Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans -painter's eccentric life celebrated with a new Royal Academy exhibition

Although painter James Ensor is now a Belgian national treasure, he’s still little known here - which the RA’s show of 70 works hopes to address.

The effect a house can have on an artist is shown to startling effect in a new exhibition of the painter James Ensor, who was raised above a souvenir shop full of curiosities and masks, which turned up later in his paintings.

He was born in 1860 to an English father, and poorer Belgian mother, in the fashionable small resort of Ostend. His painting was so far ahead of his time that during his most productive years he was derided. But opinions changed. When he was 69, the King of Belgium made him a baron; a commemorative statue went up.

At 89 he was buried at Our Lady of the Dunes, beside the sand dunes he loved. Now a Belgian national treasure, he’s still little known here, which the RA’s show of 70 works hopes to address.

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James Ensor surrounded by all his paintings

The house he was brought up in was a sort of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop, for his parents ran their souvenir and bric-a-brac shop from their house. They sold porcelain, rare shells and coral, carnival masks and taxidermy.

Their curious stock came from Singapore to Nassau to Naples. The impressionable boy helped out, but also sketched customers on whatever paper came to hand, including bills. His drawings of people were closely observed, and lively. Later he had a small studio in the attic — so cramped that he had to store his paintings rolled up. 

Round the corner, in Vlaanderenstraat street, his maternal aunt Mimi ran a similar shop, its living quarters on three floors above. It wasn’t a grand house. She sold all manner of things: rare shells, puffer fishes dangling from strings; stuffed swans and many more masks.  It must have had a powerful effect on an artistic boy.

When Ensor was 27 his alcoholic father died and Ensor had to run the shop, look after his aunt Mimi, his mother, and his divorced sister. From this point the traditional realism of his earlier works vanished. 

In 1917 he inherited his aunt’s four-storey terrace house and shop and moved there with his canvases — finally there was room to spread out, and he stayed put for the rest of his life. A married couple lived in and looked after him. 

Though he closed the shop, he kept it, and it is still there, jumbled with curiosities, just as it was. 

Up a narrow balustered Victorian stair, the first-floor “blue salon” is as it was in Ensor’s day. This large room with two full-height windows was where he entertained and painted. A photo of him there shows its florid flocked blue wallpaper, piano, harmonium, his own paintings all around and lots of bric-a-brac. 

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Today, the dining room at Ensor's old home is decorated in an orange-red shade (Steven Decroos)

Today the room is still decorated in that late Victorian to Edwardian taste, with a heavily patterned Brussels carpet, swagged curtains, a chandelier, and stuffed with solid, scrolled furniture in expensive, heavy woods. At the piano sits a beautiful shell-scrolled stool. Next door, the orange-red dining room also had a figured carpet and orangey patterned walls. 

Apart from studying in Brussels, Ensor hardly left Ostend. He visited London just once.

His early traditional style changed dramatically, his mature expressionistic works influenced German painters Emile Nolde and Paul Klee. These works, which feature masks, and skulls so long before Damian Hirst adopted them, can be seen as playful, their often pastel colours appealingly luminous and bright.

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James Ensor based his self portrait on Rubens’s famous painting

His self-portrait at 23 show a handsome man with an amused face. He based it on Rubens’s famous self-portrait, adding a daft flowered hat and twirling moustache five years later. At 38 he started the Bal du Rat Mort – the Dead Rat Ball – still a big annual event in Ostend.

In later life, on his daily strolls along the esplanade, Baron Ensor was a popular, avuncular bearded figure. Einstein was photographed having tea with him.

One great picture in the exhibition is a still life that shows a detail from the local bustling fish market, which Ensor would have visited on his walks. A skate lolls on its back, looking distinctly human, as if exhausted. As with all Ensor’s work, with its mix of fantasy and reality, such a strange fish never quite existed out of water. 

  • Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans opens 29 August at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, W1. Visit royalacademy.org.uk

For details of the Ensor House, Ostend, visit muzee.be/en/ensor


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