Mr Mortimer Luddington Menpes – “painter, etcher, raconteur and rifle-shot” as Who’s Who of 1901 describes him. “Recreation: rifle-shooting (not to labour that point or anything), and travelling. Address: 25 Cadogans Gardens, SW (we’ll come back to his residence presently). Club: Savage.”
He looks like an Edwardian club man, doesn’t he? Bit of a military cove perhaps? Or the hero of a Conan Doyle story? Well he was certainly an adventurer, but there was far more to Mortimer Menpes than that. He was born in Port Adelaide, South Australia in 1855 but his family moved to London when he was 20. He studied at the Royal College of Art (then known by various titles such as the School of Art, or the South Kensington School). In London he met Walter Sickert and the two of them became friendly with Whistler. By 1881 they were studio assistants to the great man, but Menpes was the closer, even becoming Whistler’s flatmate in Cheyne Walk. Menpes was devoted to Whistler who encouraged him in his etching work. Whistler was godfather to Menpes’s first child Dorothy Whistler Menpes who was born in 1887.
I don’t know if Dorothy ever used her middle name. By the time she would have known it her father’s friendship with Whistler was over (Whistler had a high attrition rate for friends ). Menpes doesn’t seem to have born a grudge. He attended Whistler’s funeral in 1903, and wrote a sympathetic memoir of his former friend, “Whister as I knew him.”
One of the reasons for the falling out was Menpes’ trip to Japan in 1888 (My impression is that Whistler seems to have regarded the whole country and its artistic heritage as reserved for himself). Menpes became a great admirer of Japan, its people and its art. There was an exhibition of pictures devoted to his trip, which seemed to cause further annoyance to the master.
Later, he and Dorothy collaborated on a book about his travels. He told her his stories and she transcribed them. It was a method they used several times.
Without wanting to be unkind you can see that although Menpes was never in Whistler’s league as an artist he was an effective illustrator and these pictures are well observed and evoke that old Japan as it was being drawn into the modern world.
[The big lantern]
[Daughters of the sun]
The really big fuss was reserved for the house at 25 Cadogan Gardens which Menpes had designed by the architect Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, “decorated in the Japanese style”. Photographs of the interior give us some idea of the excitement the house generated.
Raymond Blathwayt called it “The most wonderful house in the world” in a pamphlet with the same title. He says: “To wander through its entrance hall is as though one walked in a garden of the far Eastern world, when the world itself was in its early childhood.”
The pictures cannot quite capture the full impact of the interior. An article in The King in 1902 says: “The walls of the drawing room are an indescribable yellow which itself creates an intense physical delight…..the studio adjoining this room is in another shade of yellow almost as rich and pleasing in tone; the outer and inner halls are a beautiful green, the colour of an unripe melon, and the dining room downstairs is scarlet.” We just have to imagine the colours.
We can appreciate the impact. Japanese culture had been a source of inspiration since porcelain had been imported from the East but it was becoming a major influence in fine art and design. It remained as an undercurrent as people learned more about the exotic island culture on the other side of the world.
In contrast to the positive reception for the house, Whistler described Menpes as an “Australian immigrant of Fulham who like the kangaroo of his country is born with a pocket and puts everything in it”. When, in 1898 he became president of the newly formed International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers he made sure that Menpes and Sickert were excluded. Menpes showed remarkable restraint in his attitude to his former friend: “Whistler did not mean to hurt me – he was very fond of me.”
Menpes continued to be a prolific artist and author. He produced a large number of pictures when he went to South Africa as a war artist during the Boer war. Dorothy once again transcribed the anecdotes he told to go with the pictures and turned them into a complete narrative. War Impressions (1903) was one of several collaborations.
With other collaborators Menpes wrote about India, China, Venice and Paris, many of them published by his own company the Menpes Press.
[25 Cadogan Gardens, from Neubaten in London]
He lived in the Japanese house until 1900 when he moved to Kent. In 1907 he created the Menpes Fruit Farm Company in Pangbourne in Berkshire. He built forty greenhouses for flowers, fruit and vegetables and lived in his house Iris Court until his death in 1938. He was spared the experience of living in a country at war with Japan.
I wonder what he would have made of the Japan we know today?
You can still see the exterior of the Japanese house which is now owned by the Peter Jones department store, although the interior is long gone . The fixtures and fittings were auctioned off when the house was sold in 1907.
I have a feeling there is going to be more about Mr Menpes on the blog. We could hear a lot more about his travels and his art. So let me know if this has whetted your appetite.
Thanks to Alex Buchholz and Peter Collins of Westminster Central Reference Library for loaning me their copy of Japan, and to Susie Hilmi for transporting it.
The last photograph is by the fashion/art photographer Akif Hakan from his gallery at Deviant Art. His work is varied and excellent but some of the images on the gallery and on his professional website are, as they say, not safe for work, so I haven’t included a link.