Duffield Harding, featuring the Derbyshire countryside and buildings.
Above we see Samuel Rayner’s sketch of South Parade, with its museums and Great Petrifying Well, which was published as a lithograph in “Sketches of Derbyshire Scenery, Part 1. Samuel’s depiction of the town would have been from standing opposite the entrance to the Old Bath Hotel, above what is now the Fish Pond Hotel but then known as the Old Bath Tap. The Upper Towers, high up on the hillside above Matlock Bath on the Heights of Abraham, must have only just been built. A year later, in May 1831 John Vallance exhibited several of Samuel Rayner’s drawings in his museum.
Having spent six years at Matlock Baths Samuel and his wife returned to London in 1833. There is no certainty as to why they returned but it could be that Samuel’s mother, Margaret’s health was deteriorating. The Rayner family now stood at seven, with Rhoda (Rose) (1828), William Harry (1830), Louise (1832) and Samuel (1833) all born in Derbyshire. The Rayner family did not return to their original home in Blandford Street but instead to a house at No 6 Dufour Place, Broad Street, St James, Piccadilly.
Margaret Ingram Rayner, Samuel’s mother died on March 15th, 1834, aged 50. Five months later Ann Rayner gave birth to their fourth daughter, Frances on August 19th. Maybe because his mother had passed away and because of his wife’s talent at engraving on the Derbyshire Black Marble the family once again left London and went to live in Derby in 1836. Samuel quickly went into partnership with Robert Mosely and formed a lithographic printing and publishing company which was run from their Friar Gate family home and business premises at the Derby Corn Market.
In 1839 Samuel Rayner completed a work entitled The 1839 Derby Exhibition which depicts the early period of the formation of the Derby Town and County Museum and Natural History Society in 1836 and what would become the Derby Museum and Art Gallery in 1857. This collection of painting includes Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting Romeo and Juliet and the tomb scene which is on the left of the back wall.
Six years later, in 1842, and with two further children, Margaret (1837) and Dorothy (1839) the Rayners moved back to London where they resided at No. 15 Berners Street in the central area of the city, just off Oxford Street. Shortly after their arrival back in the capital, Ann gave birth to another son, Richard Manser Rayner (1843). He was the ninth and final child of Samuel and Ann. In February 1845, Samuel Rayner was accepted as an Associate of the Old Water Colour Society.
In 1846 Samuel’s uncle died and he was left a small amount of money. There is some conjecture as to Samuel and Ann’s financial situation but in a letter written by his wife in 1848 she talked about money being tight. Samuel’s children were doing well with the eldest, Nancy being elected as an Associate member of the Old watercolour Society in February 1850. Life was good for the family and they had a large circle of friends. The good life came to crashing halt in February 1851 when Samuel’s father-in-law, William Manser, was charged with fraud and Samuel was implicated.
The case hinged on the fact that William Manser allegedly wrote a document promising £2000 to his daughter Ann and so any money coming this way to Anne would automatically have become Samuel’s under the prevailing property rights of 1851. Following this, Samuel chose to use the money to make a payment to a Mr Roe (possibly an art dealer), and so endorsed the promissory note to pass the rights to that gentleman. At some point later, payment was refused, with Mr Manser claiming the note was a forgery. William Manser lost his argument that his signature was a forgery and thus the promissory note was genuine, so this would appear to clear Samuel Rayner of any wrong-doing but there was a belief in some quarters that he was in collusion with his father-in-law in trying to avoid making a payment that was promised, and that the two men were jointly seeking to defraud Mr Roe.
The adage that “there is no smoke without fire” in a way damned Samuel Rayner’s character and the officers of the Old Watercolour Society “unanimously resolved that Mr. Rayner’s name be erased from the list of Associates.”
Samuel Rayner, whether he be innocent or guilty, was disgraced by this court case and it should be noted that for the rest of his life he tended to only exhibit his work in the provinces and steered clear of the prestigious London galleries. He and the family had a number of London addresses during his later years as well as spending time in Brighton and the nearby town of Hove.
Samuel Rayner died at his home in Windsor in 1879, aged 73. His wife, Ann continued to live there with her unmarried daughter Margaret who joined her soon after her father’s death and kept company with her until Ann herself died in 1890. Samuel and Ann Rayner must have been very proud of the artistic qualities of six of their children and in my next blog I will be looking at some of their work.
Besides the usual sources such as Wikipedia I got most of my information about the Rayner family from an excellent and comprehensive website entitled DudleyMall.
My featured artist today is Walter Frederick Osborne, the Irish impressionist and post-impressionist landscape and portrait painter. He was born on June 17th, 1859 at 5 Castlewood Avenue in Rathmines, an inner suburb on the southside of Dublin, about 3 kilometres south of the city centre. He had two brothers and a sister, Violet. He was the second of three sons of Anne Jane Woods and her husband, William Osborne, an acknowledged animal painter whose speciality was portraits of horses and dogs owned by wealthy landowners. Walter Frederick Osborne, known as Frederick Osborne for the first twenty-five years of his life, attended the local school at Rathmines.
Having realised that money could be made from painting, Frederick wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and become an artist. So, once he had completed his schooling in 1876, seventeen-year-old Frederick, enrolled on an art course at the Royal Hibernian Academy School. Osborne made an impact straight away, exhibiting in the RHA annual show in his first year. He won numerous medals and prizes including the Albert prize in 1880 with his painting, A Glade in the Phoenix Park.
In 1881 he attended Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten van Antwerpen (Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp), where one of his tutors was the Belgian painter Michael Charles Verlat. Whilst studying there he won the Royal Dublin Society Taylor Art Award in 1881 and 1882, which awarded him an annual bursary. This was the highest student honour in Ireland of the time and given annually to a graduate of an Irish art college or an Irish art student graduating from an art college abroad to assist them with the development of their career as a visual artist.
Osborne sent back to the Royal Hibernian Academy a number of paintings he completed whilst attending the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. One was his 1882 work, A Flemish Farmstead, and this exhibited by the Academy the following year, just after Osborne had been elected an Associate Member. From his earliest days, Osborne was interested in painting farmyards such as the one above. His scenes usually included one or two figures. However, this work is slightly subtler for he merely suggests that the farmyard is a working one by including the jacket that hangs on the open door and the clogs that stand against the wall. Being a great believer that detail is important, he has even depicted the clogs standing on end, suggesting that they are that way so as to allow them to drain after a wet morning in the fields.
