While I was researching a post about the use of Victorian pictures in book cover illustrations, I came across the following wonderful image…
|Abnadoned (1881-2) James (Jacques) Tissot|
Lovely and dramatic, I often have a whim to hurl myself across a hearth rug. You will be unsurprised to learn that the above image is by James Jacques Tissot and of course the model is…umm…
Now, in many ways the reason I love my art history work is I love finding out about the relationships behind the pictures, but I’d be the first to admit that possibly the Pre-Raphaelite women are in danger of over-exposure to the point that we don’t take seriously the events of their lives as we are just so familiar with them. I’ve recently heard an art historian quite casually refer to Lizzie Siddal’s suicide as a matter of fact without referring to the issues, the evidence and the reasons. I guess Desperate Romantics has probably not helped the rather glib way that their lives are addressed without thought to how the people involved were affected, however I’m on my high-horse again, and that isn’t the point of this post. Back to the image, I wondered who the young lady was. The answer is the amazing and heartbreaking Kathleen Irene Ashburnham Newton.
|Study of Kathleen Newton James Tissot|
The lovely Kathleen, an Irish girl raised in Colonial India, certainly packed a lot into her early life. Her father was employed by the East India Company in Lahore. The Sepoy Rising of 1858 saw the family move to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), and at 17 Kathleen was engaged to a surgeon with the Indian Civil Service, by the rather interesting name of Isaac Newton. She sailed to be married, but was wooed by another passenger, Captain Palliser of the Bengal Rifles, who did not succeed in seducing her. Being a good Catholic girl, Kathleen confessed all in Church and was advised to tell her husband of the attempt on her chastity on their wedding night.
Mr Newton immediately began divorce proceeding.
|The Orphan (1879)|
Captain Palliser struck a deal with the outcast Kathleen and agreed to pay her passage to England if she became his mistress. She agreed, but when she became pregnant she refused to marry him. When her divorce became final, she moved herself and her daughter to London to live with her sister in St John’s Wood. She was still only 17 years old.
Another recent arrival to St John’s Wood was the French artist Jacques (or James) Tissot. Having fought in the Franco-Prussian War and the defence of the Paris Commune, Tissot packed his bags for the opportunities available across the channel. He met Kathleen around 1875, and in 1876 she gave birth to her son Cecil, rumoured to be Tissot’s child. The couple set up home together at No.17 Grove End Road, and Kathleen and their home became the repeated subjects of his art over the next six years.
These six years were domestic bliss, the only years that the artist spent in a family home, and I was amazed by the volume of work he produced, Kathleen's face appearing over and over, strikingly beautiful and beloved by the artist, capturing his muse compulsively.
|Mrs Newton with a Parasol (1879)|
When Kathleen became ill with tuberculosis, Tissot was devastated. Unable to cope with his sadness at her failing health, Kathleen took an overdose of laudanum. She died aged 28.
Astonishing. I have nothing clever to say about how utterly bleak and moving that it. Tissot was destroyed by her death and left London, turning to religion and a whole separate career as a religious painter that I didn’t even know about. Who can imagine anything so completely at odds to his paintings of idle, beautiful city dwellers?
|The Annunciation (1886-960|
Now, I’m probably a bit jaded with my Pre-Raphaelite social history by now. Lizzie had her still born baby and took an overdose, one Waugh sister died after giving birth so Holman Hunt married the other one, don’t get me started on Alexa Wilding (more of that to come), but the life of Kathleen Newton stunned me. Divorced for being honest and blameless, the unmarried mother of two children and the muse for some of the most beautiful works in the later Victorian period, only to kill herself at 28 because she couldn’t stand the grief of her lover.
I feel the need to read A Type of Beauty: The Story of Kathleen Newton (1854-1882) by Patricia O’Reilly, a dramatized account of her life, because I would like to think that someone can find words sufficient to tell this woman’s story. She was Tissot’s ‘Mavourneen’ (my beloved) and ‘Ravissante Irlandaise’ (Delightful Irish) and he had to bury her in unconsecrated ground in Kensal Green Cemetery. That, my friends, is a Victorian tragedy and I hope with all my heart that the writers of Desperate Romantics never get their hands on it.
|Type of Beauty (1880)|