When exhibited in 1882, this watercolour (or one very similar) was described in the Birmingham Daily Post as 'the raised deck of a river steamboat, where a family group, consisting of a lady in a grey cloak, with her mother, child and husband, are waving their adieux to some friends on board a huge red-funnelled ocean monster, which is slowly steaming down the river on its outward voyage'. The river is the Mersey, the distant towers in the top left those of Liverpool, and the steamer one of the huge trans-Atlantic Cunard liners on its way to New York. Liverpool was the leading European port for travel to the United States, especially by emigrants from northern Europe, via Hull, and from Ireland. Nine million emigrants are estimated to have left Liverpool in the hundred years between 1830 and 1930. Visitors to America also sailed from there and a number of shipping lines competed for passengers.
Tissot, was born and grew up in the busy port city of Nantes, on the Atlantic coast of France. He came to love and know ships in a way unparalleled by other non-marine artists. A few of his early paintings include ships, but it was the fog and smoke-wreathed mesh of rigging, masts and funnels on the Thames estuary that inspired some of Tissot's finest paintings during the 1870s when he settled in London. The steamers that featured in several pictures sailed between London, Calcutta, New York and Liverpool, or London/Liverpool and Australia or New Zealand. They were captained by John Freebody, who appears in many of the paintings along with his wife, Margaret, and her brother, Lumley Kennedy. The bearded mariner wearing a cap, in the centre of this work, is based on Captain Freebody. It may have been through Freebody that Tissot visted Liverpool by steamer and saw the city from the Mersey estuary, as depicted in this watercolour. He would have been familiar with Liverpool from visits to some of the many exhibitions held there that included his work, and the dealers or collectors who were among his most enthusiastic patrons. He certainly visted the area in 1877, to work on a portrait of Mrs Catherine Smith Gill and her children (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), which was commissioned from Tissot by her husband, Chapple Gill, a Liverpool cotton broker.
Between 1880-82 Tissot was in regular contact with art connoisseurs in the United States and created an etching specifically for the American market, Les Deux Amis, which shows the parting of two friends before a transatlantic voyage. He was also aware of the heartbreak and difficulties of emigration from Captain Freebody, who was awarded a medal for his care of emigrants to New York. Goodbye, On the Mersey captures the mood of sadness, and fear of the dangerous sea crossing and uncertainties of life ahead, in its sombre grey-brown tones and portentous sky. The two standing young women are based on studies of Tissot's great love, Mrs Kathleen Newton. She travelled with Tissot to France and may have accompanied him on trips in England before her health deteriorated. The caped coat features in a number of travel or outdoor subjects, as does the black bonnet, seen here from side and rear on the two figures. Tissot was fond of such repetition, which adds the suggestion of movement, as do the waving arms and handkerchiefs, the young woman's edged in pinkish-red, perhaps to aid distinction from the many others on the boat.
The Birmingham Daily Post critic said of the watercolour exhibited in 1882; 'The grouping and attitudes are spirited and life-like, the colouring is sober and harmonious, and the lighting vivid and forcible'. Tissot made both oil and watercolour replicas of the oil painting, Goodbye, On the Mersey, that was included in the 1881 Royal Academy summer exhibition. This was probably in response to the many requests from provincial galleries to show work that had been seen at the Royal Academy in their own annual exhibitions. The Academy picture was shown that year at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (priced £350), while replicas were shown in Manchester and Glasgow in 1881 and Birmingham in 1882. Oil paintings could be reworked and detailed but Tissot's watercolour versions are characterised by a light, deft touch and assured line, as seen in the swift strokes of rigging and distant figures on the liner. Watercolours were a more affordable alternative to oils and many collectors prefered them. Tissot continued to make and show watercolours after he returned to Paris in 1882 and was an exhibiting member of the Société d'Aquarellistes Français.
We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.