He completed his studies in Antwerp in 1883 and travelled to the Breton artists’ colony at Quimperlé. Osborne soon realised that the most noteworthy modern painters were painting en plein air and were using ordinary local people as their models and the Breton fishing villages had a plethora of such willing characters. It was at Quimperlé that he completed his famous Apple Gathering painting which is now housed in the National Gallery of Ireland. The painting depicts a young girl dressed in a peasant costume holding a long stick, busily shaking branches of an apple tree to loosen the ripe fruit. Looking behind her, we see another young girl picking up the fallen apples which are scattered around the orchard. In the background we see the church of Quimperlé which was the subject of many of the artists residing at the town’s artist colony. The painting can now be found in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.
Walter Osborne along with two fellow Irish artists, who were part of the Quimperlé artist’s colony, Drogedha-born Nathaniel Hill and Galway-born Augustus Nicholas Burke eventually left the Breton town and returned to England and headed for another artist’s colony at the Suffolk coastal village of Walberswick, where one of the artists was Philip Wilson Steer, who had studied at the École des Beaux Arts under Alexandre Cabanel, during which time he became a follower of the Impressionist school. Steer would become a leading figure in the Impressionist movement in Britain.
At the start of 1884, Walter Osborne’s early paintings often featured young children accompanied by animals, often their pets. One of his most famous works of this genre came about whilst Walter Osborne along with his fellow young artists Nathaniel Hill and Edward Stott, another former École des Beaux Arts student, travelled through the English countryside, on sketching trips. That October, the trio had arrived at North Littleton, near Evesham, Worcestershire and the painting which evolved from his visit here was the work entitled Feeding the Chickens. The oil on canvas painting measured 36 x 28 inches (92 x 71cms). In the work, we see a young but confident girl, with her earnest expression, scattering corn for the chickens. She is Bessie Osborne, (no relation to the artist), the daughter or maybe a servant in the substantial house which we see in the background. In Osborne’s preparatory sketch for this work, there was another figure, a gardener with his wheelbarrow, but he was not transferred to the finished painting. Presumably Osborne thought his inclusion would detract from the main focus of the work, the girl.
The Irish art historian Jeanne Sheehy’s biography of Osborne quotes from his letter to his father, dated October 12th, 1884, about the details of the work. In a letter to his father he set the scene for the painting:
“…’The weather, I am sorry to say has been bitterly cold the last week, so much so that my model nearly fainted and I had to send her home … It will probably seem funny to you all that my model’s name should be Bessie Osborne …”
The young girl is wearing an embroidered bonnet and holding a basket of grain, surrounded by a brood of hens. A further insight into the making of this painting can be found in the letter:
“…Now I am pretty far advanced on a kit-kat of a girl in a sort of farmyard, a rough sketch on the opposite page will indicate the composition. The figure of the girl which is a little over two feet high is coming towards finish, but the immediate foreground with poultry is merely sketched in as yet. The fowl are very troublesome, and I have made some sketches but will have to do a lot more as they form rather an important part of the composition…”
Also, in the letter to his father Walter asks him to look through his sketches he had done whilst at Quimperlé and find any of chickens which may help with this painting.
During his travels around the English countryside, Rural Naturalism became his favoured genre. He had been influenced by the works of the French painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose works were dominating the Paris Salon and it was this type of work which Osborne preferred to the themes from history or mythology which were taught in the Academies of Europe. Another influence on Osborne was another Naturalist painter, the English artist George Clausen.
From 1883 and for the next fifteen years Osborne spent the summers wandering around the South of England often visiting the area of the beautiful Berkshire Downs or the area around the Hampshire market town of Romsey or the Suffolk coastal villages. Once asked why he did not spend his summers in Ireland he said that it was cheaper to live in England and it rained less which was important as he wanted to paint en plein air. Osborne was not looking for spectacular landscape which he could have found in the West of Ireland, the Lake District or Scotland. His preference was for the sedate beauty of rural villages with their well-stocked picturesque cottage gardens, often his paintings would include farmyard animals such as sheep. Like the French Impressionists, Osborne was fascinated by the effect of light and how it changes during every hour of the day.
Walter Osborne was elected an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1883 and became a full member in 1886. Although Osborne spent the summers travelling around the southern English countryside he would return to the family home in Dublin during the winter months. In 1886, following his election to the Royal Hibernian Academy he received many commissions for portraits and from 1892 onwards, Osborne’s main output changed from landscape work to portraiture. These portraiture commissions were essential to Osborne for his financial survival and that of his parents who relied heavily upon him. Osborne’s permanent move to Dublin in 1892 was prompted by the death of his sister Violet whose newly-born baby was given into the care of Osborne’s aged parents and he had to take on the task of looking after her daughter. His portraiture and landscape works had become so popular and because he received more and more commissions he decided that working from home was not feasible and so acquired his own studio in St Stephens Green in 1895.
One of his best-known portraits was entitled Mrs Noel Guinness and her Daughter Margaret and this was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 and which received the bronze medal. The painting depicts Mary Guinness (née Stokes), the wife of Richard Noel Guinness, and her four-year-old daughter Margaret.
In 1895 he and his friend, the art historian and writer, Walter Armstrong, toured around Spain, where Walter completed a number of watercolour drawings and oil sketches. The following year the two men travelled to Holland where he completed a number of Amsterdam canal scenes.
During this time Walter Osborne put together a series of paintings depicting Dublin street scenes, which some time later were exhibited at the Royal Academy. Osborne made pencil sketches and took photographs of the street scenes and then completed the series in oils in his studio. Probably the most famous of the paintings in this series was Dublin Streets: A Vendor of Books which he completed in 1898. The painting depicts a bookseller’s stall, set up on Eden Quay, looking eastwards towards the O’Connell Bridge. We see a mother leaning against the wall holding a very young child in her arms. She has a fatigued and nervous look about her. By her side, on the floor, there is a basket of daffodils. What is her story? Is she in any way connected to the bare-footed girl who has moved towards the customers who are perusing the books at the vendor’s stall? The little girl has a small bunch of daffodils in her hand which she is holding up to the customers. She has been sent by the lady, maybe her mother, to try and get a few pence for the flowers. It is a painting full of movement from the horse drawn carriages we see crossing the bridge to the barge making its way down the River Liffey about to pass under the bridge. These realistic paintings of street life in Dublin, although in great demand now and a good historical record of the times past, were not as successful then as his portraiture.
