About Bridget Tichenor

  • Biography
  • Influences & Criticism
  • Analysis of Major Works

There have been very few writings that focus on the life and work of Bridget Bate Tichenor, also known as B.B.T., which makes the telling of her story that much more fascinating. Bridget Bate Tichenor was born Bridget Pamela Arkwright Bate on November 22, 1917 in Paris. Of British descent, she later embraced Mexico as her home and this is where she became a Mexican Surrealist painter of fantastic art in the school of magic realism, as well as a fashion editor for Vogue. Tichenor was a woman of extraordinary character who impacted the twentieth century realms of fashion, art, and society. Outwardly beautiful, exotic, and bold, Bridget Tichenor was also a shy and reclusive woman who lived in unusual times, living in many conflicting countries, and in many revolutionary platforms.

Tichenor was the daughter of Frederick Blantford Bate and Vera Nina Arkwright [Vera Bate Lombardi]. She spent her youth in England and attended schools in England, France, and Italy. At the age of sixteen, she moved to Paris in order to live with her mother who was, at the time, working as a model and muse for Coco Chanel. In fact, Vera Lombardi was the public relations liaison to the royal families of Europe for Coco Chanel between the years of 1925 and 1938. Because of this and her grandmother Rosa Frederica Baring’s link to the Barings Bank family, Bridget Tichenor was distantly related to countless aristocratic families, which helped her grow up in a milieu of high art, high fashion, and high intellectual exposure.

Between 1930 and 1938, Tichenor alternatively lived between Paris and Rome. It is her father, Frederick Bate, who offered Bridget Tichenor the appropriate artistic guidance that she needed. He recommended that she attend the Slade School in London, England, and he visited her throughout her schooling years. Her connections also pushed her to pursue her fashion; Man Ray, one of Surrealism’s most gifted photographers, was one of her closest friends and he photographed Bridget at different stages of her modeling career from Paris to New York.

Bridget Bate married Hugh Joseph Chisholm in New York at their family home on October 14, 1939. This marriage was a very controversial one, as her mother Vera, through Cole Porter and his wife Linda, arranged it in order to bring Bridget Tichenor away from Europe during the period of looming threats of World War II. Nevertheless, Tichenor and Chisholm had a son whom they named Jeremy Chisholm in Beverly Hills, California on December 21, 1940. When Jeremy was six months old, Bridget Tichenor and Hugh Chisholm gave him to a relative who cared for him until he ended up living with Chisholm. Jeremy went on to become a noted businessman and equestrian in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe – he died in Boston in 1982.

In 1943, Bridget Tichenor enrolled as a student at the Art Students League of New York where she studied under Reginald Marsh along with her friend painters Paul Cadmus and George Tooker. Around this time, Tichenor was beginning to be noticed by everyone around her as a striking, fashionable beauty, who sparked the interest of many. Among her admirers, we can find Anais Nin who wrote about her personal infatuation with Tichenor in her personal diary. Bridget’s list of admirers was only beginning to blossom.

In 1944, she started an affair with the photographer George Platt Lynes’ assistant, Jonathan Tichenor, while her husband was away working for the US government. She divorced from Hugh on December 11, 1944 and moved into a townhouse in Manhattan, which she shared with the notorious art patron Peggy Guggenheim. In 1945, Bridget Tichenor married Jonathan Tichenor and took his last name. Together, they moved into an artist’s studio at 105 MacDougal Street in Manhattan, New York.

Known for her fantastical paintings, Tichenor’s technique was based on her artist friend Paul Cadmus’ teachings from 1945. She used sixteenth century Italian tempura formulas and painted in an Italian Renaissance style. She would have to prepare her own gesso ground on Masonite board and apply multiple transparent layers of oil glazes with extremely fine brushes. She considered her work to be simple and spiritual in nature, reflecting on the many subjects of magic, alchemy, ancient occult religions, and Mesoamerican mythology.

After her son Jeremy’s death in 1982, Tichenor ceased all contact with his family. During the time of her death in 1990 in Mexico City, Tichenor chose to be surrounded only by her closest friends. There were no living family members beside her at the time of her death, nor were any relatives included in her last will, testament, and estate.

