James Tissot. Part 4 – True love, loss and a return to his homeland

James Tissot (1836 – 1902)

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…”

The Ball on Shipboard by James Tissot (c.1874)

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.

London Visitors by James Tissot (1874)

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.

Empress Eugénie and the Imperial Prince in the grounds of Camden Place, Chislehurst by James Tissot (c.1874)

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.

Mavourneen (My Darling)
Portrait of Kathleen Newton by James Tissot (1877)

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.

The Bunch of Violets by James Tissot (1875)

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.

Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects by James Tissot (1869)

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.

Portrait of Mrs N., more commonly titled La Frileuse by James Tissot (1876)

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…”

Le Croquet. (Playing Croquet) by James Tissot (1878)

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.

A Passing Storm by James Tissot (1876)

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.

Room Overlooking the Harbour by James Tissot (c.1876)

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.

Photograph of Kathleen Newton

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.

En Plein Soleil (In the Sunshine) by James Tissot (c.1881)

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.

Family photograph

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.

Waiting for the Ferry by James Tissot (1878)

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.

Mrs Newton with a Parasol by James Tissot (1879)

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 Hammock by James Tissot (1880)

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.

Soirée d’eté (Summer Evening) by James Tissot (1882)                                                                                       A painting featuring Kathleen shortly before her death.

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.

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James Tissot and Kathleen Newton

Kathleen Newton in an Armchair by James Tissot (1878)

My blog today is the second part of the life of the French painter James Tissot.  In my last offering I looked at one of his beautiful and unusual religious paintings and I told you a little about the life of the artist but purposely left out his relationship with the special lady in his life, which I wanted to save for today.

In 1870 France was in turmoil.  The Franco-Prussian war had broken out, which was the conflict between France, under Napoleon III and the Kingdom of Prussia and was the final straw in the conflict between the two nations.  France was defeated and Paris was eventually occupied by the Prussian army.  Tissot was a member of the Garde Nationale which was tasked with defending the French capital and later became a member of the Paris Commune, which was a quasi-government that briefly ruled Paris and acted as protectors of the Parisians and their property from March to May in 1871.   However, Tissot, whether through business reasons or concerns he had for his personal safety, decided to leave his homeland and that year went to England where, through his art, he had built up a network of friends and business contacts.  One of these was Thomas Gibson Bowles, the proprietor of the popular magazine Vanity Fair.  Bowles not only provided Tissot with a place to stay in London but he also employed him as a caricaturist on the magazine.  Whilst in London Tissot also exhibited at the Royal Academy.  As was the case when he was in France, Tissot depicted in his paintings many of the chic ladies of London and he was a genius in the way he depicted them bedecked in the most expensive and sumptuous clothing which he carefully detailed.   These paintings were very popular and soon, through their sales, he managed to buy his own house in St John’s Wood, which, at that time, had become a popular and much sort after enclave for artists.  Tissot was not only admired as a great artist by the London Society but through the auspices of Thomas Bowles he was given entry into the social and artistic circles of London.

This particular time, 1874, was the starting point for the French Impressionists and his friend Degas tried to persuade Tissot to exhibit at their first exhibition but he declined the offer.  His decision to refuse to exhibit did not in any way cut him off from his Impressionist friends as he remained great friends with Berthe Morisot who visited him at his London home and also he remained very friendly with Edouard Manet.  The following year, 1875, the two travelled to Venice on a painting trip. It was around 1875 that he first met Kathleen Newton, a stunningly beautiful divorcee and it was Tissot’s relationship with her that afforded him, as an adult, his only period of a real family life.  She would dominate the subject matter of his paintings.

A Type of Beauty by James Tissot (1880)

Kathleen Irene Ashburnham Kelly was born in 1854 and brought up in Lahore and Agra.  She was the youngest of five children and came from an Irish Catholic family.   Her grandfather, Charles Kelly, left Ireland and practiced medicine in London. His son, and Mary’s father, Charles Frederick Kelly joined the East India Company and was stationed in Lahore where he worked as a clerk.  He married Flora Boyd, whose family came from the North of Ireland, and the couple had five children, Charles (Charley), Frederick WD (Freddie), George Lloyd (George), Mary Pauline (Polly) and Kathleen Irene (Kate).   In 1858, Charles Kelly, who had now added the family name “Ashburnham” to his own name, was transferred to Agra.   Kathleen’s father finally achieved the rank of chief adjutant and accountant officer in Agra and eventually retired around 1865, left India and returned with his wife and daughters to live in London.  When Kathleen was sixteen she travelled back to India to marry Isaac Newton, who was a surgeon attached to the Indian Civil Service. This was to be an arranged marriage orchestrated by her father and she had little or no input into the choosing of her future husband.