Osborne did not forsake his landscape work completely and one his Impressionist-style works, completed around 1898, was entitled Greystones. It is a somewhat moody study 0f the quayside of Greystones, a small coastal fishing village in County Wicklow. In the painting we see a number of fishing boats tied up to the harbour quayside, some of which have the sails unfurled. In the background there are a number of cottages. His use of muted colours and tones such as his mauves, pinks, pale greys and browns induce a sense of soft light. Look how Osborne has cleverly depicted the diffused sunlight on the gable ends of the cottages and again with the way he has represented it with the silvery flickering of the water with its reflections.
In 1900 Osborne was offered a Knighthood in recognition of his services to art and his distinction as a painter, but he refused the honour. His mother became ill in the early 1900s, and Walter spent long periods looking after her. In 1902 he started to paint what was to be his last picture, Tea in the Garden, which remained unfinished at the time of his death. It was a beautiful work, a juxtaposition of his favoured Impressionism and Naturalism.
In 1903, after a strenuous time gardening, he became ill, which he tried to ignore but which developed into double pneumonia. He died aged forty-three, at the family home in Castlewood Avenue, Rathmines, Dublin, on April 24th 1903, and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery. Walter Frederick Osborne never married and left considerable savings behind him. He was one of the most sought after and talented Irish artists of his time.
Tissot, heartbroken at the death of his lover and muse Kathleen Newton, returned to Paris in November 1882. It was on his return to France that he competed a large family portrait painting entitled The Garden Bench. Kathleen Newton is depicted in Tissot’s London garden bathed in sunlight, sitting on a garden bench which is draped with a fur rug. She looks lovingly at her son Cecil George whilst behind her are her daughter Violet and her niece Lilian. With the premature death of Kathleen this painting became special to Tissot and although he allowed it to be exhibited in Paris in 1873 he would not allow it to be sold and kept it until his death.
That same year he completed another work depicting his “family” playing in the garden of his home, which no doubt would remind him of the joys he experienced with Kathleen and her children which were suddenly and tragically taken from him. The painting was entitled A Little Nimrod. His period of family life was over and would never return. So, after eleven years in England Tissot was once again on French soil. He was heartbroken and even the French writer and art critic, Edmond de Goncourt, who had castigated Tissot for his art work, was moved by Tissot’s anguish. After meeting with him, de Goncourt wrote in his journal:
“…A visit today from Tissot, just arrived in the night from England – and who told me during our talk hat he was much affected by the death of the English Mauperin, who, though already ailing, served as a model for the illustrations in my book…”
Edmund de Goncourt and his brother Jules wrote a novel entitled Renée Mauperin and, in the summer of 1882, Tissot was asked by them to illustrate it. Tissot produced ten etchings and in all of which Kathleen Newton was depicted as the heroine of the novel.
Tissot’s first task on returning to France was to enhance his reputation with the French art critics. In order to do this, he put together a collection of over a hundred of his works, most of which he had completed whilst living in England and exhibited them at the Palais de l’Industrie with the centrepiece being his set of paintings entitled The Prodigal Son in Modern Life, which he had exhibited at his one-man show at the Dudley Gallery, London in May 1882. In one of the paintings from the set (The Fatted Calf), we see a young man stepping out of his rowing-boat on the Thames to join his family at lunch in a summer house where a sumptuous meal has been set out to celebrate his return. Despite Tissot translating all the titles of the paintings into French, the exhibition was coolly received with one critic scathingly describing Tissot as:
“…a Parisian of London now become a Londoner of Paris…”
In other words, as far as the French art critics were concerned Tissot had become too English for their taste. The only glimmer of hope for Tissot was that his pastel work at the exhibition was praised and during the 1880’s and 1890’s he turned more to that painting medium. One of his outstanding pastel on linen works was his 1895 portrait, The Princesse de Broglie. The lady was Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn better known simply as Pauline, wife of Albert de Broglie, the 28th Prime Minister of France. Her pose is casual and yet the way she rests her hips on the table makes for an impressively alluring image. Tissot’s use of brilliant green pastels was to become his trademark.
Tissot, now back in Paris, sought to get himself back into Parisian society and would regularly frequent clubs and restaurants but the one thing he did consistently was to rise early and go to morning mass. He was disappointed that his exhibition at Palais de l’Industrie had not been received as well as he had hoped, and in 1883 he set about putting together a new series of fifteen paintings known as La Femme à Paris which looked at the life of Parisian women of different social classes at various occupations. He conceived a series of compositions focusing on women’s daily lives, from widowhood to flirtation, boredom in the countryside to belle of the ballroom, theatre to confessional.
Two years later the series was completed and they were exhibited at the Galerie Sedelmeyer in Paris in 1885 and in the Arthur Tooth Gallery in London in 1886. The theme of bustling Paris was very popular with artists in the 1890’s. The paintings were much larger in scale than anything Tissot had done before, his hope being that the monumental works would have an impact on critics and public alike. The Sporting Ladies one of the La Femme à Paris series, measuring 147 x 102cms, depicts a woman engaging the viewer as a participant in the action by her direct glance out of the picture. The event is a “high-life circus,” in which the amateur performers were members of the aristocracy.
Another large painting in the series was Without a Dowry. The setting is the Tuileries Gardens where we see a beautiful young lady dressed in black, who is a recently bereaved widow. Next to her, sitting down reading the newspapers, is her mother, also adorned in black. To the left, in the background we see two soldiers, one of whom is struck by the beauty of the widow and stares at her with an admiring gaze albeit he is reluctant to approach her. The subject of the painting highlighted the plight of young widows who, on the death of their husbands, were often left financially destitute. This was a very popular subject during the Victorian era.
