We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
McEvoy, (Arthur) Ambrose (1878–1927), painter, was born in Crudwell, Wiltshire, on 12 August 1878, the elder son of Captain Charles Ambrose McEvoy (d. in or after 1893) and his wife, Jane Mary. The younger son, Charles, gained some distinction as a playwright. Their father was an Irish-American mercenary who, after serving in the Confederate army in the American Civil War, became an authority on submarine warfare, including inventing an antisubmarine hydrophone in 1893; after his American service he settled in England. Captain McEvoy was a friend of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (one of whose brothers had served with him in the Confederate army), and Whistler joined with him in encouraging Ambrose McEvoy's ambition to become a painter. At the age of fifteen McEvoy entered the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he studied under Frederick Brown, and he frequently worked in the National Gallery copying Titian, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Hogarth, and Gainsborough. His close friends at the Slade included Augustus John, with whom he later shared a studio for a short time at 76 Charlotte Street, London. In 1898 he embarked on a stormy affair with John's sister, the painter . Their paintings of this period bear a close similarity, though probably more by virtue of shared interests than of any direct influence on McEvoy's part. In 1900 Gwen John was devastated when McEvoy suddenly announced his engagement to Mary Augusta Spencer Edwards [see below], a fellow Slade student and daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Hutchins Spencer Edwards of Abbotsleigh, Freshford, Somerset. They were married at Freshford on 16 January 1902. In 1906 they moved to 107 Grosvenor Road on the Embankment, London, where they lived for the rest of their lives. They had a son, Michael, and a daughter, Anna.

McEvoy had been exhibiting his quietist and eclectic small paintings of figures in interiors, such as The Letter (c.1905, Walsall Art Gallery, Staffordshire) and The Earring (1911, Tate collection), at the New English Art Club from 1900. In 1909 he went to Dieppe with Walter Sickert and in the following years his painting began to show signs of the broader, looser treatment which was characteristic of his later work. Following the success of the portrait of his wife, Madame (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris), exhibited at the National Portrait Society in 1915, he suddenly found himself in huge demand as a painter of fashionable women, including Consuelo, duchess of Marlborough, and Lady Diana Cooper (both 1916, priv. coll.), and the actress Lillah McCarthy (1919, National Portrait Gallery, London).

His delicate and fluttering brushwork, his experiments in colour, tone, and surface quality, and his device of using mixed daylight and artificial lighting thrown up from below, all give strong individuality to every portrait, even if, like Silver and Grey (Mrs Charles McEvoy 1915; Manchester City Galleries), they are camouflaged by Whistlerian titles. He painted landscapes throughout his career, and watercolours which he would draw and paint solidly, then put under running water, and then scrub and scrape, adding accents in chalk or ink and floating on colours which fused into delicate opalescent harmonies.

In 1916 McEvoy was attached to the Royal Naval division, spent three months on the western front, and later was with the fleet in the North Sea, eventually producing a series of portraits of naval officers now in the Imperial War Museum in London. That he could render masculine qualities successfully is shown also in his striking portraits of Augustine Birrell (1918, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and of his principal patron, Claude Johnson, chairman of Rolls-Royce, who was also responsible for commissioning the strangely reticent portrait of the aviator Sir John Alcock (1919, National Portrait Gallery, London). In 1920 McEvoy was invited to New York to undertake commissions for American patrons and was given a prestigious exhibition at the Duveen Galleries.

At the height of his career McEvoy was painting up to twenty-five oil portraits a year. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1924, a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1924, and an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1926. Overwork and over-indulgence soon took its toll and he died of pneumonia at the Empire Nursing Home, Vincent Square, Westminster, London, on 4 January 1927. He was survived by his wife. He was cremated at Golders Green crematorium, Middlesex, on 7 January and his ashes were interred in the wall of All Saints' Church in Grosvenor Road. Of very distinctive appearance, McEvoy was described by his friend William Rothenstein as looking ‘like a Pre-Raphaelite, with his strikingly large eyes in a long, angular face; and he spoke in an odd, cracked voice’ (W. Rothenstein, Men and Memories, 1, 1931, 333–4). As an artist he was often compared in his lifetime with Gainsborough, though a tendency to flashiness in his post-war work did much to destroy his posthumous reputation. His unique contribution to early twentieth-century British painting remains still largely unacknowledged.

Ambrose McEvoy's wife, Mary Augusta McEvoy [née Spencer Edwards] (1870–1941), painter, was born in Freshford, Somerset, on 22 October 1870. After leaving the Slade School of Fine Art, London, she exhibited at the New English Art Club between 1900 and 1906 and then virtually abandoned painting until after her husband's death in 1927. She exhibited flower pieces and portraits at the Royal Academy from 1928 until 1937 and died at Abbotsleigh Cottage, Freshford, Somerset, on 4 November 1941. The Tate collection has her Interior: Girl Reading (1901) and there are later works in the City Art Gallery, Southampton, and the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin.

Martin Hardie, rev. Robin Gibson

Sources  

Ambrose McEvoy (1968) [exhibition catalogue, Ulster Museum, Belfast, 8–28 May 1968] · Ambrose McEvoy, 1878-1927: paintings and drawings (1974) [exhibition catalogue, Morley Gallery, London, 21 Feb – 13 April 1974] · M. Chamot, D. Farr, and M. Butlin, The modern British paintings, drawings and sculpture, 2 vols. (1964–5) [catalogue, Tate Gallery, London] · WWW · Who's who in art (1934) · S. Chitty, Gwen John (1981) · The Times (5–8 Jan 1927) · Wigs, ed., The work of Ambrose McEvoy (1923) · C. Johnson, ed., The works of Ambrose McEvoy from 1900 to May 1919 (privately printed, 1919) · R. M. Y. Gleadowe, Ambrose McEvoy (1924) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1927) · m. cert. · d. cert. [Mary Spencer McEvoy] · private information (1937)

Archives  

NRA, priv. coll., diaries · Tate collection, corresp. and business papers, diaries, notebooks


Likenesses  

A. John, chalk drawing, c.1894–1898, NPG · A. John, chalk drawing, c.1900, NPG · A. John, drawing, c.1900, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago · A. A. McEvoy, self-portrait, pencil-and-pen-and-ink drawing, 1900, Tate collection · A. John, oils, c.1900–1903, Durban Art Gallery, South Africa · A. A. McEvoy, self-portrait, pencil drawing, c.1912, NPG · F. D. Wood, bronze head, 1915, NPG, RA · A. A. McEvoy, self-portrait, oils, 1919, priv. coll. · A. A. McEvoy, self-portrait, oils, 1927, priv. coll. · A. John, oils, Durban Art Gallery, South Africa · W. Orpen, group portrait, oils (The selecting jury of the New English Art Club, 1909), NPG · A. Rutherston, pencil drawing, AM Oxf.

Wealth at death  

£9742 3s. 9d.: resworn probate, 6 April 1927, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £3987 9s. 10d.—Mary Augusta McEvoy: probate, 1942, CGPLA Eng. & Wales