An Artistic Match: Gwen John and Ambrose McEvoy

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Dr. Lydia Miller, Assistant Curator at Pallant House Gallery, explores some of the influences on Gwen John’s style and techniques.

It was whilst Gwen John was studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London during the 1890s that she became part of a group of talented students. They were described by Professor Henry Tonks as the Slade’s first ‘crisis of brilliance’. 1

Although some of these students became leading artists of the 20th century, such as William Orpen and Augustus John, many of Gwen John’s contemporaries did not receive wider recognition, and others have long been forgotten.

A central member of this Slade circle was the artist Ambrose McEvoy. He later became a popular society portraitist, painting influencers like Lady Diana Manners, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova and Winston Churchill. McEvoy and Gwen John were close friends at the Slade and in the years that followed, and their influence on each other’s work proved to be vital to their development as artists.

The art historian, and former Tate Director, John Rothenstein wrote that Gwen John was greatly influenced by Ambrose McEvoy and his interest in old master paintings and drawings. A knowledge McEvoy ‘laboriously acquired’ and ‘generously imparted’ to John and others. 2

McEvoy is known to have worked in major public collections such as the British Museum, the National Gallery and the National Gallery for British Art (now Tate Britain) where he copied artworks by historic painters such as Titian and Veronese in order to glean techniques. Art gallery visits were encouraged by tutors at the Slade who saw the copying of paintings to be an important way to learn. Whilst McEvoy worked, he also helped other students by offering informal tutoring and advice on their use of pigments and methods.

It is very possible that Gwen John gleaned the technique of layering thin, coloured glazes over a monochrome base from studying alongside McEvoy in The National Gallery. This technique can be seen in her 1902 Self-Portrait in the collection at Tate, and a copy of Gabriel Metsu’s A Woman Seated at a Table and a Man tuning a Violin – a painting which is still in the family – demonstrates that John was also working at the National Gallery. Rothenstein goes as far as to say that John could not have accomplished her Self-Portrait without McEvoy’s help and instruction – a dismissive comment reflective of a generation who did not value women artists as we do today. 3

However, new research into McEvoy and John has found that Gwen John also directly influenced Ambrose McEvoy, making their artistic relationship much more collaborative than once thought.4

In 1900, as part of the winter exhibition at the New English Art Club, Gwen John exhibited only one painting, Mrs Atkinson. This portrait often thought to be of John’s ‘cleaning lady’is now in the collection of the Met in New York. This portrait depicts an older woman dressed in black with her hands folded on her lap and holding a handkerchief. She has been consciously placed just off-centre, a position described by critics as having ‘sublime awkwardness’.5 Yet this portrait is accomplished – a forerunner to portraits such as Mrs Mounter by Camden Town artist Harold Gilman.

Research undertaken for my PhD uncovered a sketchbook by McEvoy that contained several drawings of Mrs Atkinson. It is thought that McEvoy copied this painting after Gwen John had completed it, perhaps whilst it was being exhibited at the New English Art Club. McEvoy copied Mrs Atkinson a number of times across different pages of this sketchbook. Some sketches detail only her face, whilst others are more complete compositions. There is, however, little doubt that McEvoy was learning from John’s portrait at this period.

In 1901 John sat for McEvoy for a portrait which is now in the National Museum of Wales collection. In this portrait Gwen John is depicted sat, almost in profile and looking away from the viewer with a brown shawl draped over her shoulders. This portrait, which was almost certainly inspired by James McNeill Whistler’s earlier painting Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, trialled painterly techniques that could be described as early abstraction. The looseness of McEvoy’s brushstrokes across the drapery in this portrait of Gwen John gives an impression of fluidity and movement whilst in the bottom right-hand corner he has thinned the paint and allowed it to drip down the canvas. This erratic painting style would become seminal to McEvoy’s later society portraits, giving them the ethereal quality for which they became known. It is likely that both John and McEvoy discussed this portrait as he worked on it. Evidence of a number of changes made by the artist to John’s jawline and posture might be the result of John’s direction and advice.

Gwen John by Ambrose McEvoy (1877 - 1927). Photo courtesy Amgueddfa Cymru - Museum Wales
John, Gwen; A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris; Museums Sheffield;

Although John and McEvoy were close friends, and it has often been suggested that they were in a relationship for a period, McEvoy’s marriage to Mary Spencer Edwards and John’s relocation to Paris resulted in the pair diverging. McEvoy became famous amongst the transatlantic elite for his portraits and Gwen John became part of the Parisian avant-garde, exhibiting portraits of solitary women and sparsely furnished interiors at the Salon. However, John and McEvoy’s early experiences as artists and the impact they had on each other helped inform their later work. Although McEvoy’s portraiture fell out of fashion after the Second World War, Gwen John’s work has undergone a steady revival in recent decades with her paintings being celebrated as modern masterpieces.

If you’d like to learn more about Gwen John, take a look at 10 things you need to know about Gwen John, a great resource from Pallant House Gallery.

  1. The term a ‘crisis of brilliance’ was coined by Henry Tonks and recorded in Hone, The Life of Henry Tonks, 258.
  2. John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Sickert to Smith (London, England: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956), 163 .
  3. Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, 163.
  4. Lydia Miller, Ambrose McEvoy (1877-1927): A ‘painter of excellence’ shaped by artistic influences, PhD thesis, History of Art, University of York, July 2021.
  5. Sue Roe, Gwen John: A Life (London: Random House, 2010), 21.