In this delightful painting of a social gathering, James Tissot showcases some of the splendors that wealth made available in the 1870s: exotic plants from around the world, oriental and eighteenth-century objets d'art, and attractive young women dressed in the latest fashions. It is an image that displays Tissot's meteoric rise since coming to England in 1871, and was designed to appeal to the new collectors that were partly instrumental in his rapid success.
The French-born Anglophile Tissot had settled in London during the second half of 1871, when portrait commissions and the 1872 London International Exhibition offered better prospects of work and earnings than Paris post-Commune and Siege. Paintings exhibited by Tissot in 1872 had been snapped up by collectors and resulted in a continuous flow of orders. By early 1873 Tissot was able to buy the lease of a large house and garden at 17 (now 44) Grove End Road, St John's Wood, a leafy London suburb where many artists lived. He commissioned the young Scottish architect, John McKean Brydon, to design and build an extension to the house with studio and conservatory, which doubled the ground-floor space and provided an elegant setting in which to entertain friends, patrons and press critics. Brydon's design (fig. 1), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, shows the large studio with two bay windows like those Tissot admired in Thames-side inns and had used as settings for numerous paintings. A stepped entrance gives access through glazed double doors or 'French windows' from the garden. Along the length of the studio ran a double-height conservatory, glimpsed on the right in Brydon's drawing, which fills the background of In the Conservatory. It was described as separated from the studio 'by an arrangement of glass screens and curtains', which can be seen clearly in the painting. Conservatories were used as extensions of drawing rooms and similar, but needed a way of closing them off so that correct climate could be maintained for exotic plants. The screen's wooden doors are closed on the left in the painting and open on the right. Curtains take the form of vertical-striped Roman blinds, pulled up in horizontal pleats and with fabric hanging in swags at the bottom.
Tissot sets the foreground group of figures in his studio, where the floor was 'laid with oak parquet' and the walls, visible in Brydon's drawing but not the painting, were 'hung with a kind of tapestry cloth of a greenish blue colour'. The furnishings came from Tissot's residence at 73 Springfield Road, St John's Wood, where the artist had lived from late 1872 until he moved into the Grove End Road house, and feature in many of his London pictures. Two young women in formal afternoon dress of pale blue pleated muslin, with matching bonnets, dominate the center of the composition. One sits taking tea, her gloves removed out of sight, her lips parted as if saying something to the couple seated opposite, towards whom she looks. This couple, on the right of the painting, sit close to one another but do not interact; the dark haired young man appears buried in his thoughts, the young woman in pink afternoon gown and matching bonnet unsmiling, almost sullen. Their lack of interaction is highlighted by contrast with a couple standing in the background, within the conservatory: a man with ginger moustache, his top hat held behind him, who is looking at the woman beside him dressed in white muslin dress with yellow ribbon decoration, while she gazes down and holds in her right hand an open fan that covers the lower part of her face. The conservatory couple are engrossed in one another and there is clearly some form of conversation, or fan flirtation, taking place between them.
Some have interpreted the pair in the right foreground as the mother of the blue-clad girls and a suitor with little enthusiasm for them. But she looks too young to be their mother, although she could be a married chaperone, and her body language suggests that she and the dark young man are a couple, albeit one between whom there is a frosty atmosphere. Have they had an argument, perhaps before they arrived, or has the dark young man said something complimentary, or shown undue attention, to one or more of the blue-clad young women? Tissot is the master storyteller, planting tantalizing clues through gestures, expressions and incidental detail, but leaving his visual tales ambiguous and open to different interpretations. By setting the viewers imagining what has been said or is about to happen, Tissot keeps his pictures fresh and relevant, for every viewer brings their own experiences and feelings to their interpretation of the work. This makes Tissot's images just as fascinating and popular to modern audiences as they were to his contemporaries, and is one reason why his paintings are used regularly on the covers of novels. Speculation as to content and meaning also led to multiple different titles being given to Tissot's works by owners and dealers. 'Rivals', although a title Tissot gave to a different painting, could apply here between the pink-dressed young woman and blue, or the two blue-clad girls; 'Afternoon tea' is the social occasion.
In the center of the painting, the second young woman in pale blue muslin, with darker pale-blue ribbon decorations than the first, stands behind a small Biedermeier table, to which a tray of teacups has been brought. She holds a closed fan in her gloved right hand and looks at the viewer, her lips parted as if saying something, her left hand at the tea tray about to lift it and offer us a cup. The viewer is being invited in to the gathering; there is even a waiting footstool. It is possible that the two young women in pale blue are intended to be siblings, as sisters (not just twins) often wore matching dresses at this time. Two girls in probably the same dresses and bonnets appear in Tissot's Ball on Shipboard (fig. 2), begun in 1873 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874. Their group, which the Times critic thought 'a delicious little picture in itself', includes another pair of girls in similar but pale green costumes. The ball was an afternoon event held on board a ship at Cowes, and afternoon or tea dresses were worn, equally suitable for a formal visit. The pink costume appears multiple times in the Ball on Shipboard: in the small group on the left, near the pale muslin group in the centre, on a figure descending to the lower deck on the right, and among dancing couples below. Tissot would have made multiple sketches of models in different poses, and had an unrivalled knowledge and understanding of dress, so could also paint convincingly from memory. The muslin costume with darker pale-blue ribbons is worn again in The Bunch of Lilacs (fig. 3), set within Tissot's conservatory. Here the young woman has removed her bonnet, holding it by the string on her left little finger, leaving her left hand to support the jug of lilacs she holds by the handle in her right.
