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Described as a modern Gainsborough and tenderly memorialised in The Times as ‘a painter of mood and temperament’ the day after his death, Ambrose McEvoy should have been remembered as one of the most successful British portrait painters of the early twentieth century. However, within 30 years, his portraits were no longer fashionable, his work was described as exhibiting ‘startling vulgarity’ and his contribution to British art was soon forgotten.

His portraits, defined by broad, impatient brushstrokes, are largely experimental in their impressionistic style and can be described as combining classical painting with modernism. Although his subjects are often sedentary, McEvoy successfully dictates a sense of movement through his furious alla prima technique. Daphne Pollen, who had sat to McEvoy as a child, described the artist perched on a low sloping chair with the legs sawn off at an angle and 20 to 30 paintbrushes ready to be devoured per sitting. McEvoy was one of the first artists to use a combination of natural and artificial light. This mixed lighting, often shone from below using bare lightbulbs precariously pinned to furniture, not only provided an increased depth to his portraits but allowed McEvoy to work late into the evenings on dark winter nights.

Ambrose McEvoy’s artistic talent was recognised at an early age by his father, Captain Charles Ambrose McEvoy, and his father’s friend, the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Captain McEvoy was an Irish-American mercenary who served in the Confederate army in the American Civil War and it was whilst in service that he became well acquainted with Whistler’s brother. On relocating to England, Captain McEvoy became friends with the artist and Whistler actively encouraged McEvoy’s son, Ambrose, to join the Slade School of Fine Art at the age of 15.

It was at the Slade in 1893 that McEvoy became friends with the artist Augustus John who described McEvoy, with his monocle, his straight black hair and his black suit, as owing his appearance to Whistler – he was a perfect ‘arrangement in black and white’.

Whereas John was interested in Watteau and Rembrandt, McEvoy was inspired by the early Italians and the English Pre-Raphaelites and spent his time copying works by Titian and Velasquez in the National Gallery. It was almost certainly this meticulous replication of Old Masters that encouraged McEvoy’s interest in figurative painting and developed his unique ability to capture human character. Augustus John’s sister, Gwen, was also a student at the Slade School of Fine Art and embarked on a stormy affair with McEvoy, ending with Gwen heart-broken at the announcement of McEvoy’s engagement to fellow student Mary Augusta Spencer Edwards.

In 1909 McEvoy visited Dieppe with Walter Sickert, who was well-acquainted with the French Impressionists and established a long-term friendship with Edgar Degas. McEvoy became influenced by Sickert’s looser technique and in the years that followed he embarked on an increasingly impressionistic style. He became a founder member of the National Portrait Society in 1911 and during the First World War spent three months on the front line producing several portraits of naval officers, these are now in the Imperial War Museum in London. Although his war portraits are very accomplished, it was his paintings of female subjects that made him famous. His full-length portrait of Maude Louise Baring (née Lorillard), the daughter of an American tobacco magnate, defined McEvoy as a fashionable portrait painter amongst the London elite.

Throughout the first half of the 1920s, whilst Cecil Beaton was photographing the Bright Young Things (the famous group of salacious and bohemian young socialites), McEvoy was painting them. Amongst his sitters were the Jungman sisters, Teresa and Zita, Lady Diana Cooper, Diana Manners and the famous Lois Sturt, wild child and the Brightest of the Bright Young Things. It was these portraits that not only made McEvoy increasingly sought-after in the 1920s but eventually led to his posthumous downfall, in an exhausted post-war Britain which had outgrown its interest in risqué young aristocrats.

In 1924 at the peak of his career, McEvoy was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. However, overwork took its toll and he died only three years later on 4th January 1927, a week after contracting pneumonia. His wife Mary and two children, Michael and Anna, survived him. Although the work of Ambrose McEvoy has been overlooked since his premature death, he contributed hugely to early modern British portraiture with transitioning styles and constant experimentation in technique. His portraits, although working from weeks and months of sittings with an individual, appeared effortless to his contemporaries and his close friend Augustus John wrote, after McEvoy’s death, that he ‘never seemed to work hard but had great facility and an immense zest for life’. His portraits exist in a number of public and private collections across the world.

Lydia Miller, Researcher at Philip Mould & Company

Further reading

‘Obituary. Mr. Ambrose McEvoy’, The Times, 1927

‘Ambrose McEvoy: A Cautionary Tale Re-Told’, The Times, 1953

D. Pollen, I Remember I Remember, privately published, 2008, p.158

Augustus John, Autobiography, 1975, p.52

W. Rothenstein, Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872–1900, Vol I, 1931, pp.333–334