Sunday, 14 July 2013

Dorothy Menpes

Mortimer Luddington Menpes, the Australian Orientalist traveller and painter, has been a wonderful discovery. I managed to print out his book Japan: A Record in Colour, all 670+ pages of it and must report once again that it is a fascinating book. The accounts of Japan are extraordinary, with particular attention to Japanese art and aesthetics. 

The text, I should point out, was written by one of his daughters, Dorothy. It was a family affair. One of his daughters, Maud, operated the publishing company that printed his travel books. He did the paintings and Dorothy wrote the text. They produced many works, recording travels in many exotic lands. These are wonderful books. They are beautifully produced, beautifully illustrated and Dorothy Menpes' writing is beautiful too. She is a lovely writer and a deeply intelligent, astute observer. I am anxious to find out more about Dorothy Menpes. there is surprisingly little on-line, but I did discover that James Whistler was her godfather. 

These books are treasures of Orientalism, works of great charm. It is tragic they are lost and neglected. You can purchase second-hand copies, which are still around (although mainly among collectors), or you can download them from Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. 

There is a link here to the volume on Venice. Below are some of the colour plates from that volume, Mortimer Menpes' watercolour sketches. But you should read the text as well. Here's a sample:

One's imagination is inclined to run riot in Venice. One gilds, and romances, and fills the city with pomp and pageantry, ornamenting the canals with State barges, the piazza with noble men and fair women, and the Ducal Palace with illustrious Doges. But far more interesting is it to see Venice as she really is, in her own simple strength. Think of the more rugged Venice, that city built by strong and patient men against such terrible odds, and in so wild and solitary a spot. In order to gain some idea of Venice as she was in 22those early days, it is well to go out in a gondola at low tide, when the canal is a plain of seaweed. As your gondola makes its way down a narrow channel, you have some conception of the difficulties with which the founders of Venice had to contend. To the narrow strips of land, long ridges guarding the lagoon from the sea, ill sheltered from the waves, the few hundred stragglers came. Their capital, Padua, had been destroyed by the northern hordes, and they took shelter in the islands of the lagoon. So desolate and wind-swept were these islands that one can scarcely imagine men disputing possession of them with the flocks of sea-birds. They were impelled by no whim, however: they were exiles driven by necessity. Here they looked for a temporary home, lived much as the sea-birds lived, and were quite fearless. The soil, composed chiefly of dust, ashes, and bitumen, with here and there a layer of salt, was rich and fertile. This was in the fifth century of our era, of which period there are but few Venetian records.

- Harper McAlpine Black

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