Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art

An Earthly Paradise

By Simon Toll
T he last couple of years have made many of us cherish any outside space that we might be lucky enough to be able to enjoy. As I write this, many people will be planning tea-parties and picnics in their back gardens to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of the Queen.
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, The Hammock. Estimate: 1,500,000 - 2,000,000 GBP

For James Tissot, his garden in St John’s Wood was a place of carefully orchestrated beauty, with its neatly ordered flower-filled borders and arbours aching with the weight of roses and jasmine. The garden on Grove End Road was a reflection of the artist’s sophisticated taste for arrangement and colour, an artistic expression of manicured nature perfected for the delight of the eyes just like his pictures. It was here that he found sanctuary from the bustle of London, a city that did not welcome him with open arms when he first arrived in the mid 1870s. Surrounded by majestic chestnut trees it was a haven from prying eyes where he could paint, uninterrupted. The garden was place of inspiration for his exquisite paintings and also the haven where love blossomed, where he enjoyed the happiest moments of his life in the company of his beautiful muse, Kathleen Newton. He painted a series of pictures in which Kathleen was the most beautiful flower in the verdant garden, beneath the dappled light of the trees and the shimmer of water on the ornamental pool. There was even a conservatory of palms and tropical plants were Tissot could indulge his taste for exoticism when the London weather made painting outdoors impractical.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot, The Convalescent, circa 1876, Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust

The Hammock encapsulates the joie-de-vie that Tissot and Newton enjoyed for a brief few years in London between their meeting in 1876 and her death in 1882. She is reclining in the eponymous hammock, drowsy in the morning sunlight as she reads a newspaper, completely relaxed in the company of her beloved artist as he paints her. Their dog shares her lethargy and adds to the care-free ambience of the picture. All is happy and all is well but the truth was not quite as it seems – although he became popular in London Society, Tissot had never managed to penetrate the snobbish London art world and was seen as an interloper who painted his married mistress and had the audacity to exhibit his liaison for all to see. His Parisian friends were a little jealous of his success, Degas wrote ‘I hear you’ve bought a house. My mouth is still open’ whilst Berthe Morisot wrote ‘Tissot… is living like a prince… he is very kind and most amiable, though a little common’. Perhaps the most indicative and acidic comment came from Edmond de Goncourt; ‘around his studio a garden where one might observe at all times a footman occupied in dusting and polishing the leaves of his laurel bushes.’

James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Holyday, circa 1876, Private Collection

The Hammock of c.1876 depicts the crescent-shaped colonnade that Tissot installed around the pool in his garden copied from a marble original in the Parc Monceau in Paris. The hammock itself is strung between two of the magnificent horse-chestnut trees that appear often in Tissot’s paintings and the flower-border is filled with geraniums and white marguerites which perhaps reminded him of home.

Kathleen Newton and her son Cecil George in the garden of the Grove End Road property, London, circa 1881, Collection Frédéric Mantion

It was the same setting for a series of pictures painted around 1876 including A Convalescent, Quarrelling and The Picnic (Holyday) in which exactly the same vantage-point was taken. In paintings like Spring (Specimen of a Portrait) Tissot used the brilliant green of the lawn and the iris leaves to emphasise the colour of Kathleen’s gown which glimmers in the sunlight. He painted her like a flower in full glory, a tall and stately iris or jonquil in the spring garden. It seemed that Tissot’s beautiful dream of life with Mrs Newton was perfect and that he would paint her enjoying their beautiful garden as she aged and grew more mature with the rose-trees around her but gardeners all know that disease can lay waste to even the strongest flowers and Kathleen’s health had never been robust. On 9 November 1882 as the leaves has turned brown on the chestnut tree as in October, Kathleen died of consumption aged only twenty-eight. Unable to tolerate the thought of life in London without her, Tissot left for Paris immediately after her funeral and he never returned and never saw the garden again.

    Left: James Jacques Joseph Tissot, October, 1877, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
    Right: James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Spring (Specimen of a Portrait), 1877, Collection of Diane B. Wilsey, San Francisco.

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