Henry James commented that his two favorite words in the English language were ‘summer afternoon.’ This delightful picture of Tissot’s partner and muse, Kathleen Newton, reading in the garden of their house in Grove End Road, St. John’s Wood, exemplifies the quiet happiness he found with her there, and celebrates the joy of childhood and family life. It exudes the contentment and ease found on a summer afternoon in the garden, surrounded by loved ones.
A noted anglophile, Tissot had come to London from his native France in 1871 following the fall of the Paris Commune after the Franco Prussian war. An astute businessman, he had established a reputation on both sides of the Channel prior to the calamity, and was encouraged in his move by Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder of Vanity Fair magazine, for whom he supplied political cartoons. London offered Tissot a safe haven from the horrors of Paris at the time and better immediate prospects for art sales. He soon found a ready market for historical dress and modern-life pictures and earned enough in a year to buy a villa in the north-London suburb popular with artists, St. John’s Wood, at 17 (now 44) Grove End Road. According to the diarist de Goncourt, Tissot’s home was both elegant and welcoming – champagne was always on ice for visitors, and he joked that a footman was employed to polish leaves in the shrubbery. The villa had large gardens, with trees and ponds at front and back. Tissot had the pond in the back garden extended and formalized. Its stone coving can be glimpsed in the distance of The Tale, with surrounding plants including ‘giant rhubarb’ (gunnera) on the left. The pool’s colonnade, familiar from many other of Tissot’s London paintings, is hidden here by the chestnut leaves framing his sitters.
Over the course of his time in London, Tissot’s art changed direction from the genre scenes with which he had gained fame, both as a result of having his work rejected from the Royal Academy in 1875 and through his meeting the beguiling Kathleen Newton, one of the two subjects of the present work, in 1876. Born Kathleen Kelly in Agra, where her father was a clerk in the Honourable East India Company’s Civil Service, Kathleen would lead a remarkable life notable for its brevity, modernity and defiance of convention. After the Indian Rebellion she was sent to England for safety and schooling. At the age of 16 she travelled back to India for an arranged marriage to Dr. Isaac Newton, a distinguished army surgeon. On the voyage she met and fell in love with a Captain Palliser, whom Dr. Newton cited in divorce proceedings after Kathleen ran away to join Palliser and became pregnant. She returned to England for the birth of her daughter, and a son, probably also fathered by Palliser, was born before Kathleen met Tissot. The artist’s first certain portrayal of her is the etched Portrait of Mrs. N., made in autumn/winter 1876. Though his Catholicism prevented him from marrying a divorcée, sometime in 1877 she came to live with Tissot, the pair cohabiting as man and wife until her death from tuberculosis in November 1882.
Captured sitting beneath the chestnut tree, in an intimate ‘snapshot’ image, Kathleen reads to her sister’s daughter Lilian Hervey, known as Lily, who lived only a few minutes’ walk from Tissot’s home. Kathleen is reading a story aloud, her lips slightly parted and fingers about to turn a page, and Lily is listening intently. Kathleen’s two children lived with the Herveys, sharing a nanny, and all the children visited Tissot’s house from time to time for walks, musical interludes, play, and picnics in the garden. Tissot made sketches and photographs of Kathleen and the children, which served as source material for paintings and etchings from 1878 to 1882. Lily was especially attached to her aunt and seems to have been a willing sitter too, as she appears on the same fur-covered bench in two pictures both entitled Quiet (c. 1881), the larger of which was exhibited by Tissot at the Royal Academy in 1882. The other is an upright version of the present composition measuring 12 ½ x 8 ½ in., sold at Christie’s on 5 November 1993, lot 159 (now in The Lloyd Webber Collection), but it instead depicts Lily cheekily turned towards the artist, distracted from her story, and peering over the garden bench. The present picture is a more tranquil and satisfying composition, with the sun-filled lawn, distant pond and dappled light filtering through the leaves of the chestnut tree.
Since the rejection of some of Tissot’s submissions to the Royal Academy in 1875, he had changed marketing tactics and showed more paintings outside London, where there was considerable demand from provincial dealers and new municipal galleries. Small paintings and prints were more easily accommodated and sold, as well as being more transportable. Such was the case with The Tale, exhibited in Birmingham and Liverpool in 1880 and 1882 respectively. When it was exhibited in Birmingham, The Tale was described by the Birmingham Daily Post’s art critic as ‘a work of very high merit. It is a tiny canvas, but there is breadth of treatment in it.’ In fact, the painting is on a thin mahogany panel, a support that Tissot favored for his small London-made pictures. Onto a lead-white ground that gave luminosity (and was used for this reason by both Impressionist and Pre-Raphaelite painters), Tissot laid broad diagonal brushstrokes of warm brown to create mid-tones and to animate the surface. This under-layer can be seen in places, especially beneath the lawn. Tissot’s use of vivid colors for the grass and leaves is radically modern: he mixed brilliant Emerald and Viridian Green with dazzling Barium Chromate and Strontium Yellow, poisonous paints that Vincent van Gogh also liked for their striking freshness. They certainly helped Tissot’s pictures stand out from the dense crowd of other works on gallery walls. Alongside this modernism, Tissot’s technique was grounded in tradition. His stunning fluency with the brush enabled him to capture glints of sunlight on hair and clothes, details of ribbons and folds, Kathleen Newton’s earring, and the delicate profiles of young woman and child. It is such eloquent and beautiful detail that made, and continues to make, Tissot’s work so attractive to viewers and collectors.
We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for her assistance with cataloguing this work and for her contribution to the note.