Artist biography

James Bolivar Manson 'Self-Portrait' c.1912
Fig.1
James Bolivar Manson
Self-Portrait c.1912
Tate N04929
© Tate
J.B. Manson became a member of the Camden Town Group through his friendship with the impressionist painter Lucien Pissarro. As secretary for the group, he kept records of meetings and he also wrote reviews of the exhibitions. Although it is generally thought that his directorship of the Tate Gallery in later life led to a conservative acquisition policy, in his early days he was part of the forefront of British art, depicting himself as a masculine, bohemian artist in his self-portrait of c.1912 (Tate N04929, fig.1).1
James Bolivar Manson was born on 26 June 1879 at 65 Appach Road, Brixton, in south London, the eldest son of four brothers and two sisters. His mother was Margaret Emily Manson (née Deering) and his father was James Alexander Manson, a poet and freelance writer. Manson attended Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, leaving at the age of sixteen to begin work as an office boy for the publisher George Newnes. He studied art in his spare time at first Heatherly’s and later Lambeth Schools of Art, but begrudgingly secured work as a bank clerk at the behest of his father, who desired that his son pursue a more stable career than that of a professional artist.
In 1903 Manson married the musician Lilian Laugher (fig.2). Lilian had stayed with Manson’s parents in Dulwich upon her return from Berlin, where she had trained as a violinist. It is unclear from the available accounts what Lilian’s connection to the Mansons was or whether James and Lilian were acquainted prior to this. With the extra funds saved from Lilian’s work as a music teacher at the James Allen’s Girls School in Dulwich, Manson was able to quit his post at the bank and shortly after they were married the pair moved to Paris.
James Bolivar Manson and Lilian Manson in the Grounds of Western House, Rye, Sussex August 1913
Fig.2
James Bolivar Manson and Lilian Manson in the Grounds of Western House, Rye, Sussex August 1913
Tate Archive TGA 792/21
Charles Polowetski, Bernard Gussow, James Bolivar Manson and Samuel Halpert in a Studio on Rue Belloni, Paris 7 June 1903
Fig.3
Charles Polowetski, Bernard Gussow, James Bolivar Manson and Samuel Halpert in a Studio on Rue Belloni, Paris 7 June 1903
Tate Archive TGA 792/17


In Paris, Manson began full-time study at the famous Académie Julian, where Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard had trained, as well as fellow Fitzroy Street and Camden Town associates Robert Bevan and Stanislawa de Karlowska in the 1890s. Manson shared a rented studio space with the artists Charles Polowetski, Bernard Gussow and Jacob Epstein (fig.3).2 The impressionist painter Manson developed an unlikely friendship with the more radical sculptor Epstein, the pair exchanging many letters in the coming years (fig.4). In 1935 Manson was one of nine signatories, including Kenneth Clark and William Rothenstein, of a letter to the Times in protest against the proposed removal of Epstein’s sculptures from the British Medical Association building on the Strand (fig.5).3

Tom Furness
January 2011

Notes