‘Mediocrities, I absolve you’: James Bolivar Manson (1879 – 1945), impressionist painter and the Tate’s ‘least successful Director.’

Last weekend when Zak and I were at Hove Museum and Art Gallery, we saw this painting in the last room. The card said A Breezy Day, Sussex 1935 by James Bolivar Manson. It’s a good landscape – a painting you can feel and ‘walk into’, with that hawthorn bush bent against the wind from the sea – and we could imagine it was Mill Hill viewed from the Adur.


(c) Hove Museums and Art Gallery/Estate of James Bolivar Manson

Manson was new to me, so I looked him up. He had an extraordinary career. Despite his talent as a painter, it never quite took off, despite some impressive leaps, and began to unravel when he was appointed Director of the Tate Gallery in 1930. Eight years later the Foreign Office had him sacked, for causing a scene at a lunch in Paris.

I read two accounts of his life: one in the Dictionary of National Biography, written by art historian Wendy Baron; and the other on wikipedia, well-footnoted, based on Robert Buckman’s catalogue for the Manson retrospective at the Maltzahn Gallery, London in 1973 and official Tate histories. The DNB is more generous.

He was ‘an amusing companion, spontaneous and without affectation’; often, but not always on wisely chosen occasions, he was extremely funny. It was also Manson’s misfortune that he had no head for wine.

Frances Spalding’s The Tate: A History (1998) says that Manson was

drunk at Board meetings and on one occasion was wrapped in a blanket and carried out after he had fallen onto the floor.

Manson made a brave start to his career. His father wouldn’t let him be a painter, so he got a job in a bank. He and his girlfriend Lilian Beatrice Laugher (b.1876/7), a violin teacher, saved up enough put him through art school in London, until in 1903 he was able to quit the bank, and they got married and went to live in Paris for a year, while he studied at the Academie Julien. So far so good

In London in 1909, Manson met Lucien Pissarro (1863 – 1944), son of Camille Pissarro, the French Impressionist landscapist whose work Manson particularly admired, and emulated. Lucien paints like his father, and Breezy Day has a look of Lucien Pissarro. The two became instant friends. Pissarro brought Manson along to meetings of the Fitzroy Group. When Walter Sickert founded the famous Camden Town Group in 1911, Manson was invited to join, and, being a likeable man with administrative experience, he was appointed Secretary. On paper – other members of the Camden Town Group included Augustus John, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and Duncan Grant – Manson was now in the engine room of the avant-garde. But Manson was not avant-garde. For his own painting, modern art stopped with Monet and Pissarro, and he struggled to earn a living from his work. Years later, he was left out of the Tate’s Camden Town Group exhibition, because his work was considered to be ‘of too little individual character’ (Wendy Baron).

In 1910, Lilian Manson was appointed Musical Director of the North London Collegiate School for Girls. She was a friend of the Keeper of the Tate Gallery, Charles Aitken, and in 1912, Aitken encouraged Manson to apply for the job of Clerk to the Tate Gallery, as the previous incumbent had been sacked for stealing petty cash. This was a great opportunity, with a secure income, and Manson took the job after passing the Civil Service exam. He was promoted to Assistant Keeper in 1917, and exempt from War Service, he could concentrate on painting and writing. His Self-portrait 1912 and Michaelmas Daisies 1923 (both Tate Britain) date to this more comfortable time, and are considered among his best works.

Self-Portrait c.1912 by James Bolivar Manson 1879-1945            Michaelmas Daisies c.1923 by James Bolivar Manson 1879-1945

(c) Tate Britain

Manson’s writing is still respected. His catalogue piece for Brighton Art Gallery’s Camden Town Group exhibition ‘Work by English post-impressionists, cubists and others’ written in 1913 is a ‘historically important record… [and his] short monographs intended for the general reader—on, for example, Rembrandt (1923) and Degas (1927)—are models of their kind.’ (DNB)

Manson joined the avant-garde London Group in 1914, and exhibited with the (definitely not avant-garde) New English Art Club in 1915. In 1919 he and Lucien Pissarro founded the short-lived Monarro Group, for followers of Monet and Pissarro. In 1923 he had a solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, followed by the Galérie Balzac, Paris in 1924, and the Reid Gallery, Glasgow in 1925. In 1927 he joined the New English Art Club. But Manson’s work, Impressionistic flower paintings, like Michaelmas Daisies 1923 was just not fashionable, and in 1928 he asked Roger Fry whether he could really succeed as a painter.

Once more the Tate came to his rescue, and Charles Aitken suggested that he succeed him as Keeper in 1930. Manson accepted, and took a job for which he was entirely unsuited. He had always loathed office work. At the bank he’d been the office clown, making everyone laugh with hilarious repartee and cock-crow noises. When he left for the last time, he hung his top hat on a pole and told the others to throw stones at it. Now after failing to succeed to make it as a painter, he was back in the office, and doing the office job to end them all, combining vast responsibility with intense public scrutiny.

