Mortimer Menpes, RBA RE RI ROI NEAC (1855-1938) Gaining fame as a member of the circle of James McNeill Whistler, Australian-born Mortimer Menpes developed a style that tempered nineteenth-century realism with the bright, spare aesthetic of Japonisme. Equally skilled in watercolour, oil and etching, he exhibited widely and frequently, and became an active and popular member of many clubs and societies.
Mortimer Menpes was born in Port Adelaide, Australia, on 22 February 1855, the sixth of eight children of an English-born draper. He was privately educated at Adelaide Educational Institution, and while there received lessons in art, first from Charles Hill, and then from Wilton Hack. He also attended classes at Adelaide School of Design under John Hood. In 1875, Menpes moved to London with members of his family and his fiancée, Rose Mary Grosse, the only child and heir of a wealthy Adelaide ironmonger and ship’s chandler. Still both minors, he and Rose married at All Soul’s Langham Place on 27 April 1875.
Living first in Westminster, they had moved to Fulham by 1878, when Rose gave birth to the first of their six children. In that year, Menpes began to study under Edward Poynter at the National Art Training School, South Kensington (which later became the Royal College of Art). He spent the following two summers working at the artists’ colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. Taking up printmaking in 1880, he exhibited two drypoints at the Royal Academy, the first of 35 works that he would show there over the next two decades.
In the winter of 1880-81, Menpes met James McNeill Whistler, who soon induced him to abandon his studies at the South Kensington Schools and join Walter Sickert as another of his disciples and studio assistants. As a result, he became part of a circle of like-minded artists who absorbed the developments of Impressionism and approved, in particular, the achievement of Degas. Among his various roles, he helped print Whistler’s Second Venice Set of etchings in 1883. Beginning to exhibit widely and with great success, he was soon elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (1881), the Royal Society of British Artists (1885) and the New English Art Club (1886).
Following a visit to Japan in 1887, Menpes broke with Whistler; he refused to sign himself ‘Pupil of Whistler’ on the images that he had made on the trip and exhibited at the first of many solo shows, at Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell in spring 1888. Then, when, later the same year, he decorated his new house at 25 Cadogan Gardens, Kensington, in the style japonais, Whistler accused him of copying his own ideas and attempted to destroy his reputation.
Menpes returned to Japan in 1896 and continued to travel extensively, producing paintings and, from 1901, illustrating books for A & C Black, the first of which recorded his impressions of South Africa during the Boer War. The texts were sometimes written by his daughter, Dorothy, though they rarely met with the enthusiasm of the publisher. His close association with A & C Black lasted only until 1917, though his involvement with its Menpes Series of Great Masters continued for longer. In all, he produced well over 900 watercolours for reproduction. Menpes was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1897 and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in 1899. He also became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1890.
By 1910, Menpes was sharing his time between 13 Shelley Court, Tite Street, Chelsea, and Iris Court, Pangbourne, Berkshire, where he ran his own fruit farm and carnation nurseries, and also the Menpes Press. He died in Wokingham on 1 April 1938.
Futher reading: Michael Parkin, ‘Menpes, Mortimer Luddington (1855- 1938)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 37, pages 818-819; Rosemary T Smith, ‘Menpes, Mortimer (b Port Adelaide, Australia, 22 Feb 1855; d Pangbourne, England, 1 April 1938)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 21, page 138