Catalogue entry

Mortimer Menpes 1860–1938

T01229 Flower of the Tea 1887–88

Inscribed ‘Mortimer Menpes’ b.l.; also on back ‘Two’s Company’ in shellac surface and ‘Greengold’.
Oil on wood, 10½ x 6 ¾ (27 x 17).
Purchased from Thos. Agnew & Sons (Grant-in-Aid) 1970.
Coll: Mrs C. W.M.Scott; sold Sotheby’s, 7 May 1969, lot 58 as ‘Japanese Women selling Fruit at a Stall’; bt. Agnew; John Lumley; Agnew.
Exh: Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell Gallery, April–June 1888 (116); Pictures by Old Masters, Agnew, July–September 1970 (14) as ‘Two’s Company, Japanese Women selling Fruit’.
Lit: Mortimer Menpes, ‘A Personal View of Japanese Art’ in Magazine of Art, 1888, pp. 192–9, 255–61, repr. p.260; ‘Art in June’ in Magazine of Art, 1888, p.xxx; Pall Mall Gazette, 16 April 1888, p.5; Athenaeum, 21 April 1888; Mortimer and Dorothy Menpes, Japan, A Record in Colour, 1901, repr. p.80; Mortimer Menpes, Whistler as I Knew Him, 1904, pp.42, 44.

Mortimer Menpes visited Japan in 1887 for eight months. Up to this time he had been a pupil of Whistler, who despite his interest in Japanese art had himself never been to Japan. Menpes discussed the techniques and methods of Japanese art with Japanese artists, and observed and painted scenes of Japanese town-life, customs and rituals. Upon his return to England he exhibited 140 paintings and 40 etchings of Japanese life at the Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell Gallery. The exhibition, dedicated to Whistler, included pictures of tea houses, temples, markets, theatres, street scenes, Japanese women and children.

The catalogue entry for this picture, ‘Flower of the Tea’, was accompanied by the following note: ‘Exterior of a tea-house. The mistress of the house peeling fruit. On the table at the side are vessels containing coloured sugar-waters’. On the back of the panel are the words ‘Two’s Company’ written into the shellac surface, apparently by Menpes himself; this would seem to be an alternative title.

T01229 was one of the most expensive and therefore presumably one of the largest pictures in the exhibition, being priced at 30 guineas including the frame (many of the other paintings were extremely small). Unfortunately it has lost its original frame, which was probably painted green gold as is indicated by the inscription on the back. The frames were specially made by Japanese craftsmen who had never made picture frames before and were constructed with wide margins of ribbed wood, sometimes covered with silk or canvas. A novel feature of the exhibition was the decorative arrangement of the pictures on the walls; they were hung irregularly either singly or in groups in rising and falling lines.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.