There were positives to Manson’s eight years as Keeper, renamed Director, of the gallery. He changed the name from National Gallery, Millbank, to The Tate Gallery; he installed electric light, and new lavatories, and planted the cherry trees outside; and he staged important centenary exhibitions on Edward Burne-Jones in 1933, and John Constable in 1937. Otherwise, Tate exhibitions in his time were ‘irregular and dull.’ (Tate Archive)

These days, gallery directors come under fire from the public for showing work that is too ‘out there’. Manson’s Tate wasn’t ‘out there’ enough – an interesting sign of how progressive popular taste was in the 30s. The cubist collector Douglas Cooper wrote the Tate off as ‘hopelessly insular.’ (Spalding). In 1932, Manson said that he would exhibit Sir Robert Sainsbury’s Mother and Child by Henry Moore ‘over my dead body.’ (Sainbury’s obituary Daily Telegraph 2000). In 1933 he and the Trustees turned down the offer of another two Henry Moore sculptures. In 1934 he staged an exhibition of Cricket Pictures, to coincide with the Ashes Series.


(c) Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Manson’s last years as Director were blighted by depression, paranoia, drink, frequent absence, and the collapse of his marriage, but the straw that broke him wasn’t precisely Manson’s fault. A colleague’s exhibition catalogue described the painter Maurice Vuillard as a dead dipsomaniac, when he was very much alive, and litigious. Manson was named as defendant, and the Tate was obliged to purchase one of Vuillard’s paintings as part of the settlement. It was inevitable, in this weakened state, that the last act of Manson’s career took place in the grandest possible setting, the Hotel George V in Paris, at a lunch hosted by the young Kenneth Clark, later Lord Clark, his neighbour from up the road at the National Gallery.

Clark, urbane and supercivilised, had been appointed Director of the National Gallery in 1933 at the age of 30. He was a museum director in a new mould, already a titan of scholarship and a discerning patron of contemporary art. He understood the museum director’s job instinctively, writing to Bernard Berenson, the high priest of Italian Renaissance connoisseurship, that ‘in between being the manager of a large department store I shall have to be a professional entertainer to the landed and official classes.’ (Letters to Berenson ed. Robert Cumming 2015). As well as being a standard bearer of Taste, Clark was the perfect courtier, both roles that Manson, the reluctant bureaucrat had never considered part of his remit.

And so, as Director of the Tate, he was invited to the lunch on March 4th 1938 for the British Exhibition at the Louvre. Clive Bell, the art critic, was among the guests, and wrote about it with relish to his wife, the painter Vanessa Bell:

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… 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. (Spalding 1998)

In Wendy Baron’s account in the DNB,

at a solemn moment during an official luncheon … he produced his renowned chants du coq; later: when the guests were dispersing, he lifted the beard of one of the most distinguished Frenchmen present in order to see ‘whether he had a tie on underneath’. The French were tolerant, even amused, by these indiscretions but a less lenient view was taken by the British authorities.

According to Kenneth Clark, who described Manson as man 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 was asked to resign on health grounds after pressure from the Foreign Office. (Spalding 1998)

Before he left the Tate, Manson was able to fire one more shot against modern art. Marcel Duchamp was shipping a consignment of sculptures to Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery in London. Customs could not decide if they were goods (on which tax was due) or art, and so duty free. As Tate Director, Manson was asked if Constantin Brancusi’s veined marble egg called Sculpture for the Blind was art or not.


(c) Philadelphia Museum of Art 1920 (The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection 1950)

Manson said that was ‘idiotic’ and ‘not art.’ There was a public outcry, questions were asked in the House of Commons, and Manson had to change his mind, and agree that it was art after all. This is from Manson’s own account of the episode, in an article in Time magazine, Black-outs where he also describes the Paris lunch:

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…      (Time April 25th 1938)

The Tate gave Manson a pension worth £1 a day, and his colleagues gave him a paint box because he used to carry his brushes in a paper bag (Spalding). Sir John Rothenstein, his successor, later discovered that Manson had been selling works in storage for his own profit; the staff called this, ‘the Director’s stock.’ (Mark Glazebrook Spectator 2003). That is bad, but he must have been very ill and not in his right mind towards the end of his tenure.

The DNB continues He ventured his small capital with disastrous results, and he left his wife and house in Hampstead Way. Lilian’s fate is not recorded in either source. Manson spent his last days living in Chelsea with Cecily Constance Haywood, estranged wife of the painter Alfred Haywood, who changed her name to Elizabeth Manson in 1941*. He died July 3rd 1945. From Spalding’s account, his last recorded words were, ‘The Roses are dying, and so am I.’

Manson was recognised after his death by large exhibitions at Wildenstein in London, and the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull in 1946, and then at the Maltzahn Gallery in London in 1973.

