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James (Jean-Jaques) Tissot (1836-1902)

The French painter Tissot came to England in 1871. His depictions of London life are observed with a Frenchman’s eye, aware that class was one of the central themes of British art. Freed from its constraints his observations avoided moral judgements. As a result he painted modern life with an opaque narrative. As the rising tide of industrial wealth displaced the older social and economic structures for an emergent cosmopolitan society, he turned to vulgar society to create a narrative with comic overtones.

Inspired by his friend Whistler, he sought inspiration on the Thames and at Wapping. He showed a clear preference for industrial suburbs below London with its background of shipping, rigging and ship’s masts. For Tissot the wonders of the river were principally social and his etchings were produced after his paintings - so the  etchings were not subjects in their own right, although the prints reached a wider market than paintings could achieve.

The Emigrants.

The Emigrants.
A drypoint etching based on a painting of 1879, of which only a small replica now exists. The ship in the distance, flying the distinctive flag of the Castle Line, may be the 'Carisbrooke Castle', since the captain, John Freebody, was a friend of Tissot. Set in the London Docks, the site of numerous such departures, this complex image about emigration shows a woman carrying a small child and a bundle on her left arm. She stands on the deck of a ship looking down at the man below. He could be either friendly or menacing. The woman hovers, implying her precarious situation. While she and her child are emigrating to find a better life, the voyage also sends them into the unknown. The composition shows the woman against a dramatic backdrop of masts, ropes and spars. The theme of emigration and the conditions that forced people to seek a life overseas, was a subject of fascination for Tissot.

Les deux amis, the two friends.

Les deux amis, the two friends.
Travel and parting are often the subjects of Tissot’s pictures during his last years in London. He became preoccupied with images of leave taking and with themes of travel and escape. Here the flux and change of travel itself becomes the subject. Figures are no longer the centre of interest. They are pulled to the edges of the composition, which leaves the centre free for a symbolic statement of the theme: the clasped hands. The precise subject is unknown, and may suggest an episode of personal significance to the painter. Tissot has included the names of places in the painting, such as the bales on the quayside, which read ‘New York’, ‘Alabama’. The name on the ship’s boat reads ‘Old England’, acting as a visual commentary on what is being left behind on emigration. At this period the question of possible emigration to the New World influenced many who saw new opportunities denied them in England. The format of the etching reveals the extent of the rigging. This is a rare version and the flags of America and Britain have been hand coloured.

Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich.

Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich.
The Trafalgar Tavern, built in 1837, was famous in the nineteenth century for its whitebait suppers and also had strong naval associations, as its title implies. The balconies were copies of the stern galley of HMS 'Victory' Nelson’s ship at the Battle of Trafalgar 1805. It was also the venue for an annual political event, the Parliamentary fish dinners. Discontinued in 1868 it was revived by Disraeli in 1874. The Trafalgar was the inn traditionally chosen by the Liberals, while the Tories went to the ‘Ship’. The view is through the table in the eastern ground-floor bay window, with a place setting in the foreground. Men sit on the balcony in positions of power in this place of leisure. However Tissot makes social distinctions by contrasting them with the young boys, showing the children, known as mudlarks, on the shore below below. They are scavenging for coal and iron and reflect Henry Mayhew’s investigative report in which he starkly illustrated the pestilence and depravity of Thames culture through such mudlarks, sewer-hunters and rat-catchers.

La Thamise.

La Thamise.
An etching after a painting of the same subject exhibited at the Royal Academy 1876. Here Tissot uses the compositional device of cutting the view of a boat horizontally to bring modernity to the composition, subject and dress. This creates a tension between surface pattern and spatial recession in a manner learnt from Japanese prints. In the etching he explores the comic possibilities of rivalry and choice in affairs of the heart, an iconographic thread that ran through Tissot’s work in the early 1870s. Sexual inneuendo is an important part of the narrative, playing on a double entendre. There is a sharp tension between an apparent superifical innocence of subject and the salacious possibilities lurking beneath the surface, creating a general sense of uneasiness. 'The Times' described it as ‘questionable material’, ‘a champagne luncheon, a pleasanter thing in reality than on canvas’. 'The Graphic' described it as ‘hardly nice in its suggestions. The image explores the theme of one man’s choice between two equally attractive unchaperoned women. The positioning low down on the Thames permitted behaviour not allowed on shore and raised the potential for a risqué encounter. A picnic hamper and bottles of champagne sit at their feet.


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