Migration

Friday 29 August 2014

Orpen's penchant for painting pretty girls

Published 05/05/2007 | 00:11

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William Orpen loved painting pretty women and he did it with superlative skill. From his first masterpiece, The Mirror, in the Tate Gallery in London, to the later nudes, he produced a wonderful series of female portraits. The women concerned sat for him for commissioned works or because he asked them. Sometimes he loved them but mostly his love was of a professional kind, as

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William Orpen loved painting pretty women and he did it with superlative skill. From his first masterpiece, The Mirror, in the Tate Gallery in London, to the later nudes, he produced a wonderful series of female portraits. The women concerned sat for him for commissioned works or because he asked them. Sometimes he loved them but mostly his love was of a professional kind, as when an artist finds a subject and is captivated by it.

In the case of The Mirror, it was Emily Scobel who sat for this picture and for several others. She was his girlfriend at the time and they later became engaged but she broke this off because, in her own words, "he was too ambitious". She had strong features and was a good model, working professionally for Slade School students. Her fine features are an important element in the Tate picture. In another work, The English Nude, which Orpen kept throughout his life and which his executors sold to a collector in Australia, Emily is shown in a pose that is a mixture of the languid and the forceful, the prettiness of the Tate picture transformed into an earthy, knowing look. She posed on Orpen's four-poster in the basement room he had in Fitzroy Street.

Two very beautiful portraits of other women by Orpen come up for sale during May - one in London next week, at Sotheby's, the other a month later, on June 12 at a de Vere's auction. The Dublin picture has a Dublin connection. It is a portrait of Vera Hone who was married to the writer, Joe Hone, who wrote a biography of WB Yeats. He was also a friend and the biographer of George Moore and he wrote a life of Orpen's teacher at the Slade School of Art, Henry Tonks.

Hone married a most beautiful American, Vera Brewster. She was the niece and ward of the Shakespearean actress, Julia Marlowe, and after their marriage in 1911 they moved into a house in Chelsea beside the Orpens. Their stay in London was relatively brief; in 1913 they moved to Dublin and raised a family there. Her son, David, became a painter and was President of the Royal Hibernian Academy. Though this did not stop Orpen painting her - the landscape background is sometimes of Dublin Bay, where he used to rent a house for family holidays - her own preoccupations with her family brought the series of paintings to a close.

It was, quite definitely, a series of works. Generally, they were three-quarter-length with Vera looking out from under the brim of a hat, clutching a fishing rod, dressed in military costume or sitting in a Chinese shawl against a silk-woven backdrop. They had dramatic titles, The Roscommon Dragoon was one, The Irish Volunteer another, The Blue Hat and The Angler, titles to yet more paintings of this beautiful woman. Indeed, he painted so many that he ran out of titles and began calling them Mrs Hone Number Four or Number 6.

Did he love her? Undoubtedly. He was captivated by her beauty, by a sense of enticement that is present in her eyes and the expression on her face. Was he in love with her. No. It was a chaste relationship inspired by the need of the artist, in all his best work, to be bowled over and, as it were imprisoned.

The portraits he painted of her are among his most perfect. The perception of character is profound. There is lyricism in his vision of her that puts the works on a par with an artist such as Gainsborough.

Sean Keating, who worked with Orpen at the time told me, many years ago: "We all loved her. She was a most beautiful woman. She had such lovely eyes." Then he said, referring to Orpen: "I think he was half in love with her, too. He thought she was wasted on Joe Hone. Whenever we met, I couldn't take my eyes off her."

At the time, as it happens, Orpen was in love with Mrs St George and was also half in love with Sybil Sassoon, whose portrait he painted more than once and who later travelled to the First World War battle site of the Somme when he was a war artist, hidden on the floor of his Rolls Royce as women were not allowed into the war zone.

The second painting is of Lady Evelyn Herbert. Orpen painted a very beautiful portrait of her in 1915 which is in a private collection in Northern Ireland. It was fashionable at that time for women to wear their hair out from the head in a kind of mock-tousled way. Orpen did other portraits showing this. Nevertheless, the formal, commissioned work is a relaxed portrayal of an exceptionally good-looking young woman.

The second painting of her is more eccentric and more mysterious but no less beautiful in its wild way. Orpen kept this second portrait. It was in his studio at the time of his death. It was off its stretcher and a good deal larger than as it is now offered. Impressionistic, much less finished, with the same mad mop of hair though tousled as though blown in the wind, it has a captivating appeal, mysterious and penetrating.

Why did he do it? For himself? As a sketch, a study, a memento? He always railed against the fact that painters, unlike writers, had to relinquish their creative achievement, lose contact with it perhaps for ever, say farewell.

Evelyn Herbert was in her teens when painted. She was the first woman to enter Tutankhamun's tomb. Vera was older and more authoritative in the poses she adopted for Orpen. They were not the only beautiful women Orpen painted but the portraits are stunning examples of how good he could be.

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