Tucked away in public collections outside London are a few oil paintings by James Tissot that illuminate his career in the years between 1869 and 1872. From a pretty scene he painted during his immense success in Paris to commissions he executed in his struggle to rebuild his career in London after the Franco-Prussian War and its bloody aftermath, the Commune, these paintings in combination reveal a great deal about Tissot’s most eventful years.
By 1865, James Tissot was earning 70,000 francs a year, and in 1866 he built himself a splendid mansion in the avenue de l’Impératrice (now the avenue Foch), Baron Haussmann’s magnificent new street linking the place de l’Etoile and the Bois de Boulogne.
Some scholars believe that Tissot painted At the Rifle Range (also known as The Crack Shot, 1869) in the garden of the home of his friend, Tommy Bowles (Thomas Gibson Bowles, 1841 – 1922), at Cleeve Lodge in Hyde Park, London, and that the man in the background may be Tommy, a young journalist who founded the weekly Society magazine Vanity Fair in 1868. The man does not, however, bear a resemblance to Bowles, then 28 years old, and the painting could well have been set in Tissot’s own garden at his villa in Paris before the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870.
At the Rifle Range was offered for sale by the London banker Murrieta at Christie’s, London in 1883 as The Crack Shot, for £220.10s but failed to find a buyer at that price. In 1934, it again was offered for sale at Christie’s, sold as The Rifle Range to prominent art dealer Arthur Tooth for £52.10s. By 1936, it was at the Leicester Galleries in London, where it was purchased by Captain Bambridge the following year.
Captain George Bambridge (1892 – 1943), a British diplomat, was married to Rudyard Kipling’s daughter, Elsie (1896 – 1976). Between 1933 and 1937, George and Elsie lived at Burgh House in Hampstead. From 1938, the childless couple resided at Wimpole Hall, about 8½ miles (14 kilometres) southwest of Cambridge. Since Elsie Bambridge’s death in 1976, the estate has been owned by the National Trust and is open to the public; click here for more information. Can’t visit? Click here to see At the Rifle Range in this virtual tour of Mrs. Bambridge’s study – and if you look closely, you’ll also see a Tissot oil painting of his mistress and muse Kathleen Newton (1854-1882) on the wall to the left of At the Rifle Range. It’s A Study for “By Water”: Kathleen Kelly, Mrs. Isaac Newton, c. 1880 (oil on panel, 12 ¼ by 10 in. /31.1 x 25.4 cm.).
Chichester Fortescue, later Baron Carlingford (1823 – 1898), was a politically ambitious, pedantic Irishman and Liberal MP for County Louth from 1847 to 1868. He became a junior lord of the treasury in 1854, and in 1863, he married the beautiful, virtuous and politically influential Society hostess Frances, Countess Waldegrave (1821-1879), previously the wife of the 7th Earl Waldegrave. According to her biographer, Fortescue had been in love with her for a decade before her elderly third husband died, and she chose him out of the three or so men who wished to marry her. Fortescue held minor offices in the Liberal administrations until he was made Chief Secretary for Ireland under Lord Russell from 1865 through 1866, and again under Gladstone from 1868 to 1870.
James Tissot was friendly with Countess Waldegrave, who shared his interest in spiritualism; at some point, he painted her portrait in her boudoir. Frequent guests at her fabulous salons in London and at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham included Gladstone, Disraeli, and the Prince and Princess of Wales. In 1871 – shortly after Tissot had fled Paris – the charming and “irresistible” Countess Waldegrave pulled strings to get Tissot a lucrative commission to paint a full-length portrait of her fourth husband, which was funded by a group of eighty-one Irishmen including forty-nine MPs, five Roman Catholic bishops and twenty-seven peers to commemorate his term as Chief Secretary for Ireland under Gladstone – as a present to his wife.