During the sea passage to India she was befriended by a Captain Palliser of the Bengal Rifles regiment who was returning to the sub-continent to rejoin his regiment.  (Other versions of her life state that Palliser, although a captain, was a naval officer).  Their friendship grew during the long sea passage and they became lovers and despite his pleas to her to cancel her wedding plans, she and Isaac were married in January 1870.  Being a devout Catholic, Kathleen decided to tell the local priest of her affair with Captain Palliser.  For him to forgive her of her sins the priest told her she should first tell her husband about this relationship.  She took the priests advice and told her husband who was horrified and as their marriage had not been consummated; her husband immediately instigated divorce proceedings on the grounds that his wife had not been a virgin on her marriage day.  Kathleen returned to England, the sea passage being paid for by the lovestruck Captain Palliser, who accompanied her, as a gesture of good will for her agreeing to be his mistress.  Their affair continued and she became pregnant but still refused to marry him.    When she arrived back in England she went to stay with her father, who was at the time courting a widow.  Kathleen’s daughter Muriel Mary Violet Newton was born there on 20 December 1871, which was also the same day as her Decree Nisi came through.   Later Kathleen and her daughter Violet went to live with her sister Polly and her husband at Hill Road, St John’s Wood.

Mavourneen (Portrait of Kathleen Newton) by James Tissot (1877)

It was about four years later around 1875, that James Tissot, who was also living in St John’s Wood, London, met Kathleen Newton née Kelly.  The next step in their relationship came in March 1876 when Kathleen gave birth to a son, Cecil George Newton Ashburnham, who it is believed had been fathered by Tissot. Kathleen and James Tissot became lovers and she moved in with Tissot.  (It should be noted that census records cast some doubt whether they lived together and it is thought that Kathleen’s two children spent most or all of their time living with their aunt Polly and her family).   For Tissot, as was the case with Captain Pallister some five years earlier, he was smitten by this stunningly beautiful young woman.  His terms of endearment for her were mavoureen (Irish Gaelic for my love) and his native French phrase ravissante Irlandaise (lovely Irish).  Kathleen Newton became the love of Tissot’s life, his muse and adored lover.  Tissot described his time with Kathleen as one of “domestic bliss” and the happiest times of his life.  He completed many paintings featuring Kathleen of which I have featured some in my blog today.

A Winter’s Walk by James Tissot (1878)

There was one great setback with his relationship with Kathleen for James Tissot.  Although it was not uncommon for successful and wealthy men to keep a mistress they did not, like Tissot, parade them around openly and advertise their liaison.   Tissot’s open and very public display of his affair with Kathleen shocked the London society which had once welcomed him with open arms and he had to choose between his social life and 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.  He and Kathleen settled down to a life of domesticity and were happy to mix with their many artistic friends who continued to support them.  They never married and this may be due to their rigid Roman Catholic upbringing and beliefs.

Kathleen Newton in the Garden by James Tissot

This charming painting shows Kathleen sitting on a rug in the garden next to her daughter Violet.  The other small girl holding the parasol is her niece, Lillian Hervey. Sitting on the wall is her sister, Mary Hervey (Polly), who you can see ruffling the hair of Cecil George Newton who is thought to be the son of James Tissot.

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In the late 1870s Kathleen’s health started to deteriorate with the onset of tuberculosis.  Tissot remained devoted to her.  In 1882, Kathleen’s health declined rapidly with the onset of consumption.  The illness gave her great pain and Tissot was visibly distraught by the physical state of his wife and her sufferings.   Kathleen was aware that she was dying and she was saddened to witness how heartbroken her husband was, witnessing her long lingering death and so in November 1882, aged just twenty eight, she took an overdose of laudanum and died.  Sadly because she had committed suicide she was not able to be buried in consecrated ground.

The Garden Bench by James Tissot (1882)

The painting above shows Kathleen Newton and her children, Cecil George and Violet and her niece, Lilian Hervey, the daughter of her sister Polly.  Although Tissot exhibited the painting, he would not sell it and kept it with him as a memorial until his death.

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One week after Kathleen’s death, Tissot left his London home at St John’s Wood, and never returned to it. The house was later bought by the artist Alma-Tadema.  Tissot was inconsolable and never really recovered from Kathleen’s death. Tissot never married and like many people who are devastated by the loss of a loved one he turned to Spiritualism, and on a number of occasions tried to contact his beloved Kathleen.

This somewhat sad story about a French artist and his fallen women is one of the great 19th century English love stories.   My interest in James Tissot was born out of a comment I received from Lucy Paquette who said she was publishing an eBook this autumn, entitled Hammock, a novel based on the life of James Tissot.  I hope, like me, you will be looking out for this publication.

Patricia O’Reilly has also written a novel about Kathleen Newton entitled A Type of Beauty: The Story of Kathleen Newton (1854-1882) which I am hoping to buy as novels based on lives of artists or one of their paintings always fascinate me.