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Menpes, Mortimer Luddington (1855–1938)

by Thea Cowan

from Sydney Morning Herald

Mortimer Menpes left Australia because he was an artist and realised, with his quick intuition, that to develop his art he must go to Europe. Soon after he arrived in London he met Jimmy Whistler, and they used to go off together for long tramps through Holland, Whistler searching in second-hand bookshops for the blank pages of the old Dutch handmade paper which he wanted for his etchings, Menpes with his pencil producing masterpieces in black and white. During his years of study he married. When his younger daughter, Dorothy, was born, Whistler became her godfather and incidentally Mrs Arthur Stannard, whose name as a writer in London was known by her nom de plume, John Strange Winter, was her godmother.

Whistler was a great conversationalist and Menpes a born raconteur, so their long talks together would have been well worth listening to. Whistler was not what he called "aggressively American," and Menpes was not aggressively Australian. Whistler found in Japanese art much that he had been searching for, and its influence began to be felt in his famous paintings. Menpes decided to take his wife and young family—he had four children at that time—to Japan. Having found what he wanted in Japan, Mortimer Menpes returned to Europe. He went to Paris and insisted on taking his little daughter with him. While he worked hard in the day, Dorothy played about the studio in the Quartier Latin.

After preparing many pictures from his sketches, Mortimer said: "The world sighs for colour, and I will give it colour." His exhibition of his own paintings was an instantaneous success in London, the whole world of art critics and connoisseurs welcomed him. When Dorothy was about fifteen, Menpes, who worshipped his daughter, decided that he would write a book about Japan and that she should be his amanuensis. He strode up and down his studio talking, telling stories, which Dorothy had to put in book form, while he worked at the illustrations. He took art seriously, and he resolved that he must have a house as Japanese as possible, so one was built just off Cadogan Gardens, and it was thronged with the people who were famous in art and letters of the day.

Then Mortimer became enthusiastic over the Thames. He sighed for the upper reaches of the river, so a house was built at Pangbourne, which Mrs. Menpes decided to call "Iris Court." Later Menpes strolled around the galleries of Europe deciding which of the pictures of the old masters he should reproduce. His search led him to Russia, where the Czar showed him the famous Rembrandts at the Hermitage. When he returned, enthusiastically the Menpes family set to work to publish reproductions. Then "Mortie" bethought him of his native land; he remembered how he had been artistically starved for want of seeing the pictures by the old masters, so he gave a party and invited the cream of London society to come to the presentation of his prints to Sir William Lyne, who was in London representing the Commonwealth of Australia at the Coronation of his Majesty the late King George V. Mrs. Brown Potter, whom Menpes painted as often as Romney painted Lady Hamilton, was at the party, and still beautiful.

During the Great War Menpes lost one of his sons, and now from England comes the news of his own passing.

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Citation details

Thea Cowan, 'Menpes, Mortimer Luddington (1855–1938)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/menpes-mortimer-luddington-14566/text25675, accessed 18 September 2019.

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