I’m not a huge fan of flower paintings. I feel about them rather like Zak feels about paintings of food. ‘I like it, but why do you want a picture of it? But I love landscapes, and I love the feel-and-hear-it atmosphere of Breezy Day, Sussex,  I’ve had a look online and this is the best Manson landscape I’ve seen, so as far as I’m concerned it’s his best painting. It was painted in 1935, when the pressure of his job must’ve been getting to him, but before it tipped into the final plunge via professional and public ridicule to the final cataclysm in the Hotel George V. It’s a brilliant, powerful life-sketch of a place, that transplants the mind of the viewer, as it must have done to the artist when he painted it. Compared with creating this one picture, Manson’s tribulations are merely footnotes.

But I must try to find out what happened to Lilian.

*Elizabeth Manson ‘was quite a character and is mentioned in two self published books by an American couple who rented rooms from her in Chelsea in the late fifties. Apparently she had done some minor acting in TV adverts, made a daily trip to her bookmaker and was singing Manson’s praises constantly.’ (courtesy of Manson expert Nigel Batten)

5 thoughts on “‘Mediocrities, I absolve you’: James Bolivar Manson (1879 – 1945), impressionist painter and the Tate’s ‘least successful Director.’

  1. Thanks James for the interesting article about JB Manson. I’ve been collecting his work
    for nearly ten years and have learnt a couple of new facts. Sadly all I know of Lilian is
    that she died in Hendon in 1960. I know much more about Cicely Hayward /Elizabeth Manson and have three portraits of her but sadly only one very small watercolour of Lilian.

    I was aware of ‘Breezy Day’ but have not seen it in person; is it in an exhibition or just hung as part of their collection? I have in the past sat in their cafe surrounded by several very fine Camden Town works. I’ll try and get down there before it’s removed.

    You can find me on Twitter under JB Manson; my tweets are mainly recent additions to my ever expanding collection

    Best wishes


    1. Dear Nigel,

      That’s very kind of you indeed, I’m so glad you liked the piece. And interesting about Lilian Manson, thank you. I’m glad you’ve got a portrait of her.

      ‘Breezy Day’ is hung as part of Hove’s collection, downstairs at the moment, in the room on the left of the entrance.

      I’m glad you’re collecting Manson’s work. Good to see some more on your twitter, especially his landscapes. I’ve just seen some you’ve added to pinterest – they’re beautiful, specially the Welsh view. Very atmospheric.

      Are you compiling a Manson catalogue?

      Very best wishes,


  2. Dear James

    Thanks for your reply and the information about ‘Breezy Day’; I’ll try and get
    down to Brighton before they remove it. I’ve only just realised it’s quite a large
    piece which is unusual for his landscapes of the thirties. I have one of Amberley
    which is one of my favourites and is probably around the same date.

    I’m pleased you found my Pinterest page as I’d rather given up on it. The Welsh one
    is held in the impressive Llangoed Hall Hotel collection which was built up by Bernard Ashley. One day I will get there to see it and have pondered long and hard about where
    the landscape may be as it depicts an oast house but also impressive hills in the background. My gut feel is that it’s Hampshire or Sussex as he didn’t travel far in the

    Just a couple of very minor points: Sylvia Gosse wasn’t a Camden Town Group member as it was strictly men only and also Cicely Hayward changed her name by deed poll to Elizabeth Manson. She sounds like she was quite a character and is mentioned in two self published books by an American couple who rented rooms from her in Chelsea in the late fifties.

    Apparently she had done some minor acting in TV adverts, made a daily trip to her
    bookmaker and was singing Manson’s praises constantly.

    I’ve no plans to compile a catalogue but am always interested to see new works by him; old auctions catalogues have been very useful with examples and provenances as I seem to have exhausted the internet.

    I’ll update Twitter with more from my collection

    Best wishes


  3. Dear Nigel,

    My pleasure. Is the Amberley painting on twitter please?

    Thanks very much indeed for your correction re the Camden Town Group – gosh! – I’ve amended it. Poor Sylvia Gosse – she deserves a post soon then!

    Thank you very much too for the information on Elizabeth Manson’s correct name and history. How amazing. That’s brilliant. I’ve asterisked it, citing you.

    Have you tried the Witt Library at the Courtauld for Manson images? They must have a file on him.

    Good luck identifying the Llangoed Hall landscape. Such an intense picture. My husband agrees about Hampshire and wonders if it might be the Downs near East Meon. The other thought is Box Hill in Surrey.

    Very best wishes,


  4. Dear James

    Thanks for your tip about the Witt library at the Courtauld. I had the same idea from a recent episode of Fake or Fortune but had forgotten about it.

    Also thanks for your thoughts about the landscape location. I wondered if it could be Steep (see a previous tweet) but failed to get a fit on google maps.

    I’ve also tweeted my Amberley landscape and sent you a direct message.

    Your description of ‘expert’ is very flattering but geek, obsessive or nerd
    collector is probably more accurate.

    Best wishes


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