In January of 1897, Félix and Georges were back in London but the happy and productive period the family had enjoyed was about to end because of the onset of two devastating health crises. In March, at the age of 35, Lucien had a stroke. He would go on to have three further attacks over the course of the year and could not be left alone or work. At the same time, Félix became ill, but this development was eclipsed by the family’s shock over Lucien’s condition. Esther and Lucien had been in the midst of preparations for a move to a new home in west London, and in April this relocation proceeded as planned despite the stroke. Félix wrote to Lucien to explain why he was unable to help:
‘I have a kind of bronchitis, a cough that tears at my chest, and I’m spitting up blood; I saw Dr. MacNish who gave me some medication to take every two hours, and who forbade me to go out. Write to tell me how you are doing, if I get better, I will definitely come help you.’
It would not be until late September—two months before his death—that the family understood the seriousness of Félix’s condition and accepted the terrible news that he had tuberculosis. In the Victorian era conventional medicine offered no effective treatment but the rate of decline among consumptive patients varied greatly, with some lingering for years or experiencing periods of remission, all of which made it difficult to predict the course of the disease and made it tempting to hold out hope.
In May, Camille came to London to help bring Lucien, Esther and their young daughter back to Éragny where he and Julie could care for them, but Lucien proved too fragile to travel so Camille stayed with them in their Stamford Brook home for over two months. This would be Camille’s fourth and final trip to England and he found inspiration in this corner of west London and undertook seven paintings there. His visit coincided with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on 22 June and he painted a scene of the festivities at nearby Bedford Park. This would also be the last time that Camille saw Félix, a poignant occasion that is captured in family photographs. In one image, taken outdoors on the balconied roof, Camille and Lucien are heavily bearded but Félix is clean shaven except for a tidy moustache. He appears very thin and serious but he is dressed like a fashionable Victorian gentleman, sporting a straw boater hat, blazer, a stiff, white shirt collar and necktie, linen trousers and white shoes. Either his condition did not worry them, or they were more preoccupied with Lucien’s health, because Camille, Lucien, Esther and Orovida travelled to Éragny on 19 July leaving Félix in London with Georges.
From this point, Georges’ role became key, both as a lifeline to Félix and messenger to his family. It is difficult to assess precisely when normal life ceased to exist for Félix. In an undated letter to Rodo, Félix was living in Bayswater but was restricted to home and he was bored. He wrote: ‘My cold is a bit better, but I’m still coughing; I think that it will be difficult to stop this particular cough in the end, I’m still bedridden. I draw caricatures to amuse myself, and you, have you made any new ones?’ It is not clear that he knew or accepted that he was consumptive— he referred to a ‘cold’, while admitting that his cough might not be stoppable. Félix encouraged Rodo to send him drawings and expressed the hope that he might visit, and he included his caricatures of English men wearing the latest fashion in hats. The situation became distinctly more urgent with Julie’s arrival in London on 28 September, a sign that Georges’ reports had worried her. Félix was placed in a sanatorium in Kew, a move overseen by Julie and Georges. On 30 September, Camille reported that from Saturday, 2 October, ‘Félix’s address will be Blenheim House, Kew Road’. Now, the site is occupied by a five-story modern block of flats, but Blenheim House would have been a large Victorian house, like those still existing up and down Kew Road. It was a private hospital just opposite Kew Gardens and from its upper floors Félix would have had expansive views of the setting of family outings in happier times.
Félix’s treatment was undertaken by two homeopathic physicians, Dr. David MacNish and Dr. James Johnstone. Camille was an ardent disciple of homeopathy and the children had been raised accordingly. In the late nineteenth century, there were no effective medications for many common illnesses and some existing treatments did as much harm as good, so patients often fared just as well under the alternative treatment and many homeopathic doctors, including MacNish and Johnstone, were also trained in orthodox medicine. Julie returned to Éragny after Félix was settled in the sanitorium and Georges was again alone with the responsibility for communication. Camille wrote: ‘I received a letter from Georges, Félix is a well as is possible but he is bored, I am going to send him some amusing newspapers.’ Till Félix’s final days, the family wavered continually between acceptance that he was gravely ill and hope that he might recover, so Camille might have felt encouraged when boredom was Félix’s greatest complaint.
Esther and Lucien returned to London at the end of October and visited Félix immediately, only a month before his death. Esther was a diligent communicator and her letters to Camille became increasingly frequent as events progressed. Camille wrote to her on 24 October to ask if Dr. MacNish had given Félix a treatment he called ‘the Serum’: ‘MacNish must be up to date with this method, he didn’t speak to you about it? I suppose that it must be practiced in London too? Who can tell us? I await a more detailed letter from you, you must write to me in French.’ He requested that she write in French in order that Julie could examine the details herself, but Esther did not have time to comply: in addition to monitoring Félix’s care, Lucien’s condition was fragile, and she had a young child. The extended London family visited Félix as much as they could. Esther wrote to Camille on 2 November: ‘This afternoon we went to see Félix. He looks decidedly better & the poor boy seems quite hopeful. Georges came in while we were there. Amélie had just gone, she had come on her way to Ealing.’ The hospital was about three miles from Lucien and Esther’s home in Stamford Brook and just over a mile from Georges’ lodgings in Chiswick High Road.
