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Friday, April 24, 2015

James Bolivar Manson

The Tate Museum (now the Tate Britain), London.
There's an old saying in business, "Everyone rises to their highest level of incompetence." Actually, I've seen it happen often enough to elevate those words to "rule" status. Think about it. You get a job, you're successful in that position. Your boss notices, gives you a promotion. Once more you succeed, you get another promotion, etc. Finally, a few more promotions later, though you've gained a great deal of knowledge and experience along the way, at some point in time, you find yourself "in over your head." You're incompetent. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll get fired, only that you've risen to your highest level of incompetence and are not likely to be promoted again. The British painter, James Bolivar Manson knew all about that phenomena. He was the most incompetent director in the history of London's Tate Museum--that is, when he wasn't falling down drunk.
Mrs. Crump's Garden, James B. Manson
Manson was an Impressionist painter born in 1879. His father was the literary editor for London's Daily Chronicle. At the age of sixteen J.B. Manson left high school hoping to enroll in art school. His father, however, had other hopes for is son. He ended up as an office boy for a magazine publisher where he was so prone to obnoxious practical jokes he was fired. He moved on up to the position of a bank clerk, a job he loathed--more practical jokes augmented with bird imitations. All this time he studied art at Heatherley School of Fine Art from 1890 and then Lambeth School of Art. By all accounts he loved what he was doing, though he was by no means exceptionally talented in doing it.

Summer Day Doëlan Brittany, James B. Manson
Notre Dame, Paris, 1903,
James B. Manson
In 1903, Manson married Lilian Beatrice Laugher, a violinist. They moved to the Latin Quarter of Paris and rented a room for the ghastly sum of one pound per month. Even in 1903, you didn't get much of a room for one pound a month. They probably could have put his picture next to the definition of "artiste affamé" (starving artist) in the French dictionary. In his spare time (which was likely considerable) Manson studied at the Academie Julian, which in that era meant he studied Impressionism. After a year, they gave it up and moved back to London and a two-room top floor flat. Lilian Manson gave violin lesson in the front parlor, J.B. set up his studio in the kitchen. They must have slept on the couch.


James B. Manson Self-portrait, 1913
In 1910, Lilian Laugher Manson became the musical director of the North London Collegiate School for Girls. There she produced operettas for which her husband designed the costumes. The following year, things began to look up for J.B. Manson as he became friends with the director of the Tate Museum (now the Tate Britain), where he worked as a volunteer hanging shows. Charles Aitkin was sufficiently impressed to offer the struggling artist a job as a clerk. Manson really didn't want the job, but with a nagging wife and two daughters, the salary of 150 pounds per year looked attractive. He became a weekend painter. During that time, he talked his reluctant boss into embracing Impressionism and eventually, the work of another struggling artist, Walter Sickert.

Still Life Tulips In a Blue Jug, 1912, James B. Manson
J.B. Manson's work at the Tate was considered important enough that he was able to get a military exemption during WW I. He was promoted to Assistant Keeper. Manson was primarily a flower painter who managed his first solo show in 1923. Despite some success, and while wishing to become a noted artist, Manson was riddled with (quite legitimate) self-doubt unwilling to give up his day job, fearing he'd be unable to support his wife and family as an artist. Then, in 1930 he was named director of the Tate. He had achieved his highest level of incompetence. He was unfulfilled as an artist, wanting only to be a respected painter. On top of that, Manson had an unhappy marriage, he drank to excess; he suffered from depression, blackouts, and paranoia causing long periods of calling in sick.

Early Spring Flowers, James B. Manson
In all fairness, it wasn't easy being director of an art museum during the world-wide depression days of the 1930s. There were no funds from the government to acquire new works, and even if there had been Manson would have been reluctant to do so. Money was so scarce he was forced to decline the loan of a painting by Camille Pissarro for lack of funds for transportation and insurance. It was an awkward period for art too. Conservative boards of trustees still considered Impressionism a risky investment while up and coming names such as Matisse, van Gogh, Henry Moore, William Coldstream, and others were seen as dangerously avant-garde. Manson himself was no fan of Post-Impressionism. In 1938, he asked Sir Robert Sainsbury if the Tate could borrow A Study of Eve by French sculptor Charles Despiau. Sainsbury agreed on condition that the gallery also show the 1932 Mother and Child by his friend, Henry Moore. Manson's response was, "Over my dead body."

A Light Lunch, 1917, James Bolivar Manson
Pinks in a Vase, ca. 1940,
James B. Manson
Manson also rejected all works of Surrealism and German Expressionism. He did, however, supervise the installation of electric lights in the museum (1935), cherry trees out front, and additional toilets. During the Post-WW I period the Tate could applauded, or at least tolerate, conservative tastes in art. Alcoholism and bad manners, were another matter. Tales of Manson's drunkenly presiding over board meetings were commonplace. In one instance, he cut loose with loud, obscene, drunken outbursts at a museum-sponsored dinner party where he was said to have "precipitated himself" (whatever that means) on the wife of an ambassador with amorous (perhaps even lethal) intent, all of which brought things to a head in 1938. He was asked to resign for "health" reasons.

Following retirement, Manson continued to paint as his mental health permitted. He abandoned his wife and daughters "to get away from women," but managed to show at the Royal Academy from 1939 until his death in 1945. His final, sad words: "The roses are dying and so am I."
Still-life with Flowers,
1919, James B. Manson

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