Monday, 23 January 2012

Beloved Kathleen

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.

Holyday (1876)
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)


20 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I know so little about Tissot, and had no idea. And I agree completely about the cavalier treatment of some scholars. Excellent work.

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  2. Stunning and moving.I've always thought Pre-Raphaelite women's life was incredible, and they must have paid a price for the apparent glamour of their painting. But Kathleen's goes beyond
    injustice. She's the evidence of man's meanness through the centuries.

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    1. Kathleen Newton, or Kate as she was known, was one of those rare women who survived and indeed thrived because of her fearless courage? Both she and Tissot were catholic and in the eyes of the Chhurch couldn't marry as she was divorced. When writing 'A Type of Beauty, the story of Kathleen Nreton' I took creative liberty when stating that Isaac Nreton was dead.

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  3. Poor, poor Kathleen! Why didn't Tissot marry her?

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    1. She didn't seem inclined to marry anyone after her divorce. Mind you, the treatment by Mr Newton is enough to put you off marriage. Tissot was fascinated how she managed to balance being Catholic and an unmarried mother of two. Good on her, she knew what she wanted and did the best with what she had.

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    2. Hello, I am author of 'A Type of Beauty, the story of Kathleen Newton'. It was an amazing book to research and write, mainly because she was fearless and a woman before her time. There isn't a huge amount of documentation on her but her actions spoke louder than any records: two I did come across we're a notification of the date of her wedding to Isaac Newton & record of her daughter's birth

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  4. Thank you. I thought all the women he painted looked the same and it never occurs to me that it was a real women and not an invention of the artist's imagination until you gave her a name.

    He painted the most beautiful Autumn pictures, and they all seem to have the same tree as well. I wonder what it is.

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  5. That is such a sad life and to get TB on top of everything else. I guess it is easy to forget all the diseases like TB which had no cure and spread quickly in any area. Such a sad life.

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  6. Tissot's art changed after she died. Pathetically he tried to keep in touch with her through seances. She was definitely his muse.

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  7. Does anyone know know of a good, non-fiction book about Tissot and Kathleen?

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    1. I had a look on Amazon and couldn't find one, sadly. It is an amazing story, his art is so beautiful.

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    2. I've written a book about them - "A Type of Beauty, the story of Kathleen Newton". She had the most amazing life - unconsummated marriage, daughter by man she despised, decree nisi, all by the time she was 18. Then the love affair that scandalised Victorian London with Jacques Tissot, committed suicide aged 28

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    3. Hello Patricia! I mentioned your book above, and it can be purchased here:
      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Type-Beauty-Kathleen-Newton-1854-1882/dp/0956363202/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1347462974&sr=8-8

      She did indeed have a whirlwind of a life...

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  8. Thank you everyone for your comments. I think Kathleen defies pity as she got the most out of life that she could and took as much control as she could, refusing to be a victim.

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  9. Thanks for looking, Kirsty.

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  10. It's awful that Kathleen managed to overcome her past only to contact TB ;-(

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  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Tissot
    No more information here than Kirsty has already posted, but more pictures, although the quality is not good.

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  12. And what about her children? It seems that Tissot left them behind when going back to France after Kathleen's death.
    How sad! Women and children are always the weak characters of all the stories (especially in dramas).
    A man can be drawn as a hero, because of grieving his lover's death, and everybody is ready to have pity of him....but no mention of the children!

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    1. Absolutely right, there is no mention of their children in the accounts I read, although I assumed they went to her sister who lived very near to them. I think Tissot is definitely the weaker party, as his behaviour testifies, but I'm not sure how I feel Kathleen's actions. She demonstrates a lack of compromise which is astonishing and completely in character for the path she forged in life. She made her own decisions, for better and worse.

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    2. Kathleen Newton had TB and committed suicide as she could not bear to watch her lover Jacques Tissot suffer. It is said he sat by her open coffin for 4 days, had to be prised from it for burial in Kensal Green Cemetry in unconsecrated ground as she'd taken her own life. He left their home in St John's Wood, his pictures and painting equipment and her children, Violet Mary and Cecil George (believed to be his son) without a backward look, though he did ask his retainer to 'burn the mattress from Mrs Newton's bed'.mattress'

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