Tag Archives: Whistler

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.

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.

Down by the River: Chelsea Reach in the 1860s


This is Chelsea Reach where today you will see a collection of picturesque houseboats. The boats are a long established Chelsea institution which have braved bad weather and road widening schemes alike but long before they were there the Reach was a place for working boats. Most of the houses in the background are still there but you will no longer see sailing barges resting on the foreshore or the sign on the wall at the centre of the picture.  Don’t strain your eyes trying to read it. Here is a closer view:

The name of course is Greaves. This is the family business of Walter and Henry Greaves, amateur artists as well as boatmen. The street behind the wall looks calm and prosperous, the passersby are unhurried. This is a quiet residential stretch of the riverside. The tightly packed shops and taverns of Lombard Street/ Duke Street are just out of shot. To the left the road leads to Cremorne Gardens. But no-one is in a hurry to get there this morning. A man sits on the wall. Could that be one of the Greaves brothers themselves keeping a eye on James Hedderly, who has carried all his photographic equipment onto the muddy river bed? We think they were acquainted maybe even friends as fellow tradesmen of Chelsea’s riverside. (Hedderly was a sign writer at this point in his life).

Hedderly took many photographs of this area. Here are some of the barges moored to the west of the Greaves boatyard:

In the background you can see the old Battersea Bridge looking ethereal, although this is probably due to the quality of the photograph rather than weather conditions on the day.

Here a little further down is a pair of coal barges at Lindsey Wharf:

And a close-up of the men working on the barge, pausing to face the photographer and look out at us:

The next picture looks back at the Greaves boatyard from the east :

Just behind the boats to let sign is another for Lindsey Wharf. The boats built and rented out by the Greaves family were mostly rowing boats. The brothers rowed customers out on the river themselves. Some of those trips were purely business, taking passengers to their destinations like river taxis as boatmen on the Thames have done for centuries.  But Chelsea was already a place for artists and some of the passengers were making sketches of what they saw from the river. One of those customers was James McNeill Whistler who would have a profound effect on the lives of the Greaves family.

This is a view at low tide probably taken from the bridge, shows what must have been the whole of the Greaves business, the narrow rowing boats sitting on pontoons waiting for customers.

When I started writing this post I intended to take you all the way along Chelsea’s riverside, but we seem to have lingered in one small stretch of water. Perhaps it’s the spell of the river or perhaps post-Christmas languor. Either way we’ll be back here again before too long both with Mr Hedderly and the Greaves family.

I hope you all had a happy Christmas.


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