James Tissot exhibited The Ball on Shipboard at the Royal Academy in London from May through August 1874, three years after he had left Paris following the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. Reviewers (but interestingly, not Tissot himself) identified the setting as the yearly regatta at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight.
Tissot assured Berthe Morisot, who was at Cowes during regatta week the following year while on her honeymoon with Édouard Manet’s brother, Eugène, that they saw the most fashionable society in England.
But one critic of The Ball on Shipboard wrote, “The girls who are spread about in every attitude are evidently the ‘high life below stairs’ of the port, who have borrowed their mistresses’ dresses for the nonce,” and another objected to the unseemly amount of cleavage revealed by the women wearing the blue and green day dresses (left of center).
The critic for The Athenaeum said the picture lacked “the ‘smartness’ which makes so many uncouth things agreeable to the eye,” and declared that it featured “no pretty women, but a set of showy rather than elegant costumes, some few graceful, but more ungraceful attitudes, and not a lady in a score of female figures.” Yet another critic found it “garish and almost repellent.”
“William Agnew was a confident man who frequented Christie’s salerooms incessantly, pushing the prices of some artists’ works to surreal figures. One contemporary observed gleefully that ‘to see him walking arm-in-arm with some would-be patron of the arts on the view day of a great sale was to know that another payer of big prices had been recruited. Few could withstand his personal ascendancy and in his hey-day he was held to be arbiter elegantiarium.’ ” (Geoffrey Agnew, Agnew’s 1817 – 1967. London: Agnew’s, 1967)
William Agnew immediately sold The Ball on Shipboard to Hilton Philipson (1834 – 1904), a solicitor and colliery owner living at Tynemouth. (Philipson also spent 620 guineas at Agnew’s for John Everett Millais’ 1874 painting, The Picture of Health, a portrait of Millais’ daughter, Alice (later Mrs. Charles Stuart Wortley). The Ball on Shipboard later belonged to Philipson’s son’s widow, Mrs. Roland Philipson (c. 1866 – 1945), then the Leicester Galleries, London, and by 1937, to Alfred Munnings (1878 – 1959), a self-taught equine painter who loathed Modernism and revered artists such as James Tissot, for their pictures that aimed “to fill a man’s soul with admiration and sheer joy, not to bewilder him and daze him.” (Summer in February, a film released in 2013 based on Jonathan Smith’s 1995 novel and starring Dominic Cooper, Dan Stevens and Emily Browning, dramatizes the love triangle between the young Alfred Munnings, his friend, and the woman they both loved.) Munnings was elected a Royal Academician in 1925, and The Ball on Shipboard was presented to the Tate by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest in 1937. The painting currently is on display in Room 1840, and I took these photos when I recently visited London.
© 2014 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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