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.
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