As an art historian I was intrigued to read this book as I knew it was based on the life of the artist James Tissot, whose works I had previously encountered but whose life I didn’t yet have a complete picture of (if you pardon the pun). Talking of pictures – and without intending to sound completely vacuous – I also enjoyed the pictures of Tissot’s art that were shown throughout the book, unusually for a novel.
Instead of being something of a life story per se, The Hammock begins smack in the middle of a horrible war – the Franco-Prussian War to be exact, which funnily enough I studied a little last year. To my surprise, such a dark beginning worked very well, and I enjoyed these first few chapters particularly – Tissot’s experiences are not made pretty. They are unvarnished and bloody horror – so be warned. We experience war, and the death of friends through his eyes.
The chapters are dated almost like a diary entry, and at a fairly quick pace we then move on to post war, where Tissot struggles to remain in Paris in the unstable political climate. Career if not ruined, but certainly tattered, he follows some of his fellow artists friends to London in order to ‘kick-start’ if you will, his career and make some desperately needed money. I also enjoyed this next phase where he interacts with about every famous name you could think of. It was like being dropped into a historic party as a fly on the wall – and I loved this kind of ‘gossipy’ feel it had in places.
I liked the uniqueness of Tissot’s voice. We cannot really know exactly how he would be thinking about situations, but it was carried off well here, and a few Americanisms in the language aside, I found it plausible/believable. I particularly enjoyed the initial London scenes and interplay between Millais and his wife Effie – though not always Effie herself. I was also amused to have Ouida pop up.
The story is completed by the remaking of his career, this time in London and despite his initial attraction to Louise Romer, his later relationship with Kathleen Newton was to be long lasting (at least until her death).
I would say that this is not a novel that I would necessarily have thought of picking up myself, but I’m glad I did. As it has my twin loves art and history combined, and being based on a true story it was interesting and very engaging. Recommended as a thoughtful read, with time needed to really soak up Tissot’s life.
A copy of this review can also be found on my Goodreads page.