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Painting's brush with a great Irish love affair

Behind this portrait by William Orpen which goes on sale this month lies a tale of love, deception and tragedy. BRUCE ARNOLD reports.

Evelyn St George was undoubtedly the most important person in William Orpen's life. She gave him happiness and she gave him love. She inspired him as an artist. She told him what a great painter should do, what sort of pictures he should paint, how he should view the world and how he should address it.

They had a lively and adventurous love affair. As it progressed, she created an ingenious pretext for their extended holidays together at Screebe Lodge, near Maam Cross in Connemara. She commissioned an annual portrait of her daughter, Gardenia, thus allowing Orpen to visit every year to work on the paintings and to enjoy their relationship.

Gardenia, who, as Lady Gunston, later showed me the paintings with a great deal of pride, and with the kindest memories of the artist, came gradually to realise that her mother was having an affair with Orpen. The recognition of this emotionally traumatic discovery was, she said, hard to date clearly, but came after the portrait of herself wearing the feathers and carrying in her hand the riding crop.

Nevertheless, there is in her expression a change from the earlier paintings, which have an innocence that one associates with childhood. In addition to her own growing up, so magically rendered here, there is the even more poignant perceptions we gain of the invisible artist, hidden behind his easel, working away at the mind's construction in this face, and revealing himself through the expression in her eyes.

The truth is, no portraits in William Orpen's career, save those of his wife Grace come closer to the essence of the man, both in his professional and personal capacities, than this series of Gardenia. They present us with two narratives, one of them quite open, for public consumption as it were, the other private, intimate, secret.

And of the series, the painting of Gardenia St George, dressed in a theatrical costume and carrying a whip in her hands, is pivotal. It is to be sold by Sotheby's this month.

It shows the young girl, whom Orpen had painted as a child, now on the threshold of womanhood, the understanding of herself and her position evident in the expression in her face and her eyes. It is for this reason arguably the most beautiful of the series for its human appeal and the depth of understanding Orpen has brought to it. It is perhaps challenged for beauty only by the sublime Gardenia on a Donkey, painted two years before. But then beauty, in portraiture, is never the whole of the story.

Orpen and Mrs Evelyn St George met in about 1906 through family connections. The artist's mother, the former Annie Caulfield, was related to Howard St George, an Irish land agent. Mrs St George was an American, the daughter and eldest child of George F. Baker, president of the National Bank of America, and a man of immense wealth. She was eight years older than Orpen, and when she met him, had grown tired enough of her husband and was looking for a lover.

Orpen was of a similar disposition emotionally. Their love affair, which began in 1908, was on a grand scale. It was of huge significance to both of them. The coming together of wealth on the one hand, genius on the other had an electric effect.

Evelyn St George commissioned a number of portraits of herself which are rightly recognised as masterpieces in the genre. In them, she was indulging her beauty, her love of style, her wealth and the sense of drama which was an inescapable product of her background. But there is evidence of much more in the sometime severe expression on her face, the faint look of tragedy. The truth was that she was not only bored, she was lonely, despite the frequent presence of her husband and children. This is interpretation is confirmed by her youngest child, Vivien, whose account of her mother is a narrative of frustrations and dissatisfactions.

She collected in the American way: houses, paintings and furniture were followed by people and reputations. Orpen was an ideal possession. To the benefit of posterity, she saw in Orpen a wonderful opportunity to mould and refine and encourage his enormous talent as a painter, and she set about the task of encouraging him to recognise and fulfil this greatness as an artist which she felt she had defined.

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She set him tasks. In the portrait of herself wearing the jade bracelet for example, she had imposed on him the obligation to paint without the use of primary colours as an exercise in artistic brilliance. She also insisted that a great painter should paint his parents, and the product was the double portrait of Arthur Hugh Orpen and his wife, Annie, which is in the National Gallery of Ireland.

As the relationship developed, it took on a life in Dublin and in London, and became the source for gossip and eventually scandal. The first meeting had been at the family house, Clonsilla Lodge, outside Dublin. But Evelyn St George also had a flat in Berkeley Square, and the lovers met and stayed there, appearing with increasing frequency in London society. This was commented upon in the press.

Evelyn St George was over six feet tall. Orpen was just over five feet tall. They became known as "Jack and the Beanstalk". Orpen made witty drawings of the pair of them enjoying themselves at Claridge's or the Ritz, or skating together in winter. They always emphasised his small, dynamic figure totally overshadowed by her slim, tall and statuesque appearance, made even taller by the exotic hats she wore.

Gardenia became aware of the love affair and was distressed by it. She made some comment to her grandfather, the American banker, and he intervened and put a stop to the relationship. This occurred at a much later stage, probably in 1915.

In any case, Orpen was considering his own involvement in the Great War, and the possibility of becoming a war artist. When I interviewed Lady Gunston, in the late 1970s, she said that her own realisation of what was going on had occurred before the later and last of the series of portraits of herself by Orpen. This was done in 1916, when she is depicted in an evening dress, looking far from happy.

The portrait of Gardenia St George with Riding Crop, almost certainly painted in the summer of 1912, coincided, approximately, with the year of the birth of Vivien, Orpen's child with Evelyn St George. The moment of birth is itself shrouded in some mystery, since she was born on New Year's Eve, unexpectedly, in the middle of a party, and no one checked the time. It was her mother who decided on the date of January 1, 1912.

What Cyril Connolly said generally about the painter is profoundly the case in this work: "Great artists like Epstein and Orpen know how to provide for the public the bewilderment it deserves". Yet for three people, Gardenia herself, William Orpen and Evelyn St George, there was a world of truth and of emotion, of deep feeling and of eventual tragedy in the art cycle to which they all contributed.

Neither before nor since, in his rich and varied career as a painter, did Orpen tackle so wonderfully the subtle and moving narrative of feelings which we see in a series of works in which he meets brilliantly great intellectual, emotional and creative challenges. It is this, above all, that raises the picture to the greatness it enjoys.


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