On a sunny September afternoon, a black cab brought my husband and me to the gate at James Tissot’s former home in London, in Grove End Road, St. John’s Wood. Built in 1825, the house was No. 17 when Tissot lived in it from early 1873 to late 1882; it now is No. 44.
We were ushered through a covered, colonnaded access way to the front door, where we were met by the lady of the house. Unpretentious and kind, she earned a degree from the University of Richmond – a 15-minute drive from my home in Virginia. She offered us refreshments and graciously showed us through her home. She once had lived nearby, had always admired the house, and was intrigued when it came on the market in 2006, for the first time since the mid-1950s.
The house had been renovated and returned to an imposing, single-family dwelling in 2003. [See James Tissot’s house at St. John’s Wood, London.]
When the house went up for sale, The Sunday Times [London] reported:
“It is spread over four floors, relatively few for a property of this size, and the ground and first floors are a sprawling 5,000 square feet per floor. There are seven bedroom suites (with space for en-suite bathrooms and dressing rooms); a three storey-high artist’s studio with enormous windows; five large reception rooms (the main one leading to a conservatory); billiard room; security room; staff living quarters; a kitchen; countless storage rooms and a lift. All the main reception rooms are on the ground floor. All up, it’s 16,000 square feet and, with the garden, measures 0.6 of an acre.”
Bathrooms and a kitchen needed to be installed, and a great number of other renovations were necessary.
When James Tissot moved into the house in early in 1873, it was a medium-sized, two-storey Queen Anne villa. In 1875, Tissot built an extension with a studio and huge conservatory that doubled the size of his house. Eight years later, after the funeral of his young mistress and muse, Kathleen Newton (1854 – 1882), Tissot moved to Paris. See James Tissot’s garden idyll & Kathleen Newton’s death.
Through an agent, the painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema purchased the house in 1883, moved into it in mid-1885, and began extensive remodeling to enlarge and modify it into an Italianate mansion appropriate for his popular paintings of ancient Rome.
He built a three-story studio, capped with a semi-circular dome covered in aluminum, which gave a silvery tone to his paintings.
Alma-Tadema died in 1912, and the house was converted to apartments in the 1920s. It later fell into disrepair and ended up on English Heritage’s “at risk” register. In 1975, the property was marked with a blue plaque in honor of Alma-Tadema’s residence.
The property has been a Grade II listed building since 1987: Grade II listed buildings are particularly important buildings of more than special interest. A listed building may not be demolished, extended, or altered without special permission from the local planning authority. The current owners followed strict guidelines in their remodeling and upgrades. You can see some of the results at http://www.jenkins-design.co.uk/groveendroad/.
Now, elegant white walls are punctuated by wide Victorian doors of dark, polished wood, and here and there are built-in wooden cabinets and painted 19th-century cupboards. The doors were found in the basement and reattached, and the cabinets and cupboards are protected by the property’s Grade II status. The artistic mottoes that Alma-Tadema painted over a few thresholds remain, and the lady of the house has a soft spot for these sentiments about the joy of friends and conviviality. Her home, decorated in a modern, minimalist style with contemporary art, perfectly marries Victorian touches with the owners’ taste: one door is flanked by Alma-Tadema’s exotic, red-patterned ceramic tiles, and our hostess found a china pattern that echoes them. Her husband initially was not keen on living in a Victorian house, but has grown to love it as well. It is very much a comfortable family home exuding hospitality.
The dining area, also painted white, is clearly a Victorian space, with its dark mantel, ceiling beams and towering cabinetry. The original, hefty bronze door rings are charming.
The centerpiece of the house is the room, now a spacious reception area, which was Alma-Tadema’s three-storey studio, with its huge, half-domed apse that faces slightly northeast. He had covered it with aluminum, and the effect has been recreated with squares of aluminum leaf that also meld with the current décor. The owners also recreated Alma-Tadema’s long, Romanesque frieze across the balcony overlooking the studio.
It was challenging for me to observe any presence of James Tissot’s gorgeously cluttered Victorian home in this sprawling, immaculately modern dwelling with an underground swimming pool and spa. As we followed our hostess up stairways and down shorter flights of steps, and through halls and nooks, I felt disoriented as I struggled to glimpse the footprint of the studio extension that Tissot constructed in 1875. Looking out the windows did not help, as the garden is much smaller now than it was when the house was Tissot’s. The pool, on the eastern side of the house, which Tissot painted so often was buried during the renovations due to its dilapidated condition. But as I again descended the steps from Alma-Tadema’s grand studio and faced a small, sun-lit conservatory, I suddenly felt a sense of déjà vu. The conservatory has a monstera tree that our hostess chose to have planted there because of a specimen she had seen in The Regent’s Park. Only later did she realize it is the exact tree that appears in many of Tissot’s oil paintings, such as In the Conservatory (Rivals), The Bunch of Lilacs, and Dans la serre. She said the coincidence makes her shiver.
She generously invited my husband and me to linger and have another look at any part of the house we wished to see again. It was the garden I wanted to study more closely, but try as I might, I could discern little resemblance to the colonnaded idyll that Tissot created in 1875.
Rather than being a museum, the house where James Tissot and Lawrence Alma-Tadema lived and painted is alive and lovingly cared for by people who respect the home’s history and are sensitive to the interest in the building. In addition, the current owners run a charitable foundation from the house which provides opportunities for bright people from the developing world, especially the Middle East, to have a good education and also supports a number of humanitarian causes.
We thanked our hostess for sharing her time and her home with us and were shown by staff back through the labyrinth of rooms to the front of the house.
That day, we also explored some sites associated with Kathleen Kelly.
Kathleen Irene Ashburnham Kelly Newton, Tissot’s beguiling mistress, died of tuberculosis on November 9, 1882, at age 28, at Tissot’s house with her sister, Polly Hervey, at her side (according to the death register). Tissot draped the coffin in purple velvet and prayed beside it for hours. Immediately after the funeral on November 14, at the Church of Our Lady in Lisson Grove, St. John’s Wood, Tissot returned to Paris.
For those of you who are Beatles fans, Tissot’s former home is just steps away from the crossing at Abbey Road, made famous by the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, released in 1969 and still the band’s best-selling album.
We crossed Abbey Road to find the house that Kathleen Newton lived in when she met James Tissot around 1875 or 1876, when she was staying with her married sister, Mary Pauline “Polly” Ashburnham Kelly Hervey (1851/52 – 1896), and her husband and children at 6 Hill Road.
Click here to see an 1871 London map showing Grove End Road in relation to Hill Road.
The Church of Our Lady is further south, and St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery is at Kensal Green, west of St. John’s Wood.
Kathleen Newton’s grave is located a short walk from the cemetery office; the cemetery superintendent led us there.
Also, the standing cross has fallen, and its disintegrating pieces are laid over the grave.
Just to the left are two similar graves from 1893 and 1894, and they are in excellent shape with the crosses still standing, but there are other nearby graves in the same condition as Kathleen Newton’s.
We found her grave covered with weeds, but I had come prepared with a pair of disposable gloves and cleared it as best as I was able. It took a fair bit of time, and some of the growth was too prickly to remove.
Arched over Kathleen’s grave are the branches of a lovely chestnut tree – the same tree that James Tissot painted over her in life in pictures including Holyday and October. She was loved and celebrated, and though her grave is neglected and dilapidated, her beauty and her name will live forever.
That afternoon was unforgettable and a highlight of our week in the U.K.
© 2014 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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