This portrait, presumed to depict famous model from the period, Irene Dineley, exemplifies McEvoy’s unusual use of water to manipulate paint.

The running of paint towards the bottom of the paper is revealing of McEvoy’s innovative practise, which involved holding his work under a running tap to encourage the colours to merge and run over the paper. McEvoy would also manipulate the surface of his watercolour works by wiping a damp cloth or sponge over the surface, abrading the upper layers and revealing the texture of the thick paper beneath.

McEvoy’s peculiar working methods clearly made an impression on Dineley, who later recounted how McEvoy ‘would lift the picture off the easel without a word of explanation, run with it to the bathroom, and throw it in the bath which was full of water’. She added: ‘At first I thought this was due to temperament, but I understood later that it was just his way of working.’[1]

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This portrait, presumed to depict famous model from the period, Irene Dineley, exemplifies McEvoy’s unusual use of water to manipulate paint.

The running of paint towards the bottom of the paper is revealing of McEvoy’s innovative practise, which involved holding his work under a running tap to encourage the colours to merge and run over the paper. McEvoy would also manipulate the surface of his watercolour works by wiping a damp cloth or sponge over the surface, abrading the upper layers and revealing the texture of the thick paper beneath.

McEvoy’s peculiar working methods clearly made an impression on Dineley, who later recounted how McEvoy ‘would lift the picture off the easel without a word of explanation, run with it to the bathroom, and throw it in the bath which was full of water’. She added: ‘At first I thought this was due to temperament, but I understood later that it was just his way of working.’[1]

The present work was almost certainly painted in 1926, around the time McEvoy painted his better-known watercolour portrait of Dineley, also titled Irene. The latter work shows Dineley seated in an interior, and although it is more highly finished than our work, it lacks the energy and spontaneity that defines the present work.

Biography

Ambrose McEvoy demonstrated his exceptional artistic abilities from a young age. Encouraged by his father, Captain Charles Ambrose McEvoy, and inspired by his father’s great friend, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, McEvoy enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art at the age of sixteen.[2] He studied at the Slade between 1893 and 1898 and afterwards rented a small flat in Danvers Street, Chelsea, where he lived and worked.

McEvoy soon established himself as a gifted genre painter; he explored rolling landscapes and intimate interior scenes whilst attracting attention from wealthy patrons and collectors. During the mid-1910s, McEvoy ventured increasingly towards portraiture and the demand for his portraits rose concurrently.

In 1915 he exhibited his famous work Madame at the National Portrait Society and the following year he was commissioned to paint portraits of several prominent society figures including Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough and Maude Baring. These high-profile commissions gained McEvoy considerable recognition and firmly established his position as a fashionable portrait painter.

However, as with many artists, his career was interrupted by the First World War and in 1918 he was attached to the Royal Naval division as a war artist and posted to the Western Front and the North Sea.[3] Whilst there, McEvoy painted a number of portraits of military commanders, many of which are now in the collection at the Imperial War Museum.

In the years following the First World War, McEvoy’s career and reputation grew from strength to strength and he was soon heralded as one of the most successful and fashionable English society portrait painters of his day. His innovative style and florid methods endeared an emerging generation of young, wealthy and liberal-minded patrons. His famed depictions of human character and beauty, particularly of women, became sought after and he maintained an illustrious list of clients spread between the United Kingdom and America, where he was represented for a period by the most celebrated international art dealer of the day, Lord Duveen.[4]

However, this youthful success was to take its toll on McEvoy and he died in 1927, aged forty-nine. Critics writing shortly after his death were in little doubt as to the significance of his work; ‘the most refined aspect of early twentieth century society will live on in his work, and that alone ensures his position in history’.[5]

To this day, he has become famed for his depiction of women. In his obituary in The Times he was praised for his ability to paint female subjects in a manner that was both visually appealing, but also bespoke the profundity of his ‘thoughts about human beauty, particularly feminine beauty’.[6]

[1] Dineley, I. 27 June 1931. London Opinion. In Akers-Douglas, E.A. 2019. Divine People: The Art and Life of Ambrose McEvoy (1877-1927), ed. L. Hendra. London: Paul Holberton Publishing, p.88.

[2] E. A. Akers-Douglas, (ed.) L. Hendra, Divine People: The Art & Life of Ambrose McEvoy, (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2019) p.28.

[3] Akers-Douglas, (ed.) Hendra, Divine People, p.24.

[4] Akers-Douglas, (ed.) Hendra, Divine People, p.176.

[5] “Ambrose McEvoy”, Country Life, vol. 13, issue 1619, 28th January 1928, p. 106.

[6] "Mr. Ambrose McEvoy." The Times (London), 5th January 1927, p. 12.

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500 Years of British Art