Tag Archives: Japan

On the border 5: the Japan-British Exhibition 1910

The summer of 1910 was pretty dull apparently, nothing like the weather in London this year, or indeed the heat wave of 1906. So there was no reason why thousands of Londoners shouldn’t head towards the Great White City to see a new exhibition. This week we’re joining them, crossing the Kensington border into Hammersmith as we sometimes do, to see some of the wonders of the far east.

The exhibition followed the highly successful  Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 and the Olympic Games of the same year for both of which the White City site had been built under the auspices  of  Imre Kiralfy the man behind some of the most spectacular events at Earls Court

The exhibition presented many aspects of Japanese life, art and industry as these country based exhibitions had done before at Earls Court and the White City. This particular exhibition continued the European obsession with Japan which can be found in art and design since Japan was opened up to the western world in the 1860s. We’ve seen it before on the blog in the work of the artist Mortimer Menpes.  (And in his famous house.)

Visitors could walk among traditional houses and gardens.


Climb up landscaped paths, as these two women are doing.



And enjoy exotic vistas. You can barely spot where the painted backdrop begins in some of these pictures.



They hardly seem to be located in the crowded exhibition site with its other rides and attractions.



This picture shows the site with the the stadium . Note in the distance a gasometer and the tower of St Charles Hospital in north Kensington.

Actual Japanese performers enacted tableaux of traditional scenes.


Including warriors, as seen below. Londoners were already used to re-enactments of battles and historical events in shows like the wild west performances at Earls Court and elsewhere.



Sumo wrestling offered something new.


And for some there were martial arts skills to learn. Here a woman demonstrates how to see off some attackers even in modern Edwardian dress.


The Japanese government was also showing off the sights of the modern industrial Japan.



Which had already embarked on its own military / imperial actions. During the exhibition a Japanese warship was visiting the country to emphasise  Japan’s role as an ally of the UK.

For most visitors of course, it was the art and culture of Japan which mattered the most, whether the gardens…


Or the gods.



It was after all, just a pleasant day out. For some visitors it was perhaps almost too much.


A trio of distinctly European geishas have some pseudo Japanese fun with a tired young man.  We’re still obsessed with Japanese culture today and you can see it everywhere. I wonder if our old friend Yoshio Markino made it to the exhibition?


This week’s images came from the Local Studies and Archives department of Hammersmith and Fulham, courtesy of their manager and mine Adrian Autton so thanks to him.


[Montage of postcards featuring the four seasons.]

Mr Menpes I presume

Mortimer Luddington Menpes is having a bit of a renaissance in his home country. This year there were two exhibitions devoted to his work one in Adelaide, the city of his birth and one in Melbourne. We contributed some images to one of them, and they sent us a copy of the book of the exhibition, which is where most of this week’s pictures come from. My colleague Tim and I also got an invitation to the private view. But it was a bit far to go, which was a shame. It would have been good to see the place Menpes came from. He was born in Port Adelaide in 1855 and came to England when he was 20. Although he lived the greatest part of his life in the UK there was always something of the outsider about Mr Menpes and he never lost an Australian artist’s feeling for light and colour.

Dolce far niente 1885-86 p45

“Dolce far niente” is a portrait of Whistler’s mistress Maud Franklin wearing an oriental robe.  Menpes was generally under Whistler’s influence in London. This picture, A little Shop in Chelsea is thought to be influenced by Whister’s view of Maunder’s fish shop in Cheyne Walk.

Copy of A little shop in Chelsea 1884-87

But Menpes annoyed his master in 1887 when he travelled to Japan. The influence of Japanese culture in Britain had been felt since the 1862 Exhibition in South Kensington but Whistler thought that Japan belonged to him, artistically speaking. Menpes went past the master to explore the source for himself. (He slipped away leaving a letter for Whistler and avoided a confrontation in person. This did not prevent Whistler later denouncing him)

Flower of the tea 1887-88 p63

He was able to visit the the elderly painter Kawanabe Kyosai, talk with him through an interpreter and observe him at work on a number of paintings. Menpes incorporated  Japanese style and techniques into his own work. His pictures of Japan show this influence but at the same time he retains a Western sensibility, as in this picture of two women.

Two geisha girls 1896-97

By the time of his exhibition of his Japanese pictures in London in 1888 Menpes was also a practioner of drypoint etching.

Later in life he concentrated on etching and print making.

Venice of Japan 1897

This example is called Venice in Japan.