From the middle of November, Félix’s condition deteriorated sharply and Esther and Georges were on continual alert, doing whatever possible to interpret developments and oversee his care. Esther’s letter, begun on 15 November and continued the next morning, gives a portrait of the misery of these final weeks: ‘I left Lucien safely with Mrs. MacGregor & found when I got to Kew at 4 that the poor boy had vomited a quantity of blood just after Dr. Johnstone, and each time he coughed he was bringing up clots of blood.’ In the hours after this visit, Esther travelled to the doctor’s office for some Witch Hazel to treat Félix’s symptoms, she spent further time with him at the hospital, and liaised with Georges. She reported to Camille: ‘Georges remained at the nursing home all night, I think the poor boy seemed very very bad. We have had no news this morning, Alice has just come to see us with Tommy, she will stay with Lucien and I shall go to Kew. I will send you more news tonight, but cannot miss the post again.’
In Éragny, Camille and Julie were tormented because it was difficult for them to come to London separately and impossible for them to visit together. Even during these terrible weeks, Camille was obliged to produce saleable paintings in order to provide for his family. The urgency was even greater with medical bills to pay and Lucien and Georges unable to work. In order to paint, Camille needed to be in Paris where he was inspired by the ‘motifs’ and the results were more attractive to buyers. When Julie visited London, he was forced to return to Éragny to care for the three younger children. He considered painting in Kew, but it was November and the season was not conducive. In Paris, he would stay at a well-situated hotel where he could paint the view from its windows, but he had no such system arranged in London. Camille and Julie anxiously awaited a sign that things were urgent, but the cruel ebb and flow of the disease made it difficult to assess. Between serious attacks Félix would have times of relative calm, but they finally understood that the illness was fatal. On 17 November Camille wrote: ‘I see that there is no longer much hope of saving our poor Felix, even though you tell me about a noticeable improvement at the end of your letter; unhappily, it is from crisis to crisis that our poor boy goes while fading away.’ As late as 22 November, Camille received a letter from Dr. MacNish which told him ‘that Titi is relatively past the crisis’, but Julie had already left for London on 18 November because they were now worried about Georges’ health. He was exhausted, and the doctor had expressed concern that the two brothers had been in lengthy close proximity. Julie’s arrival meant that Georges could rest and spend time out of doors where he could take in fresh air.
Camille wrote a last letter to Félix on 16 November. He adopted a somewhat formal tone which began with an apology for not having written sooner [‘I need a secretary’]. It was not in his nature to write explicitly about the gravity of Félix’s condition, so Camille, as he had done so often with his sons, spoke about art: ‘Georges tells me that you have begun to draw, that will be a good little distraction if it doesn’t fatigue you too much, you should apply yourself to it. When you have some lithographic paper, we can make prints of your drawings here.’ Camille described a new gallery to which Félix’s prints could be submitted, and he noted the possibility of coming to London in order to be nearer. He would paint from a hotel which overlooked the Thames if his picture dealer, Durand-Ruel, would pay his expenses. He closed with banal talk of the weather and, indeed, nothing in the letter revealed that this was a final communication from a desperate father to a dying son. Camille was isolated in Éragny, waiting for daily letters which did not keep pace with the latest developments, and he could only help the family by painting. He wrote to Georges on 26 November, not realising that Félix had died the previous day: ‘I am terribly sad and can’t do any good work despite my efforts to divert myself from my sorrows.’ He would not learn of the death until the 27th.
There are no letters that describe Félix’s final hours, nor have I found a description of funeral arrangements. Surprisingly, his death was kept secret from Lucien because Dr. MacNish thought he was too fragile to bear the blow, but this only created more stress for Lucien, who could not fathom the behaviour around him. In a letter to Camille dated 2 December, Esther wrote: ‘[Lucien] is very worried about poor Félix and wants me to go see him. I think that Maman [Julie] leaves today [Thursday], we haven’t seen her since Sunday [28 November].’ Julie made no contact with Lucien for days, perhaps finding it too difficult to disguise her grief. He was finally told in mid-December and Camille wrote to him: ‘I don’t know how to tell you how happy I am that you were able to face the disastrous news of the death of our poor Titi who we loved so much, our hope, our pride.’ Just as he had done when Esther Isaacson died, Camille urged Lucien to find comfort in making art: ‘I hope that you will be strong and that you will envelope yourself, so to speak, in art; that will not stop us from remembering the good, kind artist, fine and delicate, to love him forever.’
