Robert Polhill Bevan was the fourth child in a family of six born to Richard Bevan, banker in the firm of Barclay, Bevan, Tritton and Co. (now known simply as Barclays) and Laura Bevan (née Polhill). He resisted following his elder brothers into a career in the bank and having received drawing lessons at home with the artist Arthur Earnest Pearce (1859–1934), who later became a designer for Doulton’s potteries, he studied art at the Westminster School of Art under the principalship of Frederick Brown, founder member of the New English Art Club and later to become Professor of the Slade School of Fine Art.
Although his upbringing was quintessentially English, Bevan formed important links with the continental avant-garde from early on in his artistic career. In the autumn of 1889, he undertook a year’s study at the Académie Julian, one of many Parisian establishments that catered for art students from all over Europe. It was in Paris that Bevan was introduced to recent developments in French painting including the work of the ‘Pont-Aven School’, a colony of artists working in Brittany with Paul Gauguin. From the summer of 1890 until the autumn of 1891 Bevan visited Pont-Aven himself. His sketchbooks from this period are now in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Financial support from his father initially freed Bevan from the necessity of earning a living and during his twenties he enjoyed a comfortable life indulging his two passions, painting and hunting. At the end of 1891 in the company of another artist, Joseph Crawhall, he travelled to Spain and then on to Tangier, Morocco, where he did not complete much work but principally enjoyed the fox hunting and racing season, acting as Master of the Hunt in 1892.
From 1893–4 he returned to Pont-Aven, during which time he met both Gauguin and Renoir, and became interested in lithography. On his return to England he lived a solitary existence on an isolated farmhouse at Hawkridge, Exmoor. For the next three years he divided his time between painting and hunting, combining the two in oils, watercolours or lithographs of agricultural landscapes and hunting scenes.
In July 1897 he met and fell in love with a Polish painter, Stanislawa de Karlowska, at a friend’s wedding in Jersey.
In 1900, Bevan and his family moved to a large house in the Swiss Cottage area of London. Although he abandoned the paintings and lithographs of hunting scenes and never hunted again after his marriage, he still drew inspiration for subjects for painting from the countryside. He formed the habit of spending the summer on a painting trip in various rural locations such as a cottage called St Ives in Kingston near Lewes, Sussex), or in Russian Poland with his wife’s family. His work at this time reflected his first-hand experience with recent French art during his travels on the continent. Oil paintings and watercolours of agricultural scenes of the South Downs or Poland provided motifs with which to explore his concerns with the effects of light and the use of colour. Philip Hendy (later Director of the National Gallery) claimed that Bevan was the first Englishman to use pure colour in the twentieth century and was the ‘real pioneer’ of the modern English school.
Bevan’s paintings caught the attention of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore and they invited him to join Walter Sickert’s Fitzroy Street circle where he became a regular visitor. Although, at forty-three years of age, Bevan was over ten years older than Gore, Gilman and Charles Ginner, he was of a similar age to Sickert and Lucien Pissarro. Like the two older painters, he brought first-hand knowledge of modern French art to the group, having been one of the few Englishmen to have personally known and worked with Gauguin. In 1910 Bevan exhibited for the first time at the New English Art Club and in the following years was heavily involved in the formation and exhibitions of the Camden Town Group. His involvement with Sickert’s circle began to be reflected in observations of everyday life from the Swiss Cottage area in which he lived. It was possibly Sickert who advised Bevan to exploit his love of horses in his work and it is these paintings of working horses in the cab and sale yards of Edwardian London for which Bevan is best remembered.
Despite his links to the city, Bevan always retained an air of the country gentleman about him and throughout his life he continued to spend his summers outside of London, in search of rural subjects. He was repeatedly drawn back to the Blackdown Hills on the borders of Devon and Cornwall where he produced work that was freer and simpler than in earlier years.