Orpen's summer holidays at Howth Head, the promontory to the north of Dublin Bay, provided some of his most celebrated works. Having completed one of his annual teaching periods at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, he would rent the Bellinghams' house known as 'The Cliffs', where he, his wife and children would take headland walks, bathe in the sheltered coves and occasionally pitch an ex-army bell-tent on the hilltop for impromptu picnics.1 Sorties to and from his Dublin friends, models and students were frequent. Despite its fabled poverty, the city had been experiencing a cultural renaissance. After the defeat of Parnell and the Home Rule movement, the pendulum of radicalism, as W.B. Yeats noted, swung towards the arts. Young painters, particularly those who sat in Orpen's classes, were at the center of this 'Celtic Revival' and although his fortune lay in London, the artist, consorting with Hugh Lane and Augusta Gregory, was arguably the prime motivating force behind the emergence of a new cultural identity in the visual arts in Ireland. To students, his work provided an exemplar of modernist tendencies that would inexorably be linked to the broader movement leading to Irish regeneration and independence. These forces were partly identified in 1909 in Homage to Manet, (Manchester City Art Galleries) an extraordinary manifesto canvas that commemorates an important moment when Irish elements were taking the lead in the British avant-garde.2 Manet led the way for Orpen, as he did in the distinguished group of Impressionist pictures Lane was presently amassing for the city of Dublin. In Dublin Bay, produced in what was a crucial year, epitomizes this new certainty in the painter's sense of direction.
The year had opened well for Orpen with the showing of a dramatic self-portrait, Young Man from the West, 1908 (fig. 1; Christie's, London, 8 November 1990, lot 54) a painting which for the poet, Laurence Binyon, revealed an 'incisive grip of character, fused with emphatic design'.3 Impressed by its brio, Francis Williams, a collector from Melrose in Scotland purchased the work, but had to wait three months to acquire a suitable companion-piece - 'In Dublin Bay': Portrait of the Artist's Wife.4 A portrayal of the artist's wife, Grace, on the windswept cliff-top, In Dublin Bay is essentially a harmony of greys and blues. Grace clutches a striped shawl as the scarf knotted at her neck catches the breeze.5 She looks round at the spectator. Here and in Young Man from the West, Orpen considered the sky a perfect back projection, its mood reinforcing that of the subject.
For both 'Howth' portraits, plein air precedents abound in Claude Monet, John Singer Sargent and others in the broad field of French, British and American Impressionist painting. We may look for instance at the Edwardian grand manner portraits which Orpen would have known, such as Charles Wellington Furse's Diana of the Uplands, 1904.6 He would also have seen the recent work of fellow Irishman, John Lavery whose A Windy Day, 1905 (Private Collection) and Girls in Sunlight, 1908 were available in London exhibitions.7 Equally, Orpen could have studied the large London retrospective exhibition at the Grafton Galleries of the work of the Spaniard, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, in 1908, for his studies of figures on beaches.8 However, Orpen's grey palette was much remarked upon in 1909 and was taken as evidence of his deep understanding of the origins of modern art in Spanish Caravaggesque painting -- something he shared with his American contemporaries of the Ash Can School. In the present instance, Old Master paintings such as Allan Ramsay's Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1766; Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland) may seem at once more distant and more immediate -- in a general sense indicating that the Irish painter was part of an ongoing international revival that favored classic eighteenth-century British portraiture -- the roots of what Jacques-Emile Blanche referred to as le style anglais. There was no one more erudite than Orpen, and the portrait of Grace was specifically designed to hold the eye, while all around her, the elements were in flux.
