Mrs. Robert Finnie McEwen of Marchmont and Bardrochat, with
her Daughters, Katharine and Elizabeth
Lavery -- Irish
Oil on Canvas
221 x 122 cm (87 ¼ x 48
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
woman and her two girls look directly at us. Mary Frances Dundas McEwen
aloof, and her children, nestling in the folds of her skirt seem shy,
curious about the business of being painted. Her illustrious lineage on
mother’s side can be traced back to her grandfather, Field Marshall Sir
Napier, First Baron Napier of Magdala, a veteran of colonial campaigns.
For fifteen years she had been married to Robert Finnie McEwen, the . .
of an old Scottish clan, with its seat at Bardrochat in Ayrshire.
sophisticated and fashionable woman, Mrs. McEwen had clear expectations
chosen painter, ruling out intimate sketches or portrait interiors –
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
It was a form that immediately implied distinction and John Lavery was
its early practitioners. Following the success of his large
canvas portraying The State Visit of Queen Victoria
to the Glasgow International
his position as the leading young artist in the west of Scotland
was unchallenged. This
important commission from Glasgow City Council effectively underwrote
career by giving him an entrée to his future clientele –
members of the
Scots aristocracy, the professional classes and nouveaux riches
advanced tastes matched the painter’s aesthetic preoccupation with
portraiture of the type being developed by James McNeill Whistler, John
Sargent, Giovanni Boldini.
All were emulating the work of seventeenth century court painters, but
Sargent and Boldini looked increasingly to Van Dyck, Whistler and
devotees of Velazquez. Early in his career, Lavery had imbibed
principles which insisted upon figures standing back from the
‘within their frames.’ In the last years of Whistler’s life, when he
were in regular communication, the American painter denigrated the
brushwork and vulgar realism of much contemporary portraiture,
the restraint and decorum of the Spanish master.
Lavery shared these beliefs.
He visited the Prado on
two occasions in 1891 and 1892, and copied Velazquez’ portraits.
much attention would be given to the placing of the figure within the
rectangle, the sense of movement in its pose and the subtle
colour and tone. These abstract qualities, recognized by stylish Scots
distinguished his work from that of his immediate rivals on the
stage. He was not constrained by the inherited rules and conventions of
full-length portrait. Early examples that show variations in the format
introduction of sons and daughters as secondary figures, began in the
nineties with Mrs. Lawrie and Edwin, 1891
(Modern Gallery, Venice)
and Mrs. J.J. Cowan and Laura, 1892 (Private Collection).
They were often planned in small oil sketches, just as Reynolds had
Velazquez was thought to do.
The practice did not stop him from altering compositions if necessary,
late stage – as occurred with Père et Fille, 1898
By 1898, Lavery had left Glasgow
for London and already had spent
periods of time painting in Rome and Berlin. The
Glasgow however recalled him to paint a large mural of Shipbuilding
Clyde, for the newly-constructed City Chambers and he was pursued
Scottish clients such as Mr. Justice Darling, Sir Patrick Ford and
Finnie McEwen of Bardrochat. In all three instances, husbands
portraits of their wives and children. Mrs. McEwen of Bardrochat,
daughters, Katharine and Elizabeth, was executed either just before
after Lavery’s winter sojourn in Tangier and in time for the opening of
spring exhibition of the New Gallery in 1908.
Although he avoided the byways of Aestheticism for which it was
Lavery saw the New Gallery as an important outlet for painters who had
considered too avant-garde for the Royal Academy.
As an outsider,
he submitted to it and to the International Society of Sculptors,
Gravers during his vice-presidency, 1898-1908.
in 1911 when elected Associate, did he return to the Academy, at which
his reputation was unassailable.
Lavery realised that in 1908
the competition for
commissions of the McEwen type lay in fellow New Gallery exhibitors
James Jebusa Shannon and George Henry.
Sargent, also exhibiting, was not regarded as being as ‘executively
as usual’, although he had established important precedents for ‘mother
children’ groups. But where Shannon and Henry indulged in pyrotechnics
contorted poses, courting comparison with eighteenth century
Mrs. McEwen of Bardrochat, with her daughters, Katharine and Elizabeth was
admired for its restraint and for the subtlety of it colour harmonies.
sought distinction in a simple arrangement of standing figures.
The hostile Athenaeum critic conceded that although the tonal
had been ‘tampered with’ to reduce the contrasts in the heads, the work
movement and distinction’. The more generous Graphic, which
the painting, referred to its ‘refined colour scheme’, while Frank
Rinder, in The
Art Journal praised the picture for its ‘fresh and gracious unity’.
design’, he declared, ‘aptly suggests protectiveness; the quiet greys
gleaming whites are suavely handled …’ And The Studio, concurred,
…pleases by its elegance and
dignity of arrangement …
as a decorative composition it is … admirable and it is designed with
In what was to be the
penultimate New Gallery
exhibition, Frank Rutter bemoaned the passing of old fashioned beauty,
Pre-Raphaelite type. The show’s centrepiece was a large tapestry
The Passing of Venus woven by Morris and Co, and based upon the
cartoon produced by Edward Burne-Jones. The new beauty lay in subtle
arrangements and sensitive handling of character that the present work
New English Art Club became more exclusive and orientated towards
students, the New Gallery was briefly the main alternative London
salon to the Royal
and it flourished
in the early years of the century.
It was therefore the ideal
place in which the
restrained harmonies of the McEwen group could be displayed. Mary
Dundas McEwen dressed in diaphanous greys and pale gold might be
her own, but for contemporary observers, Elizabeth and Katharine added
innocence to her experience. In addition to a demanding subject, Lavery
the challenge of representing her restless youthful offspring who are
by the process of being painted. Maternal ‘protectiveness’, noted by
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.
her Three Children, 1908 (Private Collection) there was an
overall design to be established. Addressing the problems of coherence
figure group, undoubtedly prepared Lavery for his most important
such as The Artist’s Studio 1911 (National Gallery of Ireland,
and The King, The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Princess Mary,
Palace, 1913 (National Portrait Gallery).
This roll-call was however punctuated by that significant moment in
Mrs. McEwen and her daughters arrived in the studio in 5 Cromwell Place.”
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.,
 (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
McConkey 1993, pp.
113, 119-125. At this point, 1913,
Robert Finnie McEwen had approached De Laszlo for a second portrait of
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
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
De Laszlo in 1915.