Tag Archives: Mortimer Menpes

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.

Watching the river flow: pictures from a Victorian summer 1897

It looks like summer has arrived so it’s time to get down to the river again. This week’s post is a long delayed companion to Menpes on the river, revisiting his paintings of that long Victorian summer of boating on the Thames but this time in photographs. Some of these images show the same locations that Menpes painted, others show yet more outposts of the quiet life along the river.

The tidal Thames ends here, at Teddington:


001 Teddington Lock p20


I’ve walked as far as Kingston along the Thames Path. I remember this spot and although there were fewer boats when I saw it I can still recognize the place I visited. Teddington Lock, some of you may remember was the location of Thames Television’s studios in the 1970s.

Molesey Lock, further along shows the classic Sunday view of a crowded river in the days of Jerome K Jerome.  (No account of a journey on the Thames can avoid mentioning Three men in a boat so I’ll do it here. I may even quote from the book later.)


003 Molesey Lock p60


The river in Jerome’s time was becoming a pleasure resort for a wider range of people, not just the upper middle classes. The white collar workers, men and women who spent their working days in the City could now afford to come down to the river in their leisure time. Although some no doubt enjoyed being in a mass of fellow pleasure seekers, the ideal of river pursuits is solitary.


007 Bray p113


A woman sits quietly as the river flows by. To quote a more modern voice speaking of a completely different river:

Well, take me back down where cool water flows,
Let me remember the things I don’t know,

Across the river is the tower of St Michael’s Church at Bray where the famous Vicar of Bray officiated. I prefer to think of Bray as the home of Bray Studios where the Hammer company made horror films in the 1960s.


008 Glen Island from Boulter's Lock p117


Boulter’s Lock is one of the places that Menpes painted. This view shows the approach to the lock. The picture below shows it as Menpes painted it in a crowded condition.


009 Boulter's Lock p118


Below, a much more exclusive group walks by the river in front of Spring Cottage on the Cliveden Estate.


011 Cliveden, Cottage and Woods p134


Much later Spring Cottage was leased by Stephen Ward and was one of the locations associated with the Profumo affair.

Below. a boating couple are mooring in a secluded spot opposite Formosa Island, one of the many river islands, also called eyots or aits.


012 Formosa Island p135


These pictures have the tendency to make me want to write about long summer afternoons gliding quietly through a still landscape. I did some of that in the Menpes post. Riverscapes give me a sense of nostalgia, not only for my own teenage years when I did a bit of rowing on another quiet river, but also perhaps some of that nostalgia for an imagined past which I have also written about when discussing the Chelsea Pageant or the Whitelands May Queen. It’s a longing for an older,  more idyllic England.

Below, At Bisham two women are boating. Boating was, like cycling one of the leisure pursuits which the “new women” were taking up in larger numbers.


014 Bisham from the river p143


Another bit of local colour below at Medmenham – the building in the centre is Medmenham Abbey, one of the homes of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club,although it would have been a quiet country residence at the time these two parties were rowing by.


015 Medmenham from the river p158


I’m presenting these pictures in the order they appear in the book although I’m not sure how accurate that is. The further up the river the amateur boatsman travelled the more the water landscape was dominate by features like locks and the weir below at Hambleden.


017 Hambleden Weir and Mills p163


At Henley, where the amateurs met the athletes at the Regatta.


020 Henley Regatta p166


The regatta attracted large numbers of visitors by land and water. Some of them came in those huge houseboats like the ones below.


021 Houseboats by Shiplake Ferry p180


Near Shiplake Ferry, a couple of the giant vessels which were like floating hotels.

Just off the river a tranquil backwater. Jerome’s narrator complains extravagantly about landowners who prevented the traveller from entering them with chains across the entrance.


022 Wargrave Backwater p181


Caversham, where Menpes painted another of his boating beauties:


025 Caversham from the river p192


Look back at the old post. It’s the final picture. Can you make out that barn?


027 Streatley from Goring Weir p213


This view of Streatley from Goring Weir has taken us into the heart of that old England of villages, mills and inns.

Jerome describes Streatley and Goring as “charming places to stay at for a few days“. Of the two, Goring was not quite so pretty but it was “nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill.

At the end of their journey Jerome’s three friends abandon the boat at Pangbourne and take the train back to town. They finish up at a restaurant in the West End. They’ve done their time on the River and London has called them home.

We’ll give the last scene to Menpes, a picture I didn’t use last time but easily could have done.


Punting frontispiece


The photographs come from a book called the Thames Illustrated: a picturesque journeying from Richmond to Oxford by Frederick Leyland, published in 1897. I found the text a little dull but there are dozens of excellent pictures in it all showing the slow summer river and the sights beside it. Mortimer Menpes was there a little later in 1906 when the Victorian summer had become an Edwardian summer but not much had changed on the river.