Reflecting on the year's performance in the International Society, the New English Art Club and the Royal Academy at the end of what had been an eventful year, Binyon declared, 'Mr Orpen... has been even more brilliantly represented this season at the Goupil Gallery Salon...' (L. Binyon, 'Our Young Painters and a Critic', The Saturday Review, 11 December 1909, p. 726). Orpen's contributions to the Goupil Salon, held in William Marchant's newly enlarged gallery at the bottom of Regent Street in London, were significant. It was here he showed the brilliant Colleen (Private Collection) in October 1908, a picture that P.G. Konody hailed with the words, 'nothing could be more perfect'.9 Expectations were running high for the fourth annual Salon the following autumn when, as one of three canvases, In Dublin Bay was exhibited beside Mary (1909, unlocated) and The Baldoyle Steeplechaser, 1909 (Stockholm, National Gallery of Sweden).10 The shift in emphasis away from posed interiors was noted by the critic of The Illustrated London News, while James Bone, writing in The Manchester Guardian triumphantly declared, 'Mr Orpen brings a mighty rushing wind into portraiture. The scarf of his woman flies, his jockey is weather-beaten under a thundery sky, and the delightful face of the little child "On the Green Isle of Erin" is almost sooty with the shadow of a rain-cloud surging overhead.'11 Direct comparisons were made with The Baldoyle Steeplechaser: a scowling 'caricature' self-portrait that echoed the mood of The Dead Ptarmigan, 1909 (National Gallery of Ireland) and functioned in the Goupil show as a foil to the portraits of Grace and their daughter, Mary.12 The normally hostile Athenaeum took exception to this 'Child's Portrait', finding it 'regrettably sensational.'13 This left In Dublin Bay with its slate grey palette, as the most subtly suggestive canvas in the exhibition. Bone felt that Grace's head in In Dublin Bay was almost 'out of key' with the wind-blown setting, but conceded that it was 'powerfully painted.'14 However, The Art Journal, in the most substantial review of the picture, disagreed, 'It is one of three works, portraits, but pictures first, which portray a single figure on a background of the mother-of-pearl sky and veiled seas of Ireland. Both other pictures...have the raciness of the open-air theme. In Dublin Bay expresses its larger inspiration. Coursing movement of the wind, tinglng freshness of sea-air, the shifting, cloudy light, vitalise the figure. She breathes their influence, caught willingly in the breeze, her pearly-pink gown gleamed upon by light. Her face, lighted and shadowed, her so bright hair and the small black hat with its knot of flowers, are salient in the design, the conception'.15
The work's self-evident success was instantly grasped by Orpen himself when, a year later he repositioned Grace on the cliffs and beaches of Howth and Portmarnock for a series of extraordinary 'windswept portraits', of which Bright Morning by the Sea (1910, unlocated) and A Summer Afternoon (1910, Private Collection) are the most important.16 These and others borrow something of the visual drama of the present canvas, a work which skilfully resolves the conflicts between Impressionism and the 'swagger' portrait and gives them a new sense of purpose in Dublin Bay. The catalogue of the Goupil Salon of 1909 challenged art patrons to 'prove' their 'taste... by buying the masterpieces of the future.' In identifying Orpen and selecting the present canvas, Francis Williams 'proved' himself.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey and The Orpen Research Project for providing this catalogue entry.
1. Bruce Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, 1981, (Jonathan Cape), pp. 264-276; Kenneth McConkey, Orpen at Howth, n.d. c1990 (Pyms Gallery, London).
2. These were George Moore, the Irish writer, and leading art critic, holding Hugh Lane, the great Irish collector, enthralled - in the midst of the British avant-garde, represented by Philip Wilson Steer, Walter Sickert, DS MacColl and Henry Tonks. For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, Memory and Desire, British and Irish Painting at the turn of the Twentieth Century, 2002, (Ashgate), pp. 203-225.
3. Laurence Binyon, 'The International', The Saturday Review, 6 February 1909, p. 172. This work appeared in the 9th International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers exhibition at the New Gallery in January and February 1909.
4. Young Many from the West was purchased from the Goupil Gallery by Francis Williams on 17th July 1909. The pictures complement one another in that with Orpen facing East in the self-portrait and Grace facing West, both figures sport black hats, with knotted scarves billowing in the wind. These were signature props in a number of Howth portraits. The works remained in the Williams family until 1973 when they were sold at Christie's (12 October 1973, lots 221 and 222).
4. The blue-grey and white patterned shawl that Grace is seen holding was a frequently recurring prop used by Orpen at this time. Not only is she seen holding the same shawl in The Lady in Grey, 1908 (Private Collection) and The Shower, c. 1907-8 (Private Collection), but also it can be seen in Still-Life with Buddha and Blanc-de-Chine Figure, c. 1906-8, Still-Life featuring Rodin Bronze c. 1907 and The Glass Globe, 1908, all three of which are in Mildura Arts Center, Australia. It also forms the tablecloth in Still-Life: With Chinese Porcelain Figure, 1908 (Private Collection).
5. Furse, regarded as one of the high hopes of British painting at the turn of the century, had been drawn back