The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

James Bolivar Manson Self-Portrait c.1912

This self-portrait was painted when Manson was in his early thirties, around the time he joined the staff of the Tate Gallery as Chief Clerk. Executed in broken touches of colour, it shows Manson in a pose of artistic bohemianism, with ruffled painting coat, pipe hanging from his lips, and stern gaze looking out at the viewer.
James Bolivar Manson 1879–1945
Oil paint on canvas
508 x 397 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘J. B. Manson ptd. about 1912’ on stretcher
Presented by D.C. Fincham 1938


Manson was in his early thirties when he painted this self-portrait. It shows him in a pose that combines alertness and a very direct gaze with an assumed aspect of informality by depicting himself with a pipe in his mouth. This character of artistic bohemianism is reinforced by his unstructured jacket, which is probably his painting coat. The portrait has the appearance of having been made while looking in a mirror, with adjustments made later. It is painted in a version of impressionism, with broken touches of paint and colour. With his friend Lucien Pissarro, Manson believed strongly that the impressionist technique and theory developed by Lucien’s father Camille was the ideal style of art. Like Lucien, he had misgivings about the more radical direction the London avant-garde was taking away from such principles, although he tried to hold the Camden Town Group together and later ensure the plurality of the London Group that succeeded it.1
James Bolivar Manson 'Lucien Pissarro Reading' c.1913
James Bolivar Manson
Lucien Pissarro Reading c.1913
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
© Estate of James Bolivar Manson
Photo © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The subjects of Manson’s art were generally country landscapes or flower pictures (see, for example, Tate N01355 and N05320). But he also painted a number of portraits, generally of his friends or family. These include an informal picture of his wife sewing outside from c.1910, perhaps the picture exhibited as A Corner of the Garden at the first Camden Town Group exhibition (private collection),2 as well as more conventional portrait treatments, such as: Portrait of Mr Bravington aged Two, made in 1912 around the same time as his self-portrait;3 Portrait of a Child 1915 (private collection),4 perhaps also Master Bravington; and Portrait of a Lady in a Striped Dress, probably of a later date.5 His portrait of Lucien Pissarro reading, from around 1913, is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (fig.1).
When Manson had moved to Paris in 1903 to study at the Académie Julian, his friend Samuel Halpert had painted a half-length portrayal of him in the typical Whistlerian style of the time.6 Manson had first become affiliated with the Fitzroy Street Group through Pissarro in late 1910. Shortly after this he depicted himself in the group’s shared studio in Self-Portrait. The Fitzroy Street Studio c.1911 (Fine Art Society).7 In contrast to the close-up view in the Tate work, this self-portrait presents an almost full-length depiction of the artist seated in a chair, looking young and thin in a rather outsized suit. Manson’s poses in the Halpert portrayal and the c.1911 self-portrait appear hesitant and effeminate in comparison to the masculine, uncompromising stare of the Tate self-portrait. It is interesting to compare this work with the portraits and self-portraits of his fellow Camden Town Group colleagues from this period, including those of Charles Ginner, Spencer Gore and Robert Bevan, which also portray a form of masculine bohemianism (figs.2–4).8 Manson also made a later self-portrait that is now in Southampton City Art Gallery, purchased from the artist in 1937 and probably made around then.
Malcolm Drummond 'Charles Ginner' 1911
Malcolm Drummond
Charles Ginner 1911
Southampton City Art Gallery
© Estate of Malcolm Drummond
Photo © Southampton City Art Gallery, Hampshire, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library

Manson joined the staff of the Tate Gallery as Chief Clerk in 1912, around the time this picture was painted. He was Assistant Keeper 1917–30, and from 1930 until 1938 he led the gallery as director. Manson’s portrait was presented by David Fincham, one of the gallery’s Assistant Keepers, who was on friendly terms with his director. In a letter to the Tate in 1957 he outlined the circumstances of its acquisition:
The Manson self portrait was exhibited at a gallery in Knightsbridge in 1936 or 1937. The gallery was started by the Hon Mrs Cochrane & closed down when the war broke out. I think it was a one-man show – at any rate there were a number of Manson’s pictures there. I bought it from the exhibition, and presented it anonymously during J.R.[othenstein]’s Directorship when the dust raised by Manson’s retirement had died down. It was painted to the best of my recollection between 1913 & 1915.9
Spencer Gore 'Self-Portrait' 1914
Spencer Gore
Self-Portrait 1914
National Portrait Gallery, London
Photo © National Portrait Gallery, London
Robert Bevan 'Self-Portrait' c.1914
Robert Bevan
Self-Portrait c.1914
National Portrait Gallery, London
Photo © National Portrait Gallery, London

Fincham may have been misremembering from which gallery he had bought it. Manson’s solo exhibition was held at Wildenstein’s in Bond Street in October–November 1937, and included a work listed as Self-Portrait (32), which is almost certainly the Tate painting. Fincham’s presentation of the picture to the Tate Gallery in 1938 was designed to mark the tenure of Manson’s directorship. In 1932 the gallery had accepted the gift of an oil by Stephen Bone of Manson’s predecessor, Charles Aitken (Tate N04618), establishing the precedent of marking former directors by the acquisition of a portrait. Fincham’s mention of waiting until ‘the dust raised by Manson’s retirement had died down’ is a reference to the fallout from Manson effectively being forced out of his post and into early retirement after causing a diplomatic incident in Paris by drunken behaviour.

Robert Upstone
July 2009

Revised by Helena Bonett
February 2011


See Wendy Baron, Perfect Moderns: The Camden Town Group, Aldershot and Vermont 2000, pp.58–9, 62–7.
Lilian in Miss Odell’s Garden, reproduced in The Painters of Camden Town 1905–1920, exhibition catalogue, Christie’s, London 1988 (86).
Reproduced in Twentieth-Century British Art, Christie’s South Kensington, 2 November 2001 (23).
Reproduced in Sale of Pictures & Books, Cheffins, 30 October 2008 (13).
Reproduced in Modern Pictures, Bonhams Knightsbridge, 16 September 2008 (91).
NPG 5731, reproduced at National Portrait Gallery, London,, accessed 21 February 2011.
Reproduced in Camden Town Recalled, exhibition catalogue, Fine Art Society, London 1976 (102).
For more on artists’ self-portraits, see Andrew Stephenson, ‘Questions of Artistic Identity, Self-Fashioning and Social Referencing in the Work of the Camden Town Group, c.1905–14’, The Camden Town Group, Tate 2011,
David Fincham, letter to Tate Gallery, 9 December 1957, Tate Catalogue file.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘Self-Portrait c.1912 by James Bolivar Manson’, catalogue entry, July 2009, revised by Helena Bonett, February 2011, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 18 May 2024.