There is even one winter picture,of the Thames at Oxford frozen with a crowd of people walking on it. My mother took me to a frozen river once and we walked on it. I was seven or eight at the time but I never forgot it. However, this is the summer. We can leave all ideas of freezing aside for now.

[later] I’ve noticed that I’m misquoting John Fogerty in the lines above, from his song Green River. It should read “things I love” instead of “things I don’t know”. I was quoting from memory. Somehow I thing my mis-remembered line is better. Green River also contains that evocative line; “Barefoot girls dancing in the moonlight.

Artists, actresses, authors and aristocrats: 20th century celebrities

The history of celebrity doesn’t begin in the 1990s or the 1890s or even the 1790s. The talented, the wealthy and the infamous have been providing entertainment for the general public for centuries. But the technical advances in photojournalism which began in the late 19th century and made it possible for magazines and newspapers to publish photographs on a regular basis were the test bed for celebrity coverage in the early decades of the 20th century. Some of the subjects and techniques of this form of journalism have changed over the years but the basic themes of good looking people living fascinating lives were already there.

Jacob Epstein CS930

Two stories in one in 1912:the young sculptor Jacob Epstein shows off his latest creation, a memorial for Oscar Wilde, to be placed over Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery. In the Daily Chronicle Lewis Hird wrote: “he saw the work in his imagination complete before he touched chisel…Epstein is an Egyptian born in late Victorian days, and to him prudery and prettiness are meaningless….that vast, ageless human-inhuman sphinx-like figure, silent and solitary, grieving yet indifferent”. The moody artist was a common subject. Here is another version:

Augustus John CS934

“Primitive yet strangely modern” is the headline from this 1914 story about “the famous neo-impressionist” Augustus John. The editors of  The Bystander claimed this was “the first true camera study of (this) remarkable personality”.

And don’t forget our old friend Mr Mortimer Menpes, pictured at work in his Japanese house:

Menpes in Lady's Realm articel CS949

The arts provided good subject matter for stories, particularly the theatrical arts:

Miss Thirza Norman and Mr Charles Lander in Romeo and Juliet CS673

Miss Thirza Norman and Mr Charles Lander as Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Court Theatre. The Shakespearian revivals at the Royal Court created many new celebrities.  Here is Miss Ellen O’Malley:

Miss Ellen O'Malley CS675

She’s in costume as Sylvia in the Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Miss Lillah McCarthy as Ann Whitefield in Man and Superman CS689

Miss Lillah McCarthy in a more modern role as Ann Whitefield in G B Shaw’s Man and Superman.

Below, another Shakespearean star of the stage:

Mrs J H Leigh as Miranda CS663

Mrs J H Leigh as Miranda, in the Tempest.

Here she is as herself in a very decorative studio picture:

Mrs J H Leigh CS674

The illustrated magazines were of course also interested in their subjects at home:

Eva Moore - actress at home The King jan 29th 1905 CM1741

Miss Eva Moore, alias Mrs E V Esmond, at home in Whitehead’s Grove with her husband. Mr Esmond admits to a liking for golf, tennis and cycling but his wife is more reticent about her pastimes at home. But the King magazine for January 28th 1905 does say of Mr and Mrs Esmond  that “a more charming host and hostess would be difficult to find”. It’s an early form of the Hello style of visit to a celbrity home.

It’s just a short step from actresses at home to society beauties in their own beautiful establishments.

lady margaret sackville CM1206

Lady Margaret Sackville in her garden at Chelsea. Lady Margaret “has started a toy industry in Chelsea which is so successful that it leaves no time for the writing of poems, at which Lady Margaret excels”. Fortunately, there was a little time in the day for sitting by fountains. (Lady Margarert has adopted a form of rustic or artistic dress, which definitely makes the picture more charming)

A few years later another photogenic young woman was writing a novel:

Miss Phoebe Fenwick Gaye CM2284 01

Vivandiere was a romance set in the Napoleonic Wars. Miss Gaye got the idea after attending the Chelsea Arts Ball in a costume of the period. She looks introspective and thoughtful in this picture but rather more glamorous in this one from 1929:

Miss Phoebe Fenwick Gaye CM2284 03

Her novel had been praised by Arnold Bennett and was becoming a best seller according to the Sketch. Miss Gaye went on to write several more novels and biographies.

Another high achieving lady of 1929:

Lady Maud Hoare CM2249 01

Lady Maud Hoare, wife of the Air Minister and MP for Chelsea. She had gone with her husband on a 12000 mile round trip to inaugurate the London-Cairo-Delhi air service apparently the first woman to travel so far by air, for which she was made a Dame of the British Empire.

