Friday is the last day to see the Ambrose McEvoy exhibition at the Philip Mould Gallery on Pall Mall. And when I say it’s the last day to see it, I mean it, as most of the paintings will go back to their regular lives filling space in gallery basements and private collections.
Although described at the time as the prince of fashionable portrait painters, McEvoy managed to fall into obscurity and failed to be remembered in the way Sargent and Zorn and others in the genre have been. Philip Mould believes this is the result of timing, more than anything else. Having been most active in the late 1910s and 20s, his bright and bold high society portraits were most likely out of step with a society suffering the aftershocks of a brutal world war.
But today his paintings sparkle. His paint is thick, layered, vibrant and often outrageous and his strokes chaotic yet somehow cohesive. It is difficult to believe he was able to lay dramatic strokes of pure viridian or vermillion without upsetting the colour harmony. Up close they are an abstract mess of pigment piled and dragged and smooshed onto the canvas. From afar, the colours meld into beautiful clarity. Photographs simply do not do them justice.
The unfinished works on display give some indications of his processes. He would streak and smear massive globs of colour over the surface, building layers and texture, finding and losing and refinding his drawing. He would paint semi-transparent layers of white over the work and then build accents over the top. He would create a kind of chaos on the canvas that he would eventually, somehow, reconcile.
Funny, then, that in his early years studying at the Slade he was so scathing of the “lack of any methodical training” at the school, despite later developing a method so seemingly lacking in… well, method. It suggests that with a masterful understanding of the core principles and a keen eye for design, you can paint as maniacally as you want.
McEvoy didn’t paint likenesses. He painted paintings, capturing instead some kind of essence of his sitters. He was unafraid of idealising or exaggerating his sitters’ most defining features – often the eyes – and to stunning effect.
According to those who sat for him, McEvoy painted quickly, ferociously, laying down his strokes, rushing back to see the effect and then coming back in with another brush loaded with colour.
It sounds as though he lived that way too, working tirelessly, trying always to please his clients and attempting to finish paintings despite ill health. This contributed to his early death of pneumonia in his late 40s, and what a shame, because really his painting style was one of kind.