Mortimer Menpes, 1860-1938

Born in Australia, Menpes first studied at the Adelaide School of Design. With his family, he moved to London in the 1875, and enrolled at the South Kensington School of Design – properly known as the National Art Training School at South Kensington – where he studied under Edward J. Poynter. The latter was already well-established: following his early training, he had travelled to Rome, in 1853, where he had met and admired Frederick Leighton, then discovering the power of early Italian Renaissance art; and, in 1856, he had studied in Paris, where he became friendly with the young James McNeill Whistler, lately arrived from America. Poynter returned to London and achieved success with paintings of Oriental and Classical themes at the Royal Academy. In 1875, he was appointed the Director and Principal at South Kensington. He brought with him all that he had learned of the importance of drawing from life – preferably, life on the move – and a taste for foreign places and civilisations.

Poynter’s pupil, Mortimer Menpes, seems to have shared some of his tutor’s enthusiasms; for the rest of his life, he revelled in travel, executing swift, on-the-spot studies, of people and places beyond London - and, eventually, beyond Europe. In 1880, he made a sketching tour of Brittany. At this time, he met Whistler, then at the height of his fame (or, as many thought, notoriety).

Whistler was the star and scourge of the artistic milieu. During the 1870s, his art had become increasingly radical, exploring effects of light and movement – depicting the patterns of fireworks against the dark night sky in one of his ‘Nocturnes’, for example – and trying to capture and convey something of the sensation experienced by the viewer. Whistler’s role as art’s ‘bad boy’ had been secured by the infamous trial for libel, which he brought against the critic, John Ruskin, who had written that he had, ‘seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face’. Whistler actually won his case - but was awarded an insulting, farthing’s damages. Financially embarrassed, in 1879, he left London for Venice, with a commission from the Fine Art Society to produce a series of etchings. From his return to London in 1880 – and the excitement prompted by his ‘First Venice Set’ of etchings, exhibited at the end of 1880 – and on his many subsequent travels to Brittany, Venice, Cornwall and elsewhere, Whistler attracted the enthusiastic attention of young followers - including Mortimer Menpes.

Back in London, Menpes – and others, notably Walter Sickert – worked with Whistler in his studio, helping him to produce the, ‘Second Venice Set’ of etchings, which were published in 1886. Menpes was full of admiration for Whistler’s combination of skill and adventurous spirit, as well as for the economy of touch and intimacy of the master’s etchings, pastels and paintings. During the years he spent working with Whistler, Menpes learned a great deal which enriched his own art - whether that be in the form of etchings, drypoints, watercolours, pastels or oils. From this time on, Menpes’ work was imbued with something of the brilliance, the love of colour, and the pithiness and buoyancy of his mentor and his work.

Amongst Whistler’s enthusiasms was his admiration for Japanese art. Very little had been known, in the West, about this mysterious culture, which had resisted contact with the outside world, establishing an isolationist policy for well over two centuries, until trade relationships were forged in the middle of the 19th century. A flood of Japanese artefacts came into Britain, including fabrics, porcelain and the distinctive wood-block prints, which prompted great delight, with their flat colours, abbreviated forms and radical compositions. From the 1880s onwards, Menpes was similarly inspired by the mystery of Japan. In 1887, he made his first visit to that exotic country, where he found himself fascinated by the Japanese preoccupation with poise and ceremony, with decorative dress and ornament, and with the customs and rituals of every-day life. He discussed the techniques and methods of their art with Japanese artists and, as he travelled, he made countless tiny sketches, watercolours and drawings, of the scenes he encountered.

On his return, Menpes held a successful exhibition – dedicated to Whistler – at Dowdeswell’s Gallery, in London, showing 140 paintings and 40 etchings of the tea houses, temples, markets, theatres, street scenes, women and children of Japan.

Menpes’s enthusiasm for Japan extended to his own house, which he decorated in Oriental style, in 1888. It was, in fact, this ‘Japanese House’ which provoked Whistler to jealousy - and the two fell out. In 1900, Menpes sold up and moved to Kent. This was not, however, the end of his travels. In 1900, he became a war artist, recording the Boer War for Black and White, a weekly periodical, founded in 1891. From 1902 to 1917 he travelled widely, visiting Japan again, as well as India, Mexico, Burma, Morocco and Egypt, and – with his daughter, Dorothy – producing illustrated books of the countries he visited.

The first of these books appeared in 1901 - Japan: A Record in Colour. This was followed, in 1903, by The Durbar, another lavishly produced and illustrated volume, recording the glorious celebration held in Delhi, to proclaim the accession of Edward VII to the Imperial Throne of India. The Durbar was organised by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, and was a magnificent festival, attended by all the Indian princes, each accompanied by long processions of people and animals - a proclamation of their own status and an honour to the new King and Emperor. Once again, the book, and an accompanying exhibition at Dowdeswell’s, secured Menpes’ success. And, once again, Menpes introduced the people of Britain not just to the colour and character of a world which few could imagine and still fewer ever see, but also to the ordinary people, the everyday life, of another society, another civilization.

Menpes became an established and popular artist. His early influences continued to shape his art. Without doubt, his most important contribution lay in the rich array of etchings and drypoints he produced of the streets, the buildings and people of Britain, Europe and much further afield, depicted with fascination, but never with condescension.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012