It was a sombre time for the family and this was echoed by the dark mood in France. The Dreyfus case continued to divide the nation and this schism was deepened in January 1898 when Émile Zola published his famous open letter ‘J’accuse…!’, for which he would be arrested and tried. In Éragny, Julie continued to weep day and night, and she was aggrieved by what she perceived as Camille’s insensitivity to Félix’s death. This criticism stung him because of the continual obligation he was under to produce paintings; he wrote to Lucien: ‘If I gave way to discouragement, what would become of us?’
This is the story of a family and how they dealt with tragedy. Georges and Julie were able to overcome the discord that had come between them as they supported Félix and one another. Camille praised Georges in a letter to Lucien: ‘in our misfortune, I can attest that Georges rose to the level of the circumstances, it took great firmness of character for him to prevent your mother from making herself ill.’ Georges, so inseparable from Félix, returned to France and spent time at Éragny and in Paris. Camille explained to Lucien that he and Georges grieved in their own way: ‘Georges and I live with Titi by arranging his drawings and pictures and we feel his absence when we see what a subtle artist he was.’ Camille and Julie were concerned about Georges’ health and brought him to their homeopathic doctor in Paris. Camille wrote to Lucien that the condition was ‘a certain state of depression caused by Felix’s death; Georges was very affected by it. All in all, nothing to worry about, with care it will pass’. Georges, who lived until 1961, remained in France and went on to marry and be widowed twice more. With his second wife, he had two girls and with his third wife, two girls and then a boy, who they named Félix.
I was given the Félix Pissarro postcard in 1987, 90 years after his death. Now with more than 120 years of distance, it was still heart-breaking to follow Félix’s decline toward inevitable death because he was so young and the letters are so vivid. The story of Félix Pissarro came to have significance in my own family as I shared with them the events that emerged from the letters; my two sons, both in their twenties, were especially drawn toward these parallel brothers, ‘les gars’. We were charmed by Esther Isaacson, so smart and exuberant, and by her relationship with Georges. Her death hit us hard and we became preoccupied with the desire to visit her grave. After some research, my younger son located it in West Ham Jewish Cemetery which can only be entered by appointment. He arranged a date for us to visit together, and the day proved to be surprising. We inadvertently went into West Ham Cemetery, having walked the length of the road without spotting another entrance. West Ham Cemetery is completely open to passers-by and is green and tidy. After strolling briefly through the paths, we realized this was the Christian cemetery and we had yet to find the Jewish burial ground. We noticed a high brick wall along one edge of the site and wondered if it was a dividing line. We walked back out to the street and saw that beyond that wall there was another expanse, so we followed the perimeter wall until it ended, leaving us standing bewildered in a litter-strewn alley. At this moment, the man tasked with letting us into the cemetery appeared and explained that this was indeed the entrance, and it had been deliberately camouflaged to deter anti-Semitic vandalism.
West Ham Jewish Cemetery, which contains the Rothschild mausoleum, had been the target of a serious attack in 2005 from which it does not seem to have recovered. As we walked toward the coordinates for Esther’s grave, we grew increasingly discouraged by the amount of destruction and scaled back our expectations. Miraculously, Esther’s grave was intact due to, I believe, the quality and style of her memorial which made it more resistant to damage. All around her were graves that were smashed or illegible. Her stone reads: ‘In Memory of Esther Clara Pissarro, Née Isaacson, Wife of Georges Henri Pissarro, Born in Paris October 31st 1857, Died in London September 2nd 1893’. I was relieved that her grave was undamaged but felt depressed that the peace here had been shattered by hatred and violence and that this could happen again. Indeed, every measure has been taken to keep the location of West Ham Jewish Cemetery under the radar, including making it unsearchable on Google Maps.
The atmosphere at Felix’s burial place could not have been more different. I’ve been on several occasions now, with different family members and we go on foot by crossing Richmond Park and exiting at Bog Gate, a mile in total. He is buried in Richmond Cemetery, a public site in a leafy and affluent pocket of southwest London that Félix and Georges had appreciated. He is buried under a large yew tree and his headstone is decorated with graceful floral and leaf patterns and inscribed (in French): ‘To the Memory of Our Lamented Son Félix Pissarro, Born in Pontoise on 24 July 1874, Died in Kew on 25 November 1897’. There were dead plants in the soil atop the plot, suggesting there had been visitors, and there is a small sign stating that the site was restored in 2001. I noticed how closely Félix is buried to the centuries-old brick wall separating the cemetery from Richmond Park, an eloquent line between the final resting place of a young man and grounds bursting with human activity and natural beauty.