Our book today is a heavy, sumptuous thing from the first year of the previous century, before world wars and world plagues and looming world destruction, before anybody had ever heard the words ‘nuclear warhead’ or ‘genocide’ or ‘global warming.’ It’s a seemingly innocent tour of the world by the celebrated artist Mortimer Menpes, World Pictures, with copious running commentary written up by his daughter Dorothy.
Menpes was an Australian-born student of Whistler, a very talented hack in etchings, oils, and watercolors, and World Pictures is lavishly illustrated throughout in color and black and white. In picture after picture, Menpes tries to capture not just the sites and light of the far-flung places he visits (England, France, Brittany, Holland, China, India, Japan … in fact, a glance at the Table of Contents reveals that the book’s outstanding snub is Germany) but also the faces of the people in all their moods. He had a predictably Edwardian soft spot for laughing children and quirky old people, and his descriptions of his various locations are tour-guide friendly:
How delightful it is to travel in Japan: to feast one’s eyes on the gorgeous sweet-stalls and the tea-houses, the theatre exteriors so characteristic of the country, the fairs and markets, the small children blowing soap bubbles through straight straws, the booths shaded with multi-coloured umbrellas, the brilliantly-coloured crimson lanterns, the quiet canals, and the curtained entrances to the shops; the demure children of the streets with their short-cropped heads and audacious faces, and their bamboo trumpets; the golden dragon screens, displayed for sale in the shops; the dye-works of Osaka, with the strips of blue fabric hanging up to dry; or the fair at Kioto, where behind the umbrella-shaped stalls you see the great stone lamps with which the Japanese cities are lighted.
Which isn’t to imply that he considered himself a tourist – just the opposite. All throughout World Pictures there’s a repeated note of defensiveness, of not being a three-night stopover visitor to the places he stays. “I lived six months in Venice, and I saw and painted the superb city of the Doges under every possible aspects,” he tells us, and when he gets to the Jewel in the Crown, he unconsciously uses the exact same phrasing:
I have seen India in every possible aspect, its churches and houses, its streets with native shops and workers in brass and metal, its sacred rivers with their house-boats and pilgrims; and my opinion is, that the aesthetic and artistic possibilities, in various forms, that are to be found in our great Indian Empire – that empire of which every Englishmen is so justly proud, and of which most Englishmen know so little – are not to be surpassed in any country on the face of the globe.
He was proud of his artistic abilities, and rightly so: the work on display in World Pictures is uniformly charming and intelligently rendered, always looking at the sunny side of distant lands (and near ones; the opening pages on England are some of the sweetest in the whole book), never hinting or even guessing at the forces broiling under the surface of so many of the places where he set up his easel. There’s an innocent wonder reflected in these pages, over and above the strength lent to such an element by our awareness of how much of the world Menpes draws would soon be changed beyond recognition. I have no idea of Menpes’ artwork is remembered by connoisseurs or bought by them or shown by them, but finding this grand old book (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course) made me want to find all the other books he illustrated in his career.
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