Born into a successful family, Bridget Bate Tichenor was always guided and helped to succeed in her artistic endeavors. The main influence of her work as a Magic Realist painter in Mexico was her international background and the cultures of Mesoamerica. According to THE FIRST BIOGRAPHY OF THE LIFE OF BRIDGET BATE TICHENOR 2000 & 2006 by Zachary Selig “Her controversial royal illegitimate background overshadowed her profound artistry and her sense of self worth. In her era and society, it was important to be of royal lineage. Her achievement in the art world was diminished by who she was as an illegitimate royal family member, her ravishing beauty, her refined intelligence, and her commanding personality. Her background was more important and interesting to her friends, which graciously made her celebrated and received on one hand, yet made her hide how great an artist she was on the other and never acknowledged.”

Bridget Tichenor was a part of a female Magic Realist and Surrealist artist group in the 1940’s and 50’s. She had been introduced to Mexico and its artistic circles by her friend and cousin Edward James, then a British Surrealist art collector and sponsor of the Magazine Minotaure, which was published in Paris. After visiting Mexico, Tichenor divorced from her second husband, Jonathan, and moved to Mexico, where she lived for the rest of her life. This is when she left her career as a professional fashion and accessories editor for Vogue in order to immerse herself in the art of painting. Up until her move to Mexico, Bridget Tichenor was mostly a model and fashion editor—it was not until she spent time in Mexico City, immersed in the rich art and culture, that she truly became a fine artist.

Tichenor painted alone and in isolation where she removed her familiar and societal masks to find her own personal human and spiritual identities. She would paint these identities with new masks and characters that represented her own sacred beliefs and truths. Tichenor’s process of self-discovery is allegorically portrayed in her works with mythological characters engaged in magical settings.

In terms of influential figures, Bridget Tichenor counted painters Leonora Carrington, Alan Glass, and Pedro Friedberg among her closest friend and contemporaries during her time in Mexico. In 1971, Friedberg introduced the American artist and spiritist Zachary Selig to Tichenor in Mexico City. She adopted Selig as her protégé and became his mentor until her death in 1990. Interestingly enough, Selig is the only one to have written a lengthy biographical account of Bridget Bate Tichenor’s life, art, and accomplishments, entitled Bridget Bate Tichenor—The Magic Realist Painter. In 1978, when Bridget was sixty years old, Selig introduced her to the fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo who photographed a very well known portrait of her. In her time, Bridget Tichenor was also the subject for photographers such as Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, John Rawlings, and George Platt Lynes.

When analyzing her sketches and oil paintings, it becomes obvious that Bridget experimented with masks, animals, and fantastical figures. It is said that the animals were drawn based on her own assorted terriers, Chihuahuas, sheep, goats, monkeys, parrots, snakes, iguanas, Italian mastiffs, cows, and horses. The volcanic land that surrounded her mountaintop home influenced the colors and landscapes found in her paintings. From her second-story studio, she could see a curvature of the earth and a pine tree that covered red mountains that were cascading towards the Pacific Ocean. A waterfall with turquoise pools of water traversed her property. It is apparent, then, that Mexico and her home were primordial to the forms and subjects present in her work. Bridget Tichenor was such a repressed soul, courageous on the outside and yet so introverted, that her paintings were really the expression of her true self, both spiritually and emotionally speaking.

In 2008, Tichenor’s work was presented at the Museo del Arte Contemporano de Monterrey, which included numerous other important Surrealist artists such as Frida Kahlo. The exhibition was titled History of Women: Twentieth-Century Artists in Mexico. Since then, Tichenor’s work has also been a part of LACMA’s In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, which took place in Los Angeles in 2012. In the same year, Cristina Faesler organized an exhibition with over one hundred of Tichenor’s paintings, which served as a retrospective in the Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico. The exhibition too place between May and August of 2012 and highlighted Tichenor’s exceptional Surrealist vision, flair, and skill. Although it has been difficult to find records of Tichenor’s life, works, and criticisms in the past due to light documental coverage, times are changing and female Surrealist artists such as Bridget Bate Tichenor are finding themselves in the spotlight of galleries once more.

Bridget Bate Tichenor’s paintings were done in a style reminiscent to that of the Italian Renaissance, using a method that is extremely labor intensive and elaborate. According to In Wonderland, “Tichenor’s art, miniature in scale but vast in imagination, brings together beings and objects that do not reside in ordinary reality. Her marvelous encounters among as-yet-unheard-of species are possibly inspired by her experiences with the descendants of the Olmec, the Toltec, the Zapotec, the Mixtec, the Aztec, and the Maya cultures.”

Tichenor’s intense use of animals and masks leads to many art historical interpretations and levels of symbolic meaning. She employs the iconic egg shape throughout her pieces and in works such as Bird Woman II, eggshells are literally apparent. Her iconic use of the egg shape takes on many different meanings, depending on the piece. In Lost Surrealistas, a group portrait done in 1956 of Carrington, Chiki Weisz, Kati and Jose Horna, and others, the egg is used as a symbol for the artists “hatching” the Surrealist Movement in Mexico. The egg, in general, is connected to the prenatal and intrauterine, which is why it is often used so symbolize hope and love.

Gloria Orenstein, in her article, “The Surrealist Cosmovision of Bridget Tichenor,” discusses David Carrasco’s terms of cosmovision, which is defined as pointing to the ways in which cultures combine their cosmological notions relating to time and space into a structural and systematic whole. She states, “In Tichenor’s career as a painter, we can observe a cosmovision in surrealist iconography that also describes a universe characterized by the intermingling of beings from various dimensions of time and space. These beings are diverse in their physiognomies and civilizations. They all live in a cosmos that sacred rituals constantly renew.”

In general, Bridget Tichenor’s figures are egg people, shell people, pyramid people, animal-human hybrids, dual-faced beings, or other multi-eyed spirit guides who are clearly placed in extraordinary circumstances, dimensions, and realities. These strange forms are referred to by Tichenor as her “guides” and “counselors” who possess a wisdom all of their own. These creatures, known to art historians as “naguals,” were spiritual animal guardians. It has been observed that the coverings she paints over some of the beings serve as a commentary on the fact that artifice and superficiality are used to mask both the natural and artistic selves in society; something Bridget Tichenor directly related to with her constant exposure as a model, yet strong struggle with being recognized as a successful artist by peers. This is what renders her work so unreservedly personal and emotive and adds layers of complexity that extend beyond the technical ability that is clearly required to render at a level that is hers. Her tight representations and finishes could be juxtaposed with the works of Salvador Dali. Together, they shared the symbolic use of animals and insects, especially ants [which point to death, decay, and immense sexual desire]. Flirting with the ideas of captivity, judgment, time, hiding, and mysticism, there is a definite link between these two contemporary Surrealist artists, though Bridget Tichenor dealt more diligently with the role of the woman and the constant battle of living behind masks and other elements of façade. By constantly masking and unmasking the figures and objects, Tichenor is demonstrating that realistic descriptions have been taken for granted in the World, which is why she is adamant about revealing their veiled and expanded dimensions, their internal lives, and their somewhat disguised underworlds. By adding a sense of the ‘bizarre’ and the ‘strange,’ Tichenor makes it acceptable to view these scenes because they turn into something staged, much like the commedia dell’arte. 

In terms of lighting and painting technique, there is light artificial light possible in her paintings since they are all set outdoors. In certain paintings, the light seems to radiate from the characters and animals themselves, as if to highlight their sanctity and inner source of sagacity. In the film Rara Avis, a documentary on her life, Tichenor says, “All influence comes from light…light, light, light. I think that we are fed, not only by foods, but more so by light than anything else.”

Bridget Tichenor’s main purpose, then, across her work, is to make her viewers understand that civilization is fading into darkness by relentlessly masking itself. She wants them to know that light will forever change this, if only they are willing to accept it into their lives.