Ambrose McEvoy

Mrs Claude Johnson

exhibited 1926

Not on display

Ambrose McEvoy 1877–1927
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1016 × 768 mm
Presented by Mrs C. Johnson in memory of Claude Johnson 1926


Mrs Claude Johnson is a half-length portrait of Evelyn Maud Johnson (née Mill), painted by the society portraitist Ambrose McEvoy. Mrs Johnson is depicted in a winter coat and a blue broad-brimmed hat, seated in an interior in front of a large, bright window. The sitter’s clothes and the pink blossom on the trees outside indicate that it is spring. The artist’s surname is inscribed in the lower-right corner of the canvas in red paint.

McEvoy divided the canvas vertically into uneven thirds using the length of the window frames. This makes the painting appear narrower and encourages the viewer to focus on the sitter’s face in the centre of the canvas. McEvoy meticulously built up layers of coloured glazes with broad brushstrokes on a neutral, cream-coloured ground or primer. Although warmer hues dominate this composition, the slight cracking of the paint on the surface of Mrs Johnson’s coat reveals colder blue tones underneath. McEvoy conducted many of his sittings in his studio at 107 Grosvenor Road, London, and Mrs Johnson would have sat several times before this portrait was completed.

Mrs Claude Johnson has been dated c.1926 although it was almost certainly painted earlier, as no sittings are recorded for Mrs Johnson in McEvoy’s 1925 and 1926 diaries. This portrait is more likely to have been completed prior to the unexpected death of Mrs Johnson’s husband in April that year; it was then exhibited at the Royal Academy between 3 May and 7 August 1926.

An undated photograph of another version of this portrait shows Mrs Johnson in the same location, with the same hat, but wearing a light-coloured summer jacket, rather than a winter coat. A third variant of this portrait, also depicting Mrs Johnson in the summer jacket, belongs to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (NGV) and is titled Maud in Sunlight. This portrait is dated 1926 and is documented at the NGV as having been painted after Mrs Claude Johnson in Tate’s collection. A pen and wash sketch of Mrs Johnson in the winter coat was sold at Christie’s auction house in 1972.

Evelyn Maud Johnson was the second wife of Claude Goodman Johnson and was known by her close friends as ‘Mrs Wigs’. Claude Johnson was Managing Director of Rolls-Royce from 1906 and famously described himself as the ‘hyphen’ in Rolls-Royce. In fact, Johnson’s vital management had kept the company solvent when Charles Rolls died in a plane crash in 1910 and Henry Royce became ill. Johnson was an important patron and friend to McEvoy and in 1919 published a tome of McEvoy’s oeuvre. In 1921 Claude Johnson described McEvoy as ‘perhaps the second greatest painter of the day, and whom I am privileged to call one of my best friends’ (Claude Johnson, letter to Douglas Johnson, 5 January 1921, Estate of Ambrose McEvoy).

In 1916, following the completion of a portrait of Mrs Maude Baring, Ambrose McEvoy became one of the most sought-after portraitists of his age. Among his sitters were future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the playwright Noel Coward and the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. McEvoy painted several portraits of the Johnson family, including the Johnsons’ daughter Joan Claudia Johnson, known as ‘Tink’, Claude Johnson’s elder daughter Elizabeth, and his first wife, Fanny Mary Morrieson. A three-quarter length portrait of Evelyn Maud Johnson in black painted in 1922 is in the collection of the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

By the time Mrs Johnson presented this portrait to Tate, Ambrose McEvoy was severely overworked and in increasingly poor health. He died of pneumonia the following year on 4 January 1927.

Further reading
Claude Johnson, The Works of Ambrose McEvoy from 1900 to May 1919, London 1919.
Wilton J. Oldham, The Hyphen in Rolls-Royce: A Biography of Claude Johnson, London 1967.
Kenneth McConkey, Edwardian Portraits: Images of an Age of Opulence, Woodbridge 1987.

Lydia Miller
September 2018

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Catalogue entry


Inscr. ‘McEvoy.’ b.r.
Canvas, 40×30 1/4 (101·5×77).
Presented by Mrs C. Johnson in memory of the late Claude Johnson 1926.
Exh: R.A., 1926 (31); R.A., Late Members, winter 1928 (458).

A sketch on canvas, 30×25 in., was also exhibited at the R.A., winter 1928 (486), lent by Mrs Claude Johnson, as painted in 1926. Two preparatory drawings for this portrait also belonged to the sitter.

Other portraits of Mrs Claude Johnson were exhibited with the National Portrait Society in 1911 (167) and 1917 (22; ‘Blue and Gold’, repr. Johnson, 1919, 1, pl.49, and Gleadowe, 1924, pl.19), and with the International Society in 1922 (10; wearing black).

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II


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