Sir John Lavery's Mrs. McEwen of Marhmont and Bardrochat & Her Daughters
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Philip Alexius de Laszlo

Mary Frances Dundas McEwen
1913 / 1914

Mrs. Robert Finnie McEwen of Marchmont and Bardrochat, with her Daughters, Katharine and Elizabeth
Sir John Lavery -- Irish painter
Private collection
Oil on Canvas

221 x 122 cm (87 ¼ x 48 in.)
Signed; inscribed on the reverse Mrs. McEwen with Margaret and Katharine/by John Lavery/5 Cromwell Place London SW, 1907



“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 McEwen appears aloof, and her children, nestling in the folds of her skirt seem shy, yet curious about the business of being painted. Her illustrious lineage on her mother’s side can be traced back to her grandfather, Field Marshall Sir Robert Napier, First Baron Napier of Magdala, a veteran of colonial campaigns.[1] For fifteen years she had been married to Robert Finnie McEwen, the . . . 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. Grandeur, scale, formality and aesthetic refinement, were what was required in this case.

The social splendour of the full-length portrait had been rediscovered by painters and patrons at the end of the nineteenth century. It was a form that immediately implied distinction and John Lavery was one of its early practitioners. Following the success of his large commemorative canvas portraying The State Visit of Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition, 1888, his position as the leading young artist in the west of Scotland was unchallenged. This important commission from Glasgow City Council effectively underwrote his career by giving him an entrée to his future clientele – members of the Scots aristocracy, the professional classes and nouveaux riches industrialists.[3] Their advanced tastes matched the painter’s aesthetic preoccupation with grand manner portraiture of the type being developed by James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini.[4] All were emulating the work of seventeenth century court painters, but where Sargent and Boldini looked increasingly to Van Dyck, Whistler and Lavery were devotees of Velazquez. Early in his career, Lavery had imbibed Whistlerian principles which insisted upon figures standing back from the spectator, ‘within their frames.’ In the last years of Whistler’s life, when he and Lavery were in regular communication, the American painter denigrated the flashy brushwork and vulgar realism of much contemporary portraiture, insisting upon the restraint and decorum of the Spanish master.[5]

Lavery shared these beliefs. He visited the Prado on two occasions in 1891 and 1892, and copied Velazquez’ portraits. Henceforth, much attention would be given to the placing of the figure within the rectangle, the sense of movement in its pose and the subtle relationships of colour and tone. 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).[6] They were often planned in small oil sketches, just as Reynolds had done, and Velazquez was thought to do.[7] 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).[8]

By 1898, Lavery had left Glasgow for London and already had spent extended periods of time painting in Rome and Berlin. The Baillies of Glasgow however recalled him to paint a large mural of Shipbuilding on the Clyde, for the newly-constructed City Chambers and 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.[9] Although he avoided the byways of Aestheticism 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. As an outsider, he submitted to it and to the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers during his vice-presidency, 1898-1908.[10] Only in 1911 when elected Associate, did he return to the Academy, at which point his reputation was unassailable.[11]

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.[12] Sargent, also exhibiting, was not regarded as being as ‘executively brilliant as usual’, although he had established important precedents for ‘mother and children’ groups. But where Shannon and Henry indulged in pyrotechnics and contorted poses, courting comparison with eighteenth century portraitists, Mrs. McEwen of Bardrochat, with her daughters, Katharine and Elizabeth was admired for its restraint and for the subtlety of it colour harmonies. Lavery sought distinction in a simple arrangement of standing figures.[13] The hostile Athenaeum critic conceded that although the tonal gradations had been ‘tampered with’ to reduce the contrasts in the heads, the work ‘has movement and distinction’. The more generous 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 the penultimate New Gallery exhibition, 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, and based upon the last cartoon produced by Edward Burne-Jones. The new beauty lay in subtle arrangements and sensitive handling of character that the present work exemplified.[14] 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.[15]

It was therefore the ideal place in which the restrained harmonies of the McEwen group could be displayed. Mary Frances Dundas McEwen dressed in diaphanous greys and pale gold might be sufficient on her own, but for contemporary observers, Elizabeth and Katharine added innocence to her experience. In addition to a demanding subject, Lavery faced the challenge of representing her restless youthful offspring who are intrigued by the process of being painted. Maternal ‘protectiveness’, noted by Rinder, was the sub-plot of the ensemble. As in Mrs. Spottiswoode and Betty, 1901 (unlocated), 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).[16] 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.”

Special thanks to Matt Davies, from Kansas City, a friend of the JSS Gallery, for running this painting down for us.

Frank Rutter, ‘The Passing of Venus’, The Academy 2 May 1908, p. 74; Frank Rinder, ‘The New Gallery’, The Art Journal, 1908, pp. 171-2; ‘The New Gallery’, The Athenaeum, 2 May 1908, p. 548; ‘The New Gallery’, The Graphic, 2 May 1908, p. 618 (illustrated p. 611); WKW, ‘The Twenty-first Summer Exhibition of the New Gallery’, The Studio, Vol. 44, June 1908, p. 51, illus p. 45 as Mrs. McEwen of Bardrochat with Kathennie and Elizabeth (sic); Anon, ‘The New Gallery’, The Times, 24 April 1908, p. 10; Walter Shaw Sparrow, John Lavery and his Work, n.d., [1911] (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co), p. 188.

London, New Gallery, 1908, no. 251

The painting, as of 9/9/2005 was  offered for sale through Richard Green

[1] Mary Frances Dundas (1864-1944) was the daughter of Henry Robert Duncan Dundas of Dundas and Catherine Anne Carrington Napier, the daughter of Robert Cornelis Napier, 1st Baron Napier of Magdala. Napier had served on the North West Frontier, during the Indian Mutiny and in the daring rescue of British Diplomats in Abyssinia. He ended his career as Commander-in-Chief in India. Henry Robert Duncan Dundas of Dundas, her father, was the then current representative of one of the oldest Scottish clans, dating back to the 12th century. Like the Napiers, his family had served the British Empire in India in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Their family seat at the time of Mary Frances’s marriage was Dundas Castle at South Queensferry. Their town house, Dundas House, a Palladian Villa in St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh, is now the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

[2] The McEwens maintained estates and a country house in the Scottish Borders at Bardrochat in Ayrshire. The Marchmont estate in Berwickshire was acquired from the Home family in 1913, by the sitter’s husband, Robert Finnie McEwen. McEwen was a lover of the arts and a gifted musician who offered financial support to composers. Both his houses, Bardrochat and Marchmont, were remodelled by the distinguished Scots Arts and Crafts architect, Sir Robert Lorrimer. McEwen and his wife had four children – two sons and two daughters. The youngest daughter, Elizabeth Jeannet Mary, (b 1902) on the left of the picture, died in 1913. Her sister Katharine Isobel, (b 1900) married Roger Lawrence Lumley, 11th Earl of Scarborough, a Foreign Secretary in the inter-war period and Lord Chamberlain at the time of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. Katharine served the Queen Mother as Lady-in-Waiting and was a recipient of the Royal Victorian Order in 1962.

[3] ‘Mr. Whistler: Proposition No. 2, Academie Carmen’, quoted from A Catalogue of the Pictures, Drawings, Prints and Sculpture at the Third Exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, 1901, pp. 11-12. Whistler and Lavery first met in 1886, they were in contact in the 1890s when Whistler moved to Paris and from 1898, they were President and Vice-President respectively of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. Lavery was one of Whistler’s pall-bearers at the time of his death in July 1903.

[4] For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery RA, 1993 (Canongate), pp. 56-62.

[5] Whistler never visited the Prado. Sargent’s visit to Spain occurred in the winter of 1879-80 and Boldini’s in 1889.

[6] Lavery procured the commission to paint J. J. Cowan’s portrait (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) for Whistler.

[7] The Kingston Lacy Las Meninas (National Trust), now given to Mazo, was in Lavery’s day, popularly thought to be Velazquez’ autograph sketch for the painting the Prado Museum. 8. McConkey, 1993, p. 75.

[8] McConkey, 1993, p. 75

[9] 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.

[10] After Whistler’s death in 1903, Lavery maintained the role of Vice President under Auguste Rodin.

[11] His work was acquired for national collections in Paris, Berlin, Munich, Venice, Rome, Brussels, Pittsburgh, and Buenos Aires, and he was an honorary member of many foreign academies.

[12] Shannon’s Mrs. Miller Graham and her Daughter, and Henry’s The Marchioness of Tullibardine, were in the same New Gallery show.

[13] For fuller discussion of this sub-genre including works by Solomon J Solomon, John da Costa and others, see Kenneth McConkey, Edwardian Portraits, 1987 (Antique Collectors’ Club), pp. 30-34. Sargent’s exhibit at the New Gallery in 1908 was Izmé Vickers, 1907 (Industrial Machinery Leasing Corporation, Los Angeles). For further reference see Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent, The Later Portraits,Great Expectations, John Singer Sargent Painting Children, 2003, (Yale University Press), pp. 188-9. For reference to Sargent’s child portraits see Barbara Dayer Gallati, 2005 (Brooklyn Museum in association with Bullfinch Press, New York).

[14] The gallery, now staging its 21st annual exhibition, had been established as a breakaway rival to the Grosvenor Gallery, taking some of its key exhibitors, like Edward Burne-Jones. After its opening in 1888, the Grosvenor only lasted for two years before its collapse in 1890. On its demise, the New Gallery took virtually all of the Grosvenor’s ‘aesthetic’ artists and others who were at odds with the Academy.

[15] After a weak exhibition in 1909, and with falling admissions, the Gallery was closed, sold off and converted into a cinema.

[16] McConkey 1993, pp. 113, 119-125. At this point, 1913, Robert Finnie McEwen had approached De Laszlo for a second portrait of his wife, in which she is shown seated, wearing a black dress. [De Laszlo’s portrait was offered for sale by Sotheby’s, London, Modern British and Irish Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture, Oct. 12, 1988, lot. 25 (‘Mary Frances Dundas’); and by Christie’s, South Kensington, Twentieth Century British Art, May 11, 2005, as lot 46 (‘Mary Frances Dundas’), with an estimate of £6,000-10,000, sold for £6,600.] McEwen’s sons, John Helias Finnie McEwen and James Robert Dundas McEwen were also painted by De Laszlo in 1915.



By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2005 all rights reserved
Created 9/9/2005