James Bolivar Manson (1879-1945)
St John’s College Cambridge, The Backs
50×59.5cm including fine oak frame
Manson was an artist who worked at the Tate Gallery and was its Director 1930-1938. His time there was clouded by his frustrated ambitions as a painter and descent into alcoholism.
His professional career began as an office boy – leaving Alleyn’s School in Dulwich at 16 – with the publisher George Newnes, and then as a bank clerk. He simultaneously studied painting at Heatherley School of Fine Art, commencing in 1890, and then Lambeth School of Art – much encouraged by Lilian Laugher, a violininst who stayed in the Manson household whom he married in 1903, at the same time as he abandoned his bank job.
They moved to Paris for a year where Manson shared a studio with inter alia Jacob Epstein who became a lifelong friend. Returning to London Lilian became music director at North London Collegiate School for Girls and Manson joined the Camden Town Group in 1910, becoming secretary. Lilian was a close friend of the Director of the Tate and ensured Manson became Tate Clerk at the age of 33. This gave the family the stable income that Lilian desired and Manson continued to paint feverishly at the weekend.
His painting continued to show promise joining the London Group in 1914, and showing with the New England Art Club from 1915. His first solo show was at the Leicester Galleries in 1923 and he became a member of the NEAC in 1927. However in 1930 he became Director of the Tate, whose website describes him as its ‘least succesful’ director. Kenneth Clark described him with “a flushed face, white hair and a twinkle in his eye; and this twinkling got him out of scrapes that would have sunk a worthier man without trace.”
He put on an “irregular and dull” exhibition programme, the highlight of which was arguably the centenary in 1933 of Burne-Jones’s birth as he declined into alcoholism.
His tenure as Director however was far from dull, although most definitely irregular and anecdotes abound.
He attended a dinner at the Hotel George V in Paris in 1938 to celebrate the British Exhibition at the Louvre. Clive Bell wrote to his wife, “Manson arrived at the déjeuner given by the minister of Beaux Arts fantastically drunk—punctuated the ceremony with cat-calls and cock-a-doodle-doos, and finally staggered to his feet, hurled obscene insults at the company in general and the minister in particular, and precipitated himself on the ambassadress, Lady Phipps, some say with amorous intent others with lethal intent.” Bell concluded: “The guests fled ices uneaten, coffee undrunk… I hope an example will be made, and that they will seize the opportunity for turning the sot out of the Tate, not because he is a sot, but because he has done nothing but harm to modern painting.”
The Director of the Tate was arbiter as to whether items imported amounted to art and thus exempt from customs duty. This caused controversy when Peggy Guggenheim imported sculpture by Marcel Duchamp and others. Manson pronounced Constantin Brâncuși’s Sculpture for the Blind (a large, smooth, egg-shaped marble) to be “idiotic” and “not art” and therefore subject to duty. Letters were written to the press and the matter reached the House of Commons where Manson was criticised and eventually backed down.
He retired aged 58. “My doctor has warned me that my nerves will not stand any further strain… I have begun to have blackouts, in which my actions become automatic. Sometimes these periods last several hours…. I had one of these blackouts at an official luncheon in Paris recently, and startled guests by suddenly crowing like a cock….”
His successor was Sir John Rothenstein who discovered that the staff referred to artwork in the basement as ‘Director’s Stock’ as Manson had been selling it to boost his low salary.
His work is in the Tate and many other galleries both in Britain and overseas.
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