He employed a technique of sketching pictures quickly to capture scenes spontaneously which was useful for his travels. This picture, the Woman with a Jar, is an example of his ability to observe and record a moment of everyday life.

The girl with the jar 1887-88

His travels later took him back to Japan but also further afield. This etching is a view in China.

Rich only in colour China 1907-08

This one is entitled “An old bridge in Mandalay”

Old Bridge Mandalay 1911-13

He also ventured into India, another of the trips he turned into a travel book.

Blue was the sky above us -Benares 1889-91

“Blue was the sky above us – Benares”

He also travelled to Mexico,and back in Europe visited Paris and Venice.

St Mark's piaza 1909-11

But there was also London, where he had built the Japanese House and where the river was one of the main subjectsof his work.

Below, “A distant view of the city”.

A distant view of the city 1886-89

The riverside in the heart of London, at Limehouse.

Limehouse 1886-89

Is that the Hawksmoor Church, St Anne’s visible on the horizon in this view?

Not forgetting his trips beyond the tidal Thames into the calmer countryside up river.

Goring 1909-11

Compare this etching of Goring with the coloured illustration in his book The Thames which appears in this post. (5th picture, but you won’t have any trouble spotting it)

I haven’t touched on his portraits, but he also made himself a leading exponent of that art as well. This 1920 sketch “A woman with a cigarette” , a portrait of the actress Thelma Ray, the first wife of Ronald Colman, shows his continuing ability to catch a fleeting moment.

Woman holding a cigarette - Thelma Raye 1920

But for all his other work it’s probably as “Japanes Menpes” that Mr Menpes is best remembered.

The Parasol 1887-88



The exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia has just finished, so you can’t go to it now, but here is a glimpse:

Menpes exhibition

My thanks to Julie Robinson, the Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Gallery, for sending us a copy of the exhibition book/catalogue, “The World of Mortimer Menpes: Painter, Etcher, Raconteur”, a very useful adition to our Menpes collection. Now that Menpes is getting some of the attention he deserves I think we’ll hear a lot more about him. I haven’t finished with him on the blog either so you can expect to see more of his work here in the future.

If you are in Melbourne in the next few months you could try a different Menpes exhibition: http://www.grainger.unimelb.edu.au/exhibitions/  A review of it: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/voice/mortimer-menpes-and-grainger-a-shared-love-of-japan-20140807-3d9n4.html

I’m thinking of doing something way out of Kensington and Chelsea next week. We’ll see how that works out.

More Markino: water and women

And then, as the Japanese smiled unperceived at me, and rolled a cigarette, the superb Wilton turned himself a little on the sofa, rearranged a cushion beneath his elbow, and began a long half-intoned speech about newspapers, the folly of reading them, the inconceivable idiocy of those who write for them, and so forth, while I agreed with him at every point, and the Japanese, who knew it by means of livelihood chuckled quietly to himself…

Wilton must have enjoyed that afternoon. He thought he had a proselyte in me, and he talked like a prophet, till I wondered how it could be possible for any one man’s brain to invent such flood of nonsense. I was happy under it all if only on account of the quiet quizzical smile of the Japanese, who was making a sketch of the orator’s face…

The Japanese excused himself from accompanying us, and went down to the river to make studies for some painting upon which he was engaged…

Arthur Ransome – Bohemia in London (1907)

Electric power works Chelsea COL (2)

Ransome’s Japanese artist with the quizzical smile was Yoshio Markino and he did like to walk by the river, starting in Chelsea but sometimes walking through the whole night.

A winter afternoon Chelsea Embankment COL - Copy

Below, the water runs swiftly past the piers of Albert Bridge.

The running tide Albert Bridge Chelsea Embankment COL (2)

A monochrome view of the same bridge.

Early evening Chelsea Bridge COL - Copy

This water level view was one he was particularly liked. Here is another version a good walking distance away:

Copy of Tower Bridge COL

An even longer walk , or even a train journey in the other direction, past the tidal river:Punting on the Thames - JB - Copy

Punting on the Thames. This picture combines Markino’s love of water, mist and dusk with the other thing he loved most about London, English women. One of the books Markino wrote was the eccentrically (and ungrammatically) titled “My idealed John Bullesses” (1912). In the introduction he apologises for his “home-made English” and admits to having been fascinated by European women since the age of six when his father brought home a chromo-lithograph picture of a young woman. “It seemed to me that this girl was always beckoning me; whenever I looked at it from distance and I always went under the picture and bowed down to pay my homage to her.”

