Self-Portraits 1900-1912 (2) James Bolivar Manson

James Bolivar Manson (26 June 1879,London –3 July 1945,London) was to become the Director of the Tate Gallery for some 25 years up to 1938. Unfortunately, his time at the Tate was not entirely happy and not, in general regarded as a great success. Manson was unable to spend as much time as he wished on his own painting and essentially appears to have taken the job to pay the family bills. He was a close friend of Epstein with whom he shared a studio inParis and of Lucien Pissarro, son of Camille Pissarro. He painted Lucien’s portrait in 1913.

The successes and failures of Manson’s life seem to have taken place either in Parisor London. There is something reminiscent of Charles Pooter about Manson who was born and brought up in the middle-class environment of South London. He lived close to BrockwellPark, between Brixton and Herne Hill and attended Alleyn’s School not far away in Dulwich. Pooter in Diary of a Nobody lived in Holloway. Manson, whose father was a literary editor for the News Chronicle, then took a series of clerk and other office jobs and acquired a taste for practical jokes. Around this time he continued his studies at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art and Lambeth School of Art

James Manson was married to a professional musician who became the music director of the NorthLondonCollegiateSchoolfor Girls. Upon his return from Paris and the Académie Julian and his young family moved to Hampstead. J B M  became a member of the post-impressionist Camden Group and a friend and associate of its Leader William Sickert. The group was limited to just sixteen members but included such illustrious figures as Robert Bevan, Henry Lamb, Duncan Grant and Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis.

The self-portrait shows a thoroughly English fellow with pipe and the determined expression of a proper chap. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that later put on a show of popular cricket pictures at the Tate, during the 1934 ashes tour when critics felt he should have been promoting the European avant-garde. Henry Moore and Matisse were out and Burne-Jones, whose exhibition was opened by his relation Stanley Baldwin, and Constable were decidedly in. If JB Manson were around today, he may well have subscribed to The Chap Magazine! See

The latter part of Manson’s life was very sad due mostly to a growing problem with alcohol. He appears to have been unsympathetic to German Expressionism, Surrealism and many other aspects of Modernism at the Tate. Famously, he was harsh in his assessment of the sculpture of Arp, Duchamp and Constantin Brâncuşi‘s work which he roundly denounced.  His career came to a hilarious climax at a dinner in Paris, in 1938, at the King George V hotel. Kenneth Clark described him as having, “As having a flushed face, white hair and a twinkle in his eye; and this twinkling got him out of scrapes that would have sunk a worthier man without trace.” However,Clark had arranged the dinner at which Manson was to meet his unfortunate demise. Clive Bell, theBloomsbury aficionado and art critic, perhaps uncharitably, described it thus:-

“Manson arrived at the deepener given by the minister of Beaux Arts fantastically drunk—punctuated the ceremony with cat-calls and cock-a-doodle-doos, and finally staggered to his feet, hurled obscene insults at the company in general and the minister in particular, and precipitated himself on the ambassadress, Lady Phipps, some say with amorous intent others with lethal intent………… the guests fled ices uneaten, coffee undrunk…” I hope an example will be made, and that they will seize the opportunity for turning the sot out of the Tate, not because he is a sot, but because he has done nothing but harm to modern painting.”

So Manson retired early at 58 and devoted himself to splendid flower painting!


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