We started with a sculptor so we’ll finish with one too.

Mr and Mrs Lambert CM2244

Mr Maurice Lambert and his wife Olga. Note the bust of Stephen Tennant (one of the most  prominent of the bright young things and apparently the model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited) on the shelf behind them. Lambert was the brother of the composer Constant Lambert who was the father of Kit Lambert the first manager of the Who. That brings us more or less to the modern age of celebrity which is another story altogether.

Mr Menpes on the river

There are several parallels between the work of Mortimer Menpes and Yoshio Markino. Markino brought a Japanese sensibility to the way he looked at London and Londoners, and an outsider’s eye for the unfamiliar sights of his new home. He was particularly fascinated by the river. This fascination was shared by Menpes who published this book, The Thames in 1906 in collaboration with G E Mitton.

00 Thames

Menpes also brought an outsider’s viewpoint to the river. Remember, he was from Australia and had been brought up in quite a different climate and landscape. So it’s not surprising that while Markino concentrated on London’s river, the tidal Thames with its bridges, embankments and fast flowing water, Menpes was captivated by the other Thames above the tide. This was still a world of country towns, lazy river pursuits and long still sunny days -that late Victorian / Edwardian summer epitomised by Jerome K Jerome’s Three men in a boat or Kenneth Grahame’s the Wind in the Willows.

Pangbourne p4

The other thing Menpes shares with Markino is an eye for the picturesque qualities of the new women of the Edwardian era. Sometimes they lounge casually under a parasol with the obligatory small dog who, like his literary ancestor Montmorency is an essential part of the crew for a river journey in a small rowing boat. Sometimes they took the oar themselves.

Pangbourne from the Swan Hotel p64

In this case it looks like the same woman, slightly sad about having to dump her companion but happy to be making some progress at last. The upper Thames had declined as a route for commercial traffic but had seen an enormous growth in boating for pleasure. There were tranquil backwaters suitable for punting.

Dorchester backwater p52

Deserted stretches, given over to wild life.

Goring p62

“Hear the lark and harken to the barking of the dog fox gone to ground.
See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water.
And a river of green is sliding unseen beneath the trees,
Laughing as it passes through the endless summer making for the sea.”

There were plenty of places for river sports, boathouses for the small rowing skiffs and the solitary canoeist:

Radley College boathouse p34

But the river was also a site of mass entertainment. Large gatherings of pleasure seekers attended events like Henley Regatta as they still do today. These events were attended in huge numbers by the new middle classes who had leisure time to fill and the ability to travel to formerly exclusive spots by train and river boat.

Henley Regatte p100

Along with the rowing boats in all sizes there were the giant houseboats, like floating hotels which were towed from one riverside event to another. These were the glory days of the upper Thames. The picture below is of Boulter’s Lock on Ascot Sunday:

Boulter's Lock Ascot Sunday p128

A traffic jam of river craft in the narrow waterway. Below, the area near the lock where larger  boats and  steam launches wait their turn. You can even see one of the luxurious houseboats (gin palaces as one of Jerome’s characters called them) although I doubt if could go through the lock.

Below Boulter's Lock p130

By the end of the day the crowds of fashionable pleasure seekers had withdrawn to their houseboats and inns or just made the journey home and the river was calm again.

Hampton Court from the river p178

All the different kinds of river craft had made their way to a mooring.

Rose Garden at Sonning p72

The very fortunate had a pleasant riverside dwelling to return to as the sun went down.

Streatley Inn p18

The sun hangs low in the sky and the river people are indoors telling stories about their exploits on the water.

Mapledurham Mill p66

“If I had wings and I could fly,
I know where I would go.
But right now I’ll just sit here so contentedly
And watch the river flow.”

Hambleden p102

The picture below is my favourite of Menpes’s illustrations of his river journey. A woman finds a comfortable spot and nods off on a quite summer afternoon. Her parasol slips back, but her face is still shaded by her wide brimmed hat. Her unseen companion sits quietly at the stern so as not to disturb her. Even the dog sits calmly enjoying the same relaxed moment as his human companions.

“Put on a gown that touches the ground
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily “

Sad eyed lady of the lowland

The peaceful moment lives on forever.

“The river flows
It flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes
That’s where I want to be
Flow river flow
Let your waters wash down
Take me from this road
To some other town.”


Lyrics by Roger Waters and Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds) and Bob Dylan.

Everybody knows Jerome K Jerome’s Three men in a boat but for a modern day version of a river journey try one of my favourite books, Nigel Williams’ Two and a half men in a boat.

We’ll come down to the river again one day I’m sure.

Finally, thanks to Kat for all her work in Local Studies, and for her friendship.

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.

%d bloggers like this: