Mrs McEwen of Marchmont and Bardrochat, with her daughters, Katharine and Elizabeth
Sir John Lavery RA RSA RHA (1856–1941)
Oil on canvas
87¼ x 48 inches; 221 x 122 cm
Verso, "Mrs McEwen with Margaret and Katharine / by John Lavery / 5 Cromwell Place London sw, 1907"
London, New Gallery, 1908, no.251
[See commentary below]
The Fine Art Society, London, has most generously given its permission to use information, images, and text from its catalogues in the Victorian Web, and this generosity has led to the creation of hundreds and hundreds of the site's most valuable documents on painting, drawing, sculpture, furniture, textiles, ceramics, glass, metalwork, and the people who created them. The copyright on text and images from their catalogues remains, of course, with the Fine Art Society. [GPL]
Commentary by Kenneth McConkey
In Lavery’s Mrs McEwen of Marchmont and Bardrochat, with her daughters, Katharine and Elizabeth, a woman and her two girls look directly at us. Mary Frances Dundas McEwen1 appears aloof, and her children, nestling in the folds of her skirt seem shy, yet curious about the business of being painted. For fifteen years she had been married to Robert Finnie McEwen, the current head of an old Scottish clan, with its seat at Bardrochat in Ayrshire.2 A sophisticated and fashionable woman, Mrs McEwen had clear expectations of her chosen painter, ruling out intimate sketches or portrait interiors – both of which Lavery could provide. The advanced tastes of the sitter matched the painter’s aesthetic preoccupation with grand manner portraiture of the type being developed by James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini.
Scale, formality and aesthetic refinement, were what was required in this case (see McConkey 93-94). These abstract qualities, recognized by stylish Scots sitters, distinguished his work from that of his immediate rivals on the international stage. He was not constrained by the inherited rules and conventions of the full-length portrait. Early examples that show variations in the format and the introduction of sons and daughters as secondary figures, began in the early nineties with Mrs Lawrie and Edwin, 1891 (Modern Gallery, Venice) and Mrs J.J. Cowan and Laura, 1892 (Private Collection).4They were often planned in small oil sketches, just as Reynolds had done, and Veláquez was thought to do.5 The practice did not stop him from altering compositions if necessary, at a late stage – as occurred with Père et Fille, 1898 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
By 1898, Lavery had left Glasgow for London. He was pursued south by Scottish clients such as Mr Justice Darling, Sir Patrick Ford and Robert Finnie McEwen of Bardrochat. In all three instances, husbands commissioned portraits of their wives and children. Mrs McEwen of Bardrochat, with her daughters, Katharine and Elizabeth, was executed either just before or just after Lavery’s winter sojourn in Tangier and in time for the opening of the spring exhibition of the New Gallery in 1908.7 Although he avoided the byways of Pre-Raphaelitism for which it was renowned, Lavery saw the New Gallery as an important outlet for painters who had been considered too avant-garde for the Royal Academy.
Lavery realised that in 1908 the competition for commissions of the McEwen type lay in fellow New Gallery exhibitors such as James Jebusa Shannon and George Henry.8 But where they indulged in pyrotechnics and contorted poses, courting comparison with eighteenth-century portraitists, Mrs McEwen of Bardrochat, … was admired for its restraint and for the subtlety of its colour harmonies. Lavery sought distinction in a simple arrangement of standing figures. The Graphic, which illustrated the painting, referred to its ‘refined colour scheme’, while Frank Rinder, in The Art Journal praised the picture for its ‘fresh and gracious unity’. ‘The design’, he declared, ‘aptly suggests protectiveness; the quiet greys and gleaming whites are suavely handled …’ And The Studio, concurred, noting that it ‘pleases by its elegance and dignity of arrangement … as a decorative composition it is … admirable and it is designed with excellent taste.’
In what was to be one of the last New Gallery exhibitions, Frank Rutter bemoaned the passing of old fashioned beauty, of the Pre-Raphaelite type. The show’s centrepiece was a large tapestry entitled The Passing of Venus, woven by Morris and Co. The new beauty, by contrast lay in subtle arrangements and sensitive handling of character that the present work exemplified. As the New English Art Club became more exclusive and orientated towards former Slade students, the New Gallery was briefly the main alternative London salon to the Royal Academy and it flourished in the early years of the century, only to falter in 1909 when the site was sold to become a cinema.9
It was therefore the ideal place in which the restrained harmonies of the McEwen group could be displayed. Mary McEwen dressed in diaphanous greys might be sufficient as a full-length, but for contemporary observers, Elizabeth and Katharine added innocence to her experience. Maternal ‘protectiveness’, noted by Rinder, was the subplot of the ensemble. As in Lord and Lady Windsor and their Family, 1906 (The Earl of Plymouth) and Mrs MacConochie and her Three Children, 1908 (Private Collection) there was an interesting overall design to be established. Addressing the problems of coherence in a figure group, undoubtedly prepared Lavery for his most important challenges such as The Artist’s Studio 1911 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) and The King, The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Princess Mary, Buckingham Palace, 1913 (National Portrait Gallery). This roll-call was however punctuated by that significant moment in 1907 when Mrs McEwen and her daughters arrived in the studio in 5 Cromwell Place.
[Longer notes appear as separate documents.]
4. Lavery procured the commission to paint J.J. Cowan’s portrait (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) for Whistler (McConkey 2010, pp.60).
5. The Kingston Lacy Las Meninas (National Trust), now given to Mazo, was in Lavery’s day, popularly thought to be Veláquez’ autograph sketch for the painting the Prado Museum
7. Although the precise dating of Lavery’s trips to Tangier is impossible, he seems to have left London early in the New Year, returning in March.
McConkey, Kenneth. Lavery and the Glasgow Boys. Exhibition Catalogue. Clandeboye, County Down: The Ava Gallery; Edinburgh: Bourne Fine Art; London: The Fine Art Society, 2010. No. 23.
Sparrow, Walter Shaw. John Lavery and his Work. London: Kegan Paul, Trubner, Trench and Co, n.d .
Last modified 4 October 2011