James Bolivar Manson

1879–1945

Biography

James Bolivar Manson, ‘Self-Portrait’ c.1912
James Bolivar Manson
Self-Portrait c.1912

Artist biography

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.


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

Wikipedia entry

James Bolivar Manson (26 June 1879 in London – 3 July 1945 in London) was an artist and worked at the Tate gallery for 25 years, being its Director 1930–1938. In the Tate's own evaluation he was the "least successful" of their Directors. His time there was frustrated by his stymied ambition as a painter and he declined into alcoholism, culminating in a drunken outburst at an official dinner in Paris. Although his art policies were more advanced than previously at the Tate and embraced Impressionism, he stopped short of accepting newer artistic movements like Surrealism and German Expressionism, thus earning the scorn of critics such as Douglas Cooper. He retired on the grounds of ill health and resumed his career as a flower painter until his death.

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Artist as subject

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