“The quiet and deep blue stream of Thames is very beautiful, and it looks more beautiful when it runs round the green ground with many graceful trees. But these beautiful views could not be so beautiful if the John Bullesses did not visit there. Their dresses in white, pink, and all sorts of light colours break the monotonous greens on the shore as well as in boats, and give some delightful contrast. And when the dusk comes they look still prettier. Have you ever seen the religious picture of Buddhism ? Buddhas and all saints are always sitting on lotus flowers or on its leaves. The idea was to give some nice and cool feeling in such a hot country like India. If I have to paint a picture to give a nice and cool feeling I should paint a John Bulless punting a boat on the Upper Thames. John Bullesses in boats or John Bullesses on the green are the most important element to complete the beauty of the Upper Thames.”

It’s a strange book for the modern reader, half archaic and half modern. Markino was a great supporter of the Suffragette movement – there are chapters on the WSPU and the Suffragette  procession of June 1911. Others deal with his  fascination with fashion, shopping and social life.

Markino observed the women of London wherever he went, at night at the theatre:

Copy of Leaving His Majesty's Theatre the Strand COL

And during the day, in small groups:

Fog - Ladies crossing Piccadilly COL (2)

And in larger gatherings.

A party of tourists before St Paul's Cathedral COL - Copy

These two are set in Hyde Park. This one is of what he calls the Church Parade on a June Sunday:

Copy of A June Sunday - church parade in Hyde Park COL

This is the morning parade on Rotten Row:

Copy of Morning Parade in Rotten Row COL

As good as his daytime pictures are, Markino always returned to the gloom.

Copy of Christmas shopping Regent Street COL

“I often recollect some Japanese insect called ” Mino Mushi,” or ” Overcoat Insect.” This small insect gathers feathers, dead leaves, bark, and everything, and ties them up together with her silky webs, and wears this heavy overcoat. But when she takes off that overcoat, lo, she is a beautiful butterfly. Some John Bullesses bury themselves into such thick fur overcoats in winter. You can hardly see their eyes ; all other parts are covered with foxes’ tails, minks’ heads, seal’s back skin, a whole bird, snake’s skin, etc. etc. They make their size twice or three times larger. But when they get into a house and take off all those heavy wearings, such a light and charming butterfly comes out.”

Outside St George's Hospital - JAIL (2)

…my work is not yet completed. But we say in Japan “That which you like most that you can do best.” Having trust in this proverb I have decided to spend the rest of my life here to study dear London all my life.”

Markino reluctantly embarked on a repatriation boat in 1942. He was never able to return.

Tombstone design - Copy

Tombstone designed by Markino.

The pictures:

Electric power works Chelsea

A winter afternoon Chelsea Embankment

The running tide Albert Bridge

Early evening Chelsea (Albert) Bridge

Tower Bridge

Punting on the Thames

A party of tourists before St Paul’s Cathedral

Leaving His Majesty’s Theatre the Strand

Fog – Ladies crossing Piccadilly

A June Sunday – Church parade in Hyde Park

Morning parade in Rotten Row

Christmas shopping Regents Street

Outside St George’s Hospital

Quotations from the Colour of London and My idealed John Bullesses.


It was a close run thing tonight so apologies for any typos or spelling errors. I spent the afternoon following an architect round the all the little rooms of the library sub-basement which will soon become a smaller number of larger rooms.

Mortimer Menpes: his own private Japan

In his 2001 essay “My own private Tokyo” William Gibson argues that the people of Japan went on a rapid journey like a trip on a rocket sled from 1854 when the two hundred year period of “self-imposed isolation” in a “feudal dream-time” ended with the arrival of American ships. They went through sudden industrialisation “in kit form”, militarism and imperial ambitions, a disastrous war ending “in the light of a thousand suns” followed by a “cultural re-fit”. By end of the 20th century Japan had absorbed the tropes of Western popular culture and fashion and created its own hybrid versions of them all.

Mortimer Menpes would not have realised any of this when he made his first trip to Japan in 1888 but the ride had already begun, was already thirty years old. The illustrations to his book “Japan: a record in colour” (1901) concentrate on the traditional and picturesque but Menpes was already thinking about the way Japan had changed and would carry on changing. He was aware that some commentators were already worried about those changes.

