However small and radical, every group needs an administrator, someone to maintain its correspondence and handle the petty cash. For the Camden Town Group, that role was fulfilled by James Bolivar Manson (1879–1945), a painter, activist, and later Director of the Tate Gallery.
Manson was born in Brixton, London, to a literary family. His first choice of career as painter was blocked by his father, so he initially worked for a publisher then as a bank clerk, while he learned to paint in his spare time. In 1903, he quit his job, married a violinist, and once they had saved enough money they moved to Paris, where he studied for a year at the Académie Julian. When they returned to London in 1904, they lived in Hampstead, where Manson’s wife was responsible for bringing in the family’s income, while her husband painted.
In 1910, he became a close friend of Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), the oldest son of Camille Pissarro, who had been living in London since 1890. Pissarro was already a member of Walter Sickert’s Fitzroy Street Group, and their friendship led to Manson joining it. When the Camden Town Group was formed in 1911, Manson became both a contributing artist and its secretary.
In the summer of that year, the Mansons stayed with the then Director of the Tate Gallery, who invited Manson to apply for the post of Clerk, to which he was appointed at the end of 1912.
Several of his early paintings are portraits, including this Self-Portrait from about 1912, which shows the influence of other members of the Camden Town Group, including Spencer Gore and Walter Sickert.
His portrait of Lucien Pissarro Reading from about 1913 followed suit.
In 1914, Manson joined the London Group, formed from the Camden Town Group, and initially continued in his secretarial role. However, both he and Pissarro felt increasingly isolated from much of the more radical styles which were represented in the new group, and they soon resigned. When the First World War broke out later that year, Manson was found medically unfit for service, and concentrated on his role in the Tate Gallery.
Manson seems to have painted flowers from the period of the war. This Still Life with Flowers from about 1919 is an early example.
At the end of 1919, Manson and Pissarro formed the Monarro Group, which exhibited their own work alongside that of Signac, Bonnard, Pissarro’s father Camille, and Monet at the Goupil Gallery in London in early 1920. But Manson’s job at the Tate took up much of his time, and by the end of 1921, that group folded too. He continued to paint, but almost exclusively floral still lifes.
His painting of Michaelmas Daisies from about 1923 may have been one of those of his shown in a solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries that year. Although that passed almost unnoticed by the critics, these floral arrangements had become central to Manson’s art.
During the 1920s, Manson turned more to writing, his published work including a popular guide to the Tate collection which included a detailed introduction to the British Impressionists, and biographies of Edgar Degas and John Singer Sargent.
This painting by Sir John Lavery (1856–1941) of The Opening of the Modern Foreign and Sargent Galleries at the Tate Gallery, 26 June 1926 (1929) was commissioned by the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen to mark the opening of these new galleries by King George V. The King and Queen are seen on the dais, beneath a few of the Tate’s collection of paintings by JMW Turner. Manson is identified as the grey-haired man standing second from right at the back of the room.
In 1930, he was appointed Director of the Tate Gallery, and in the period to 1938, when he was forced to resign on grounds of ill health, he became increasingly embroiled in controversy. He became involved in a libel action by Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), then appeared drunk and abusive at a formal dinner to mark the opening of a prestigious exhibition at the Louvre.
Manson is thought to have painted these Pinks in a Vase soon after the start of the Second World War, in about 1940, in his home in Hampstead, London.
After a long decline, Manson died in July 1945, almost exactly a year after Lucien Pissarro.
Robert Upstone (ed) (2008), Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 85437 781 4.