More of Tissot's conservatory can be seen in The Bunch of Lilacs. The floor of gleaming polished tiles, glimpsed in the background of the afternoon tea picture, is shown to perfection in the Bunch of Lilacs, with the young woman and surrounding plants mirrored in its surface. Behind her is the oriental lantern or birdcage that is half hidden in the background of the teatime scene, and reflected there in the conservatory's mirrored wall. A large bronze incense burner appears near a blue and white ceramic pot on a stand, which can also be glimpsed in the afternoon tea picture. Tissot was a major collector of oriental art in Paris, and later in London: some of his Chinese and Japanese ceramics, textiles, pictures and other works of art feature in numerous paintings. There are several oriental ceramics on the Chinese-style mantelpiece under the mirror of the conservatory wall with green trellis in the teatime scene, and a tasselled fabric with embroidered crayfish draped over a table. Japanese embroidered fabric covers the patterned armchair in another painting set in Tissot's conservatory, The Fan (fig. 4). This small painting was sold by Tissot in May 1875 and uses the same blonde model (though differently clothed), with a delicate curved nose and pointed chin, who is seen drinking tea on the left of In the Conservatory, and was a favorite before the artist met the great love of his life, Mrs. Kathleen Newton, around 1876.
Conservatories such as Tissot's were an ultimate symbol of wealth and luxury. Their construction of glass and metal was costly, especially in the case of sizeable buildings with fine-quality glazing, such as indicated by the distant glasshouse perimeter in the background of Tissot's teatime picture. The green-painted, pierced metal columns and railings that can be seen on the conservatory side of the studio match those of a colonnade Tissot installed in his Grove End Road garden, inspired by one in the Parc Monceau, near his Paris home. Exotic plants from around the world were expensive to buy, especially in mature size, but were far more costly to maintain, especially the watering of plants and the heating of their environment via a system of hidden hot water pipes. Tissot's conservatory brims with fabulous specimens, arranged to juxtapose shape, size and tone of greenery, with a scattering of color from camellias and other flowering plants. The French were renowned for their artistic arrangement of planting in parks, gardens and glasshouses during the 19th Century, and Tissot displays his own flair and passion for the art in his paintings of the Grove End Road conservatory and garden. Some, like the Bunch of Lilacs and In the Conservatory, could be said to flaunt Tissot's wealth and success. Edmond de Goncourt joked in 1874 that Tissot had a manservant in silk stockings always polishing the leaves of his plants, and chilled champagne available at all times for studio visitors.
It is hardly surprising that In the Conservatory and the Bunch of Lilacs appealed to wealthy collectors whose lifestyle mirrored that depicted in Tissot's paintings. Baron Albert Grant, the flamboyant financier who lost investors millions of pounds, bought the Bunch of Lilacs through Agnew's at the height of his success. The painting now known as In the Conservatory was owned as Afternoon Tea by Kaye Knowles (1835-1886), whose vast wealth came from shares in his family's Lancashire colliery business, Andrew Knowles and Sons, which had become a limited company in December 1873. Kaye Knowles bought many paintings through the dealer Algernon Moses Marsden (1848-1920), who was instrumental in commissioning for Knowles a series of thirteen London views from the Paris-based Italian artist Giuseppe de Nittis. The dark-haired young man with moustache in the teatime scene looks very similar to Marsden, whose portrait Tissot painted in 1877; the depiction in the teatime scene may be an 'in joke' between Marsden, Knowles and Tissot, as Knowles owned another Tissot painting replete with jokes that would only be known to close friends, The Thames (Hepworth Wakefield). Marsden had married in 1871 and soon established himself as an art dealer with lavish premises and grand ambitions, but claimed at later bankruptcy hearings that he was unable to maintain his wife without gambling.
Knowles had two further Tissot paintings in his collection: A Fête Day at Brighton (Christie's 2005), and the Portrait of the Empress Eugénie and the Prince Imperial in the Grounds of Camden Palace, Chislehurst (Musée nationale du château de Compiègne, France). Critics after his death remarked that he had 'eccentric taste' for modern continental paintings. His brother Andrew owned a Tissot shipboard scene, and as one of Kaye's executors acquired Afternoon Tea through Agnew's with works by De Nittis at the estate sale following Kaye's sudden death. The Robert Knowles who subsequently owned the painting was probably their younger brother of that name.
We would like to thank Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for providing this catalogue note.
We are grateful to Dr. Philipp Malzl for confirming the attribution of this painting, which will be included in his forthcoming James Jacques Joseph Tissot catalogue raisonné.
(fig. 1) Studio and conservatory designed by J. M. Brydon for James Tissot's house in Grove End Road, St John's Wood (published in Building News, May 15 1874).
(fig. 2) James Jacques Joseph Tissot, The Ball on Shipboard, Tate, London/Art Resource, NY.
(fig. 3) James Jacques Joseph Tissot, A Bunch of Lilacs, Christie's, London, 26 March 1982, lot 127.
(fig. 4) James Jacques Joseph Tissot, The Fan, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.