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WHO WAS MORTIMER MENPES?

DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND: LETTERS FROM AMERICA


Having been alerted by the stalwart editor of our Newsletter to the recent auction of a drawing of Whistler by Mortimer Menpes (see below), this seems an opportune time to consider the connection between those two men. As it happens, Menpes enjoyed one of the most successful artistic areers among Whistler’s many London “followers,” exceeded in reputation only by Walter Sickert. While not Whistler’s students in the formal sense, these young men were none the less devoted to the Master. They might visit exhibitions with him, tour the National Gallery in his company, dine with him, or assist him in the studio. Some even mimicked him in dress and habits. Of course, being on intimate terms with Whistler could come at a cost. His ideas about honour and standards of personal loyalty sometimes brought rebukes, ridicule, or banishment. Menpes knew both the joys and the perils of being one of Whistler’s favourites.

Menpes was born in 1855 of English parents at Port Adelaide, South Australia. After studying art locally, he moved to London with the rest of his family in 1875 and continued his studies at the National Art Training School, in South Kensington, then headed by Edward Poynter. Menpes’s strength was drawing, and he had already exhibited etchings at the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery when he met Whistler in 1880. He swiftly

joined the “claque” of about a dozen fledgling artists that formed around Whistler, “all young, all ardent, all poor,” as one of them recalled. It was perhaps Menpes’s passion for etching that found him assisting Whistler in the studio. He proclaimed unabashedly, “I was almost a slave in his service, ready and only too anxious to help, no matter in how small a way. . . . I simply fagged for Whistler and gloried in the task.”

All went well for several years. Menpes, along with Sickert, accompanied Whistler on a month-long sojourn to St. Ives in 1883-84. He travelled with him again on a visit to Belgium and Holland with American painter William Merritt Chase in 1885. Earlier that year, he had been one of a few trusted friends, along with Sickert, Alan Cole, and Harper Pennington, to whom Whistler gave trial performances of his Ten O’Clock lecture. Based on their reactions and suggestions, Whistler tweaked sentences, shifted paragraphs, and reordered pages. Menpes subsequently stood by Whistler during his rocky tenure as president of the Royal Society of British Artists.

There were personal ties, too. Menpes and his wife Rosa named their second child, born in 1884, Dorothy Whistler Menpes, and asked Whistler to be her godfather. About a year later, Whistler painted her portrait. A couple of years after that, he made a charming etching of several of the Menpes children at play in a garden.

Then, it all fell apart. Few people could resist the handsome Australian’s “strange, whimsical, and mysterious air,” but he had a talent for testing Whistler’s patience. In 1885, Menpes borrowed some of Whistler’s frames without permission for an exhibition. “How dare you,” Whistler chastised. “Do you realize that I lifted you more or less out of the gutter, artistically?” he asked. “Saved you; cleansed you; allowed you the intimacy of my studio. . . . More than that, I made a friend of you.”

That storm passed, but a final blow came in 1888. Menpes, who had come to share Whistler’s admiration for Asian art, visited Japan in 1887. Influenced by what he saw and by what he had learned from Whistler, he published, upon his return, an article on Japanese Art in the Magazine of Art and another in the Pall Mall Gazette about interior design. He then crowned his return with a highly successful exhibition of his new work at London’s Dowdeswell Gallery.

Like several of Whistler’s followers, including Sickert, Menpes was trying to establish his own identity by the late 1880s. Whistler, however, saw these signs of independence as an affront to him. That Menpes, unlike himself, should have visited “his” Japan was bad enough, but then to pass off Whistlerian theories and ideas as though they were his own was intolerable. Whistler complained publicly about kangaroos who put things in their own pockets, and in a terse private note to Menpes, instructed, “You will blow your brains out, of course. . . .Goodbye!”

To his credit, Menpes rose above the pettiness. Explaining in quite pragmatic terms the cause of their break, he said, “I too had a career to make, and was determined to succeed. . . . One or the other, however, had to be sacrificed—either Whistler’s friendship or my own career—and in the struggle friendship went to the wall.” Yet, Menpes continued to applaud Whistler’s work. In 1904, shortly after the Master’s death, he published Whistler As I Knew Him, his admiring, if disappointingly uneven, reminiscences of their time together. Equally, though, Menpes left us a marvelous series of drawings of Whistler, the one recently auctioned being part of dozens of sketches that showed him in a variety of postures and moods.

Menpes thought of them as caricatures, but he drew with fondness and respect. He sent an early effort to Oscar Wilde, seeking Wilde’s opinion of how successfully he had captured his subject. “I have tried, & some (Mr Swinburne Mr Burne Jones & others),” he explained, “think I have succeeded in putting a certain element of satire into the portrait. The history of caricature has already been written but I should be grateful if so high an authority as yourself considers the matter to show qualities or if the method has your approval.”

We do not have Wilde’s reply and do not know what Whistler thought of this or any of Menpes’s work. I suspect Whistler enjoyed the drawings. There was no reason for him not to have done. There is some irony, though, that Menpes fell out of favour with Whistler for the same reason as Wilde. Both men had played the kangaroo.



Image Credits

Mortimer Menpes in a Kimono photograph.

Note in Flesh Colour and Grey: Portrait of Miss Dorothy Menpes (1884-85) by James Abbott McNeill

Whistler (1834-1903) oil on canvas, Private Collection (YMSM 260)

The Menpes Children (1887) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) etching, Freer Gallery of Art Collection

Portrait of Whistler (circa 1890) drypoint, etching by Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938)


We continue to be grateful to Dan Sutherland for his Letters from America. They originate from his notes and research for his forthcoming book which will explore the enduring influence of James McNeill Whistler and the lives of those he knew and inspired.


NEWSLETTER No. 38 April 2022
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