They will lose individuality and degenerate, they are adopting Western methods, and it will kill their art, they complained. How foolish this is! The Japanese have merely changed their tools—exchanged the bow and arrow for the sword; they are just as artistic and just as intelligent as in the bow-and-arrow days;

When I tried to write about the illustrations to his book, I kept thinking of adjectives to do with light: limpid, lambent, pellucid. And qualities like serenity. The marvellous title of a novel by Ryu Murakami (the other Murakami): Almost Transparent Blue. But that wasn’t getting me anywhere. You can’t talk about Japan without thinking of the present day country. The cities, the comics, the films whether it’s Lost in Translation or My Neighbour Turturro. I went back to the text of the Menpes book, transcribed from his musings and memories by his daughter Dorothy, the other author of the book. The words seem to apply to all the Japans.

Here is Honeysuckle Street:

Honeysuckle Street

Shoppers browse in a busy street. Just as they do in the modern shopping zones of Tokyo.


Material for pictures surrounded me at every step. I wanted to make pictures of every pole and signboard that I came across.

The stall by the bridge

Like his former master Whistler, Menpes loved river views.

Osaka is the city of furnaces, factories, and commerce,—the centre of the modern spirit of feverish activity in manufacturing and commercial enterprise.

The Ajikawa is still the Ajikawa of the olden time, and on the eastern side of the city is the Kizugawa, into which—thanks to the shallowness of the bar—no steamer ever intrudes, while the city itself is intersected by a vast network of canals and waterways, all teeming with junks and barges, and crossed by graceful wooden bridges which lend themselves admirably to line.

The Venice of Japan

Over the bridge

Japan is not being Westernised in the smallest degree: she is merely picking our brains.


Night in Japan fascinated me almost more than anything—the festoons of lanterns crossing from one street to another, yellow-toned with black and vermilion lettering.

A street scene, Kioto

By the light of the lantern


I shall never forget my first rainy day in Japan. I went out in the wet and stood there, hatless but perfectly  happy, watching the innocent shops light up one by one, and the forest of yellow oil-paper umbrellas with the light shining through looking like circles of gold, ever moving and changing in the purple tones of the street.

You wonder which set of pictures the words accompany.

Umbrellas and commerce

In those city streets Menpes recorded women walking, like a modern day street style photographer.

A street in Kioto

The streets are more crowded now. Some of the women still carry parasols.

2 japan street pics

She delights in her own delightsomeness; she wants frankly to be as charming as nature and art will allow; she wants to be beautiful; and she honestly and assuredly wants me and you and the stranger artists to think her beautiful.

Miss Pomegranate

……..there is still a living art in Japan at the present day in the designs of the silk dresses that they wear. They are so modern, so up-to-date, and yet so characteristic of Japan. The women are very extravagant in their dress…….


Menpes called these women butterflies.


Gibson concludes his essay by saying that the Japanese  have “made it out the far end of that tunnel of prematurely accelerated change.” and that they were “Home at last in the twenty-first century.”

Fete day


I think Menpes would have understood what he meant.

An avenue of lanterns


You can find the full text and pictures from Japan: a picture in colour at Project Gutenberg. (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32086/32086-h/32086-h.htm )

My own private Tokyo is in Gibson’s collection Distrust that particular flavour (2012). Do I really need to tell you to read it, and all his others? Having got Michael Moorcock into this blog a couple of weeks back I wanted to get my current favourite author into a post as well. Gibson is one of the few American authors who can write convincingly about London. I thought his characters didn’t often enter Kensington and Chelsea. Cayce Pollard visits Portobello Road and Harvey Nichols in Pattern Recognition but that was about it. Then I remembered Kumiko Yanaka in Mona Lisa Overdrive (a long time since I read that one) , I’ve started reading it again since I drafted this post and found that she’s all over Notting Hill and Earls Court.Maybe there is some scope for a Gibson in Kensington post. Are there any other locations?

The images of modern Japanese cities were found by putting place names like Shinjuku and Harajuku into Google. Try it yourself. I wish I could have included the Hello Kitty bus. www.japanesestreets.com is the address of the Japanese Streets street style blog, a guide to what the modern boys and mobile girls are wearing in in Tokyo.

Thanks once again to Alex Buchholz and Peter Collins of Westminster Central Reference Library for loaning me their physical copy of Japan. (Kensington had several of his others but not that one.)

Mr Menpes and the Japanese house

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.”

MM CM630 crop

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.

001 A by-canal

[A by-canal]

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.

001 The Giant lantern

[The big lantern]

001 Daughters of the sun

[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.

Menpes house photo not in other sets cc

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.”

25 Cadogan Gardens Souvenir - 01

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.

25 Cadogan Gardens Souvenir - 04

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.”

MM and DM

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.

World and Childen

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 Neubaten

[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.

Menpes house CM629 141

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.

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