From 1871 to 1874, Chichester Fortescue was President of the Board of Trade. His full-length portrait by Tissot, which measures 74 ½ x 47 ½ in. (189.2 x 120.7 cm.), was given to the University of Oxford by sitter’s nephew, Francis Fortescue Urquhart (1868-1934), Fellow of Balliol College, about 1904. It was re-hung in the North School in 1957. You can glimpse the painting at minute 2:46, left of center, in a video of the University of Oxford Examination Schools Conference Centre. Just cut and paste this link into your Internet browser: youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dN2ou1LyEE4.
James Tissot arrived in London in May or June, 1871 with less than one hundred francs but with numerous British friends including Tommy Bowles. [To read more about their friendship, click here and here.] Bowles, who was living at Cleeve Lodge, Queen’s Gate, near Hyde Park, let Tissot use his rented apartment in Palace Chambers at 88 St. James’s Street. Tissot sold caricatures to Vanity Fair and painted on commission, and soon he moved into a rented house at 73 Springfield Road, St. John’s Wood.
Tommy Bowles was the illegitimate son of Thomas Milner Gibson (1806 – 1884), a Liberal MP for Manchester and President of the Board of Trade from 1859 to 1866, and Susannah Bowles, a servant. Tommy was an adorable little boy, and his stepmother, Arethusa Susannah (1814 – 1885), a Society hostess who was the only child of Sir Thomas Gery Cullum (1777 –1855) of Hardwick House, Suffolk, insisted that he be raised with his father’s family of four sons and two daughters. Tommy’s favorite half-sister was Sydney Milner-Gibson, nearly eight years younger, and in 1871, when Sydney was 22, he commissioned Tissot to paint her portrait.
At 50 by 39.02 in. (127.0 by 99.1 cm), the portrait of Sydney is much larger than the 1870 portrait that Bowles commissioned Tissot to paint of his dashing friend Gus Burnaby (Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, 1842 – 1885), a captain in the privileged Royal Horse Guards, the cavalry regiment that protected the monarch. [Burnaby’s portrait, usually in the National Portrait Gallery, London but at the Art Institute of Chicago through Sunday, September 22, 2013 for the blockbuster exhibition, “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” measures just 19.5 by 23.5 in./49.5 by 59.7 cm).]
In 1880, the unmarried Sydney died of enteric fever* – typhoid – at Hawstead, in Suffolk outside Bury St. Edmunds, two days after her thirty-first birthday. Her younger brother, George Gery Milner Gibson, died unmarried in 1921 and bequeathed most of the family portraits to the Borough of St. Edmundsbury. From 1923 to 1959, Sydney’s portrait was displayed in the town library, and later at the Art Gallery. The painting was displayed at the Clock Museum, Angel Corner, in Bury St. Edmunds from 1989 to 1992, and then at the Manor House Museum until it was closed in 2006.
By September 2012, of the £6 million of art and artifacts in the collection of St. Edmundsbury Borough Council, the most valuable item was the portrait of Miss Sydney Milner-Gibson by James Tissot, which was valued at £1.8 million. As of 2012, the painting, which cannot be sold, was to go on display at Moyse’s Hall Museum. Local administrators tell me that this small museum is being reconfigured, and that there have been various delays. Tissot’s portrait of Sydney Milner-Gibson is intended to form part of a display in the Edwardson Room first floor gallery, as part of an exhibit on Victorian costume, beginning in September 2013.
I am grateful to the following individuals for providing information from which I compiled this article:
Alan Baxter, Heritage Manager and Dr. Keith Cunliffe, Collections Manager, West Suffolk Councils, U.K.
Adam Mead, Bristol, U.K. Previously, scholars reported that Sydney Milner-Gibson died of tuberculosis*. However, Adam, who blogs on the Milner-Gibson family at https://milnergibson.wordpress.com/2013/08/03/the-milner-gibsons/, sent me a copy of Sydney’s death certificate showing the official cause of her death was enteric fever.
© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2013. All rights reserved.
Illustrated with 17 stunning, high-resolution fine art images in full color
Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library
(295 pages; ISBN (ePub): 978-0-615-68267-9).
NOTE: If you do not have a Kindle e-reader, you may download free Kindle reading apps for PCs, Smartphones, tablets, and the Kindle Cloud Reader to read The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot. Read reviews.