The last painting in the series La Femme à Paris was completed in 1885. It was entitled Sacred Music and it depicted a young woman singing with a nun in the organ loft of a church. For this painting Tissot visited the church of S. Sulpice in Paris. As he sat in one of the church pews during the mass service he experienced a vision which was to change his life. He recalled the vision later:
“… As the Host was elevated and I bowed my head and closed my eyes, I saw a strange and thrilling picture. It seemed to me that I was looking at the ruins of a modern castle…..then a peasant and his wife picked their way over littered ground; wearily he threw the bundle that contained their all, and the woman seated herself on a fallen pillar, burying her face in her hands…. And then there came a strange figure gliding towards these human ruins over the broken remnants of the castle. Its feet and hands were pierced and bleeding, its head was wreathed in thorns…. And this figure, needing no name, seated itself by the man and leaned its head upon his shoulder, seeming to say…..’See, I have been more miserable than you; I am the solution to all your problems; without me civilization is a ruin’…”
Following this vision Tissot sat down and painted a picture of what he had seen in this vision. It was entitled The Ruins (Inner Voices). It has to be said that the setting of a modern castle as described by Tissot is not transferred to the painting as this rather looks like a scene from the Paris Commune risings which Tissot had witnessed. It is a moving portrayal especially the depiction of Christ. This painting marked the beginning of Tissot’s devotion to illustrating the Bible. Strangely enough it was these religious paintings which were to bring Tissot greater wealth and prominence than his earlier modern-day life depictions. There were many cynics, including his friend Degas, who believed Tissot’s religious conversion was more to do with the increased sale of his work than to his religious beliefs. Could this be true? To give Tissot the benefit of the doubt one has to remember that there was a great revival of the Catholic church and its preaching in France during the later part of the nineteenth century, which was a counter reaction to the anti-clerical spirit of the Third Republic.
It was not just the Catholic religion that Tissot embraced. He also took up Spiritualism and attended séances which had become very popular in the late nineteenth century and which had given him some comfort during the days following his wife’s death. In two séances Tissot attended, he was “visited” by an apparition of his beloved Kathleen, and despite one of the mediums later jailed for fraud, Tissot’s beliefs remained unshaken and he completed a work in mezzotint, L’Apparition médiumnique (The Mediumistic Apparition) in 1885. Tissot kept the picture in a special room in his house which he reserved for private spiritualistic séances.
This great interest in Catholicism led to the last great project embarked on by Tissot. He decided to dedicate his time in illustrating the whole of the Bible. This first stage of this mammoth task was to concentrate on the New Testament and Tissot started the illustrative work in 1866. Eight years later and with 365 illustrations completed his artistic labour was complete. Tissot was a perfectionist and to ensure the settings for the illustrations were accurate he made a number of trips to Palestine.
The first trip started in October 1885 and lasted five months. He would return again to this biblical land in in 1889 and 1896. Whilst in Palestine Tissot recorded the landscape, architecture, costumes, and customs of the Holy Land and its people, which he recorded in photographs, notes, and sketches. This enabled Tissot to paint his many figures in costumes he believed to be historically authentic, and the completed series of watercolours had great archaeological accuracy. Tissot’s typical daily routine was recorded by Cleveland Moffett, the American journalist, author, and playwright in the March 1899 issue of the McClure’s Magazine, an American illustrated monthly periodical which was very popular at the turn of the 20th century. He wrote:
“…six o’clock saw him out of his bed even on dark winter mornings and seven o’clock found him at the Convent Marie Réparatrice, bowing before the candles and listening to the chant of the kneeling women…….and then, after eating, set forth to work, riding through the streets of Jerusalem, a servant trotting besides him with colors and brushes in a basket, and a large umbrella for shade, and such other things an artist needs. Then would come two hours’ sketching the putting down of numberless backgrounds for the Christ story…… and after food [lunch] came another excursion within or without the city and two hours more work……After dining quietly, M. Tissot spent his evenings in reading and reflection…”
One of his finest works of the series was his opaque watercolour over graphite on grey wove paper entitled Journey of the Magi. The Magi are depicted in their flowing saffron robes being guided by the star. They have come from their individual lands in the east in their search for the new-born Jesus. The setting is the vast, arid landscape of the volcanic hills on the shores of the Dead Sea between Jericho, the Kedron Valley, and Jerusalem. The painting is a juxtaposition of beautiful shimmering masses of golden yellows, soft purples and rich browns. Look how Tissot has magically contrasted the highlights and shadows. The leading riders almost step out of the picture making us feel that we are almost there with them. The three wise men lead the procession. Tissot’s depiction of the three men differentiates their ages by the colour of their beards. All have weather-beaten darkened faces which is in contrast to the brightness of their golden robes. The long trail of men riding their camels spreads out far beyond the mountain range and vanishes into the distance.
Once Tissot returned to Paris he set about rendering his sketches into actual paintings. The finished series became known as Tissot’s Bible and he wrote a foreword for the tome. Although he no doubt wrote from the heart the solemn words of the introduction now appear self-righteous, mystical and somewhat embarrassing. Cleveland Moffett, the American journalist, author, and playwright in his article about James Tissot wrote an article for the March 1899 issue of the McClure’s Magazine entitled Tissot and his Paintings of the Life of Christ, in which he talked about Tissot’s artistic methodology:
“…M.Tissot, being now in a certain state of mind, and having some conception of what he wished to paint, would bend over the white paper with its smudged surface, and looking intently at the oval marked for the head of Jesus or some holy person, would see the whole picture there before him, the colors, the garments, the faces, everything that he needed and already half conceived. Then, closing his eyes in delight, he would murmur to himself ‘How beautiful! Oh, that I may keep it! Oh, that I may not forget it.’ Finally putting forth his strongest effort to retain the vision, he would take brush and color and set it all down from memory as well as he could…”
In his watercolour, Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray, we see Jesus seeking solitude for prayer following the miracle of the loaves and fishes, at the summit of a mountain. It is a dramatic, some would say, melodramatic image, seen from below as we look up and see Jesus depicted, arms held out, against a night sky, with his gleaming white robes backlit by the radiance of the stars and the crescent moon.
In his work, The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise, Tissot depicts the tiny figure of the thief being literally lifted by angels into orbit above the earth. Maybe the work is more to do with spiritualist apparitions than religious visions.
Probably the quirkiest, and of questionable taste, is his painting, What Our Saviour saw from the Cross. Look carefully at the centre foreground and you will see the feet of Christ and we, as mere spectators, are literally made to feel that it is us who is hanging from the cross. It was this kind of realism which appealed to the Catholic faithful in the 1890’s.
Tissot even included a self-portrait in one of his biblical scenes, Portrait of a Pilgrim. Tissot closed the published volumes of The Life of Christ with this funerary self-portrait and a plea to the reader to pray for him. In the depiction we see him standing among articles associated with rites for the dead: tapers, a draped coffin, wreaths, and holy water. In the background, a large wreath surrounds the distinctive “JTJ” monogram with which he signed some of his works. But there is more to this picture than first meets the eye. While Tissot raises his right hand in a gesture of benediction, his left hand seems transparent, almost like a ghostly apparition. Look how the lit candles flicker, almost as if a sudden gust of air—or a spirit—has passed through the room.
Tissot’s Bible was an immediate success and the Paris art world was thrown into turmoil. The series became a talking-point in artistic circles. An exhibition of 270 of the 350 pictures was held in 1894 at the Salon du Champs-de-Mars and it was the greatest public success of Tissot’s career. The public were overwhelmed by the paintings with some women sinking to their knees and even crawling around the rooms in reverent adoration. After years of criticism Tissot had finally given the public what they desired– a mystical godliness which encapsulated the religious ambience of the day. After the Paris exhibition the illustrations were shown in London and, in 1898, toured America where the entrance fees to view Tissot’s work raised in excess of $100,000. In 1900, the Brooklyn Museum purchased this set of 350 watercolours, popularly known as The Life of Christ, and to this day, they remain one of the institution’s most important early acquisitions.
The success of the exhibitions led to a publication of The Life of our Lord Jesus Christ with its 350 illustrations by Tissot. It was first published in France in 1897 and later in both England and America. Tissot received a million francs in reproduction rights from the French publisher alone. The success of the book and the paintings ensured James Tissot would be a very rich man for the rest of his life.
Tissot inherited the Chateau de Buillon from his father in 1888 and from that date onwards divided his time between there and his house in Paris. He lived in considerable style and surrounded himself with servants and relatives, one of who was his niece Jeanne Tissot, whom he left the chateau and all its contents when he died. After the tremendous success of the Life of Christ series he decided to illustrate the Old Testament and made his final trip to the Holy Land in 1896. Sadly, Tissot never completed his Old Testament series but before his death in 1902 he had completed ninety-five of the illustrations and these were shown at an exhibition at the Salon du Champs-de-Mars in 1901.
Whilst overseeing renovations in the gardens at Chateau de Buillon he caught a chill and died on August 8th, 1902, aged 66. At the time of his death his reputation had begun to decline but nowadays his works of art are appreciated by more and more people.
Most of the information I used for the five parts of the James Tissot blog came from information I found in Christopher Wood’s 1986 biography of Tissot which is an excellent read, full of beautiful pictures.
If you would like to read the full March 1899 article about James Tissot as it appeared in the McClure’s Magazine by Cleveland Moffett, entitled Tissot and his Paintings of the Life of Christ, then copy and paste the URL below into your browser:
Tissot had stayed at the home of his friend, Thomas Bowles, when he arrived in England in June 1871, and remained his guest until 1872, at which time he went to live in a house in St John’s Wood, an area inhabited by a number of artists. A year later, with buoyant finances, he was on the move again, this time buying a house close by, in Grove End Road. His friends back home in France could not believe the change in Tissot’s fortunes. His good friend Degas wrote to him about his change of circumstances:
“…I hear you have bought a house. My mouth is still open…”
While others, probably jealous of his success in London were somewhat scathing. Edmond de Goncourt, a French writer, literary and art critic wrote mockingly in his journal, dated November 3rd 1874:
“… Tissot the plagiarist painter, was having the greatest of successes in England. Has this ingenious exploiter of English stupidity not come up with the idea of an ante-room to his studio perennially filled with iced champagne for his visitors, and around his studio a garden where one might observe at all times a footman occupied in dusting and polishing the leaves of the laurel bushes…”
Berthe Morisot and her husband visited Tissot in 1875 and following the meeting she wrote to her mother:
“…he is very well set up here and is turning out very pretty pictures. He sells them for 300,000 francs a time. So, what do you think of success in London? He was very kind; and complimented me on my work, though I doubt if he has actually seen any…”
In another letter to her sister she wrote:
“…Tissot……is living like a prince…..he is very kind, and most amiable, though a little common…..I paid him a great many compliments and truly deserved ones…”
One of Tissot’s paintings in 1874 is now looked upon as one of his most festive works and one of his finest works which he completed whilst living in England. Again, it followed on from other shipboard paintings which Tissot had become known for. The painting depicts men and women relaxing at an event thought to be the annual regatta at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. It is entitled The Ball on Shipboard and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, but unpredictably it received an unfavourable reaction from some art critics. To them, there was no narrative, the colours were too garish and some even levelled the complaint that it was “simply vulgar”. John Ruskin described it as:
“…unhappy mere colour photographs of vulgar society…”
The art critic of the magazine Athenaeum said of it:
“…I can find no pretty women, but a set of showy rather than elegant costumes, some few graceful, but more ungraceful attitudes and not a lady in a score of female figures…”
How the critic came to that collusion now seems unfathomable and the supercilious and snobbish judgement he made is completely at odds with today’s views when the work is simply looked upon as the spirit of Victorian fashion and sophistication.
Another of Tissot’s works to be exhibited at the Royal Academy received stinging criticism and yet is now looked upon as one of his masterpieces. The painting is entitled London Visitors. The colours used are mainly grey and muted tones which are suggestive of a typical of a smoky city atmosphere of a London scene on a dull winter’s day. Depicted are a couple of stylishly dressed visitors to the capital standing underneath the portico of the newly constructed National Gallery in London, with the church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields framed in the background. The couple are trying to decide where to head to next. The gentleman checks his guidebook, while his female companion uses her umbrella to point towards Trafalgar Square, which lies in front of them. Standing in the foreground is young boy. He is one of the so-called bluecoat boys, who were students of the charitable Christ’s Hospital School, who often acted as tour guides to visitors to the city.
Tissot’s exalted reputation as a portrait painter was further boosted with one of his most prestigious portrait commissions which he received in 1874. This painting is a royal portrait of the widowed Empress Eugénie and her son, Louis Napoleon, entitled The Empress Eugénie and the Prince Impérial in the Grounds at Camden Place, Chislehurst. The painting which is now housed in the Chateau de Compèigne in France is one of Tissot’s most remarkable portraits. It is a portrait of a once powerful family who were then living in reduced circumstances. It is a portrait laced with sympathy. The autumnal colours add to the pair’s mood of sad reflection and feeling of desolation. In it, we see the sorrowful figures of the Empress Eugenie and her son, the recently deceased Napoleon III’s heir. He is dressed in his British Royal Artillery uniform and is depicted supporting his mother as he looks towards us. Empress Eugénie was to suffer more tragedy for sadly her son was killed in 1879, five years after the painting was completed, while fighting in the Zulu War in South Africa.
It was 1875 when a new person entered James Tissot’s life. A person who would bring both joy and sadness to him. The person was Kathleen Newton (née Kelly), an Irish woman who would become his muse and later his lover.
Kathleen Irene Ashburnham Kelly was born in 1854 to Irish parents in Lahore, where her father, an officer in the British Indian army, was stationed. Kathleen’s father finally achieved the rank of chief adjutant and accountant officer in Agra and eventually retired around 1865 and left India and returned with his wife and daughters to live in London. Kathleen had been convent educated, but after her mother died she was sent to boarding school. When she was seventeen her father decided that she should marry. He arranged such a marriage with an older man, Isaac Newton who was a surgeon attached to the Indian Civil Service, and Kathleen was sent off in a steamer to meet her proposed husband, whom she had yet to set her eyes upon. For all intense and purposes, she was a mail-order bride.
Unusually her father had not arranged for a chaperone to travel with his teenage daughter and it was during this long sea passage that she fell in love with a fellow traveller, a Captain Palliser. She arrived in Lahore and on January 3rd 1871 Kathleen and Isaac Newton were married. Being somewhat naïve but one has to remember she was a pious convent girl, on the advice of a Catholic priest, she confessed to her husband about the on-board romance soon after their wedding ceremony and before the marriage was consummated. In a letter to her husband, which I am not sure would have helped her cause for forgiveness, she wrote:
“…I am going to speak to you as if I was standing before God. It is true that I have sinned once, and God knows how I love that one [Palliser] too deeply to sin with any other…”
He was horrified and unforgiving and in May 1871 initiated divorce proceedings. He was granted a decree nisi in December 1871 and a decree absolute in July 20th 1872. Kathleen returned to England and went to live with her sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Augustus Hervey who lived in Hill Road, St John’s Wood close to Tissot’s Grove End Road house. On the same day as the decree absolute ending Kathleen’s marriage was granted she gave birth to Palliser’s child, Muriel Mary Violet.
It is not known for sure how Kathleen Newton and James Tissot met or when, but the best guess is late 1875. What we do know is that Kathleen Newton gave birth to her second child, Cecil George in March 1876 and that Kathleen, plus Violet and Cecil George went to live in James Tissot’s house that same year. Opinions are divided and arguments put forward fore and against as to whether Cecil George was Tissot’s son. Kathleen gave her son the surname of Newton presumably so that he and his sister had the same last name ! All we do know is that Tissot’s household now included an Irish divorcee and her two illegitimate children and this did not sit well with the “rules” of respectable Victorian society. Although his close friendship with fellow artists remained as strong as ever his relationship with Kathleen found him barred from many high society gatherings. Tissot did not worry about this ostracising for he now sampled the joys of “family life” for the first time.
One of his earliest portraits of Kathleen Newton was a small (26 x 16cms) drypoint in black ink on cream laid Japan paper, which he completed in 1876. It was entitled Portrait of Mrs N..(Kathleen Newton) often referred to as La Frileuse (a woman shivering) which referred to the fact that Kathleen constantly felt the cold. It is regarded as his finest and most exquisite portrait of Kathleen. It must have been a true labour of love as we know he lost his heart to this Irish woman. The description in the William Weston London Gallery’s catalogue states:
“…It is a work of extreme delicacy yet great richness, of poetic quiet yet great emotion. Unlike the great majority of Tissot’s prints it is worked in pure drypoint, without the strength of underlying pure etching. The use of pure drypoint allowed him to combine extremely fine touches of line, in the drawing of her face for example, with tremendously rich textures in the burr and wiped ink tone in the fur collar or the hat. Kathleen Newton was the inspiration for some of Tissot’s very finest works…”
The fact that Tissot was living with Kathleen was not unusual as many wealthy men kept mistresses but they did not, like Tissot, parade them around openly and advertise their relationship. Tissot did not worry about what society thought about his relationship with Kathleen as he now sampled the joys of “family life” for the first time. Tissot’s open and very public display of his affair with Kathleen shocked the London society, a society which had once welcomed him with open arms. His choice was simple, embrace Victorian society’s protocol or be proud to be seen with Kathleen. For Tissot there was no question as to which course of action he would choose. Kathleen was the love of his life and he chose her over life amongst London society. James and Kathleen settled down to home life and were happy to mix with their many artistic friends who continued to support them. They never married and the reason for this could be their rigid Roman Catholic upbringing and beliefs. Tissot’s house and garden were spacious and Tissot and Kathleen along with her two children created a private world together and it is this private world which is the atmospheric background to many of Tissot’s compositions of this period including another drypoint, Le Croquet, which he completed around 1878.
One of the first painting in which Kathleen appears is the 1876 work by Tissot entitled A Passing Storm. The setting for this painting is a room overlooking Ramsgate harbour. Kathleen is depicted lying on a chaise longue in an elegant if somewhat provocative pose. In the background, seen standing on the balcony, we see her lover. His demeanour is puzzling. He stands there with his hands in his pockets looking rather impatient and uninterested in the lady. It is a scene of inhibited passion. Again, it is a narrative work which lets the viewers decide what is going on and what has been said between the two to end up at this juncture.
Another early work featuring Kathleen was one entitled Room Overlooking the Harbour. In this work the lady sits at a table having lunch. Across the table from her is an older man who is reading a newspaper.
It was during this period, the late 1870’s that Tissot began to use photographs to help with his depictions and a number of these photographs still survive to this day.
One such instance of this technique was Tissot’s painting En plein Soleil (In the Sunshine) which he completed in 1881. The depiction of Kathleen Newton is from a photograph of her sitting in the garden of his Grove End home. The setting for the painting is Tissot’s Grove End Road garden in St. John’s Wood. It is a group portrait, we see Kathleen Newton on the left depicted in the same pose as in the photograph. On the rug next to her is her daughter, Muriel Mary Violet. The other girl lying under the parasol is her niece Lillian Hervey. To the right is Kathleen’s sister, Mary Hervey, whom she lived with on her return from India, and is seen ruffling the hair of a young boy, Cecil George, Kathleen’s five-year-old son, who may also have been fathered by Tissot.
In 1878 Tissot used another photograph of Kathleen for his painting entitled Waiting for the Ferry. The photograph was once again taken in the garden of Tissot’s Grove End Road home. In it, we see Tissot and Kathleen along wither son Cecil George and her niece Lilian Hervey.
In the painting we see the young girl wearing a large hat with an equally large bow holding onto the wooden rail of the dock waiting for the arrival of the ferry. The woman, modelled by Kathleen, is depicted sitting in the same Windsor chair shown in the photograph. The woman is well wrapped up against the cold and doesn’t look well. In a number of his later works featuring Kathleen Newton, Tissot has depicted her as being unwell and convalescing which is rather sad, bearing in mind the onset of Kathleen’s own illness.
Another beautiful painting featuring Kathleen was his 1879 work Mrs Newton with a Parasol. This is looked upon as one of Tissot’s finest depictions of Kathleen. It has a hint of japonisme in its simplicity of design and the abstract colouring of the background. This is Tissot’s eulogy to feminine exquisiteness. This is Tissot’s homage to the woman he loved.
Tissot, by 1876, was financially secure through the sale of his paintings and he was happy with his life with Kathleen and her children. However, as we all know, life is not all plain sailing. In the latter part of the 1870’s Tissot’s paintings which he exhibited at various galleries were receiving a lot of criticism from the art critics. During the period, late 1879, through all of 1880, Tissot failed to exhibit any of his work at any of the leading London galleries. The critic were probably aware of the disdain shown by Tissot with regards Victorian morals and thought that criticising his work would be pay-back for his laissez-faire attitude to flaunting his private life in public. The art critic of the Spectator scathingly wrote:
“…This year he tries our patience somewhat hardly, for these ladies in hammocks, showing a very unnecessary amount of petticoat and stocking, are remarkable for little save a sort of luxurious indolence and insolence…”
The painting which the critic was lambasting was The Hammock which was set in Tissot’s own garden with its distinctive pool and cast-iron colonnade. In Victorian London having and maintaining such a large and decorative garden was very much a sign of affluence. The painting is all about lavishness, inactivity, and adoration. We see the lady, modelled by Kathleen, sitting back in her hammock, lazily reading her newspaper, There is a glimpse of a white petticoat which had upset the critics believing this would result in male viewers entertaining erotic thoughts !!! Although not discernible from the attached picture the book lying face down on the rug is probably French which alludes to the fact that Tissot had been sitting on the rug at the feet of his lover. Once again Tissot has included elements of japonisme in the painting. It was interesting to note that Tissot exhibited the work at the Grosvenor Gallery instead of the Royal Academy. The Grosvenor was the temple of the Aesthetic Movement and Tissot’s style of paintings were much more aligned to the philosophy of this gallery than the Royal Academy which was looked upon as an older, straight-laced institution which frowned at frivolity.
Another reason for Tissot not exhibiting any of his work during 1879 and 1880 was the declining health of Kathleen Newton who had contracted tuberculosis. In 1882 her health deteriorated rapidly with the onset of consumption. It was an illness that caused her great suffering and seeing his wife in so much pain was almost too much for Tissot to bear. Kathleen, aware that she was dying and saddened by sight of her distraught husband, decided to take matters into her own hands and took an overdose of laudanum. Kathleen Newton died in November 9th 1882, aged just 28. While her coffin stood in Grove End Road draped in purple velvet, Tissot prayed besides it for hours. Later, she was buried in plot in St Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green.
One week after the death of his beloved Kathleen, Tissot abandoned his London home at St John’s Wood, leaving behind his paints, brushes and unfinished canvases and never returned to it. The house was later bought by his painter friend Alma-Tadema. Tissot was inconsolable and never really recovered from Kathleen’s death. He left London for good and returned to his homeland, France.
..…..to be concluded.
Most of the information I am using comes from Christopher Wood’s 1986 biography of Tissot which is an excellent read, full of beautiful pictures.
At the end of the 1860’s Tissot was still producing charming portraits of elegant young ladies. One such paintings were exhibited by Tissot in the 1870 Salon. It was entitled Jeune Femme en bateau (Young Lady in a Boat). It depicts a young lady in a boat wearing a fashionable early nineteenth century costume. Behind her sits her pet pug dog. This type of dog symbolised a sign of affluence and prestige. Look at her face – what is she thinking, why is she in the boat? Maybe she is on her way to meet her lover. We need to also to take into account the alternative title to this painting which was Adrift. So, could this mean her tryst with her beau is not going to go too well.
The other work of Tissot which was exhibited at the 1870 Salon was his painting, Le Partie Carrée (The Foursome). There is a similarity between this work and Edouard Manet’s 1862 work, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) which had shocked critics and public alike seven years earlier.
For Tissot his depiction was a light-hearted look at eighteenth-century French manners and for that reason it proved a hit with the public. In this depiction, the female on the right lifts her glass high as she downs a glass of champagne, whilst her partner raises his glass to the man opposite in a celebratory toast. The man on the left raises his glass whilst his other hand is wrapped around the waist of his lady and cups her breast. She seems amused and looks boldly out at us with a questioning stare. Is she challenging us to censure her? It is interesting to note that she focuses us with a bold and defiant gaze which is mirrored by that of the woman in the boat in the previous painting. It is as if she is saying “if you don’t like what you see, hard luck!!!”.
By 1870 things were going well for Tissot. He was being celebrated as a great figurative painter and his paintings of elegant young ladies were selling well. What could go wrong for him? The answer for him and the rest of the people of France was war. Napoleon III, the Emperor of France since 1852, in a dispute over matters involving Spanish succession, declared war on Prussia in July 1870, having unwisely been counselled by his military advisers that the French army could defeat Prussia and that such a victory would, at the same time, restore his declining popularity in France. However, by January 1871, after a four month siege of Paris by the Prussian army, the fighting was over and the French were defeated. But worse was to come for those who had suffered the Prussian army’s siege of Paris. At the cessation of hostilities between the Prussian army and the French army, the latter was allowed to form a National Assembly. The Parisians, tense and irritable after the long strain of the siege, were horrified by the action of rural France in electing a monarchist assembly committed to what they regarded as a dishonourable peace. They vowed to end the rule of the National Assembly and the infamous and bloody Paris Commune was formed. The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from March 18th to May 21st 1871. The working class of Paris seized power of their own city and established the world’s first workers’ government. It all came to a bloody conclusion in May with the storming of the Parisian barricades by the army. It was estimated that twenty-five thousand died during the siege many summarily executed after the battle was over.
So how did all this affect Tissot? Tissot, during the siege of the capital by the Prussian forces, saw active service when he joined two companies of the Garde Nationale, first the Eclaireurs de la Seine and later the Tirailleurs de la Seine, which included many patriotic artists who committed themselves along with a few talented lawyers, and traders to defend the city. Tissot recorded the horrors of battle with a small number of sketches and watercolours, which were later turned into prints and illustrations.
During the Paris Commune Tissot was rumoured to have become one of the violent revolutionary Communards. So why was he thought to have sided with the revolutionaries. Some believe it was an act of self-preservation and that of safeguarding his property, whilst others believed it was a supreme act of patriotism. What is known is that when the bloody collapse of the Paris Commune came in May 1871, Tissot fled the city and it was this hasty retreat that aroused suspicions of him being a Communard. The Parisian art market was ruined and life as an artist in the French capital was in disarray and so, in June 1871, Tissot arrived in London, almost penniless.
Tissot found sanctuary at the Cleve Lodge, Hyde Park Gate home of his friend Thomas Gibson Bowles, whom he had known and had occasionally carried out commissions for caricatures of prominent men for the magazine Vanity Fair, which was founded by Bowles. Tissot stayed with Bowles for several months and also was given a job of producing cartoon portraits for the Vanity Fair magazine. One such was his caricature entitled A Dandy.
Another was published in the September 21st, 1871 edition of Vanity Fair – a caricature of George Whyte-Melville, the Scottish novelist and poet. Although this was not the type of art that Tissot wanted to concentrate on, it provided him with financial support during his early stay in England.
Tissot’s reputation as a very talented portrait painter was further enhanced with the showing of two male portraits in the 1872 London International Exhibition. One of the paintings was a small (20ins x 24 ins,) portrait which had been commissioned by his friend Thomas Bowles. It was of Bowles’ close friend, Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, the debonair soldier, who was a captain in the privileged Royal Horse Guards, the cavalry regiment that protected the monarch. It was Burnaby who suggested naming Bowles’ magazine Vanity Fair and it was he who lent half of the necessary £200 in start-up funding. Burnaby then volunteered to go to Spain to chronicle his adventures for the satirical magazine. We see Burnaby depicted in his “undress” uniform as a captain in the 3rd Household Cavalry. He is the epitome of an elegant gentleman in a relaxed male conversation. The painting was eventually purchased by London’s National Portrait Gallery from Bowles’ son (and Burnaby’s godson), George, in 1933.
The other Tissot work in the exhibition was also a portrait entitled Gentleman in a Railway Carriage (Portrait of Captain ***) which he completed in 1872 and is now housed at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester Massachusetts. The figure in the painting has never been identified but once again it is a portrait of a well-dressed elegant man. He is wearing a fur coat and over his knees is a travelling rug, on top of which is a book. He holds onto a strap and this very fact gives us the feel of the train rattling along at speed. He studies his pocket watch and we wonder is he late or is the train on time. This portrait is beginning to look like a narrative piece in which a story behind the depiction is beginning to emerge.
Tissot’s reputation as a talented painter was soon recognised in England thanks to his illustrations in Vanity Fair and his meetings with Thomas Bowles’ wealthy connections. In 1873, Tissot finally exhibited works at the Royal Academy which he had completed whilst living in England, .
The most well received of his exhibited works was An Interesting Story which he completed in 1872. The depiction, which is housed in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, is set in the eighteenth century and it is a comedy of manners. Three figures dominate the depiction. A man, shown as a red-coated officer, is seen studying a map which lies on a table. He is recounting a story to two elegantly dressed young ladies. They seem completely disinterested in what they are hearing and find it difficult to hide their boredom. One looks away whilst the other tries to stifle a yawn. It was the type of painting loved by the English public, who were fond of eighteenth century historical and literary scenes with a touch of humour. The art critic of the Athenaeum described the painting as:
“…a capital piece of humorous characterisation…”
Buoyed by the success of the painting Tissot produced several variations on the same theme, such as his 1872 work, The Tedious Story, with its similar River Thames backdrop.
Such River Thames backdrops were used by other artists. The most famous one is probably the American artist James Whistler who in 1864 had his painting, Wapping on Thames, exhibited at the 1864 Royal Academy Exhibition and the Exposition Universelle in 1867. The background to his painting was a Wapping dockyard on the River Thames, close to where Whistler was living. Whistler set up his easel at an inn known as The Angel and he created the scene en plein air. The inn overhung the south bank of the Thames where it widens after the Pool of London and then winds out to sea. I love the juxtaposition of the contrasting colours used – bright turquoise for the water and sky against the oranges and browns used to depict the ships’ masts, rigging and dockyard buildings. The female in the painting was Joanna Hifferman, who was an artist’s model Whistler often used and who would become the artist’s lover. Next to her is Alphonse Legros, the French painter, and they are both in conversation with a sailor.
Tissot was fascinated by the Thames and depicted it in many of his paintings. Maybe it reminded him of his childhood and the port of Nantes which he visited regularly. For Tissot the Port of London docks and the dockside buildings offered him so many artistic possibilities. At the 1873 Royal Academy Exhibition Tissot exhibited two paintings, both of which featured dockside backgrounds. The setting for the painting The Captain’s Daughter is the porch of the Falcon Tavern at Gravesend on the Thames. Tissot completed the work that year, and in it we see the Captain sitting discussing his daughter with her young sailor suiter, whilst they drink some wine. The daughter, tired of the conversation, stands up and gazes absentmindedly out over the river.
The other Tissot painting exhibited at the 1873 Royal Academy Exhibition is probably Tissot’s best known London pictures. It is entitled The Last Evening and is one of his many shipboard paintings. It is a narrative piece and it is up to us to guess what is going on. There is enough of an ambiguity about the depiction to tease us into believing we alone know what is happening. The setting is a ship the night before it is about to set sail. Look at the way Tissot has skilfully painted the background of the ships and their rigging. In the foreground we see a young lady wearing a chequered jacket sitting in a Bentwood rocking chair. Next to her sitting in a wicker chair is a young sailor who only has eyes for the pretty lady. He stares passionately at the girl. In the mid-ground, sitting on a bench are two elderly men deep in discussion. One of the elder men is probably the father of the lady in the chair, the other, a member of the ship’s crew. Leaning over the back of the bench is a young girl who could be the lady’s younger sister, or could she be her daughter? The painting is housed at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery.
James Tissot was prospering in London. His art was loved and sold well. In my next blog I will look at what made him suddenly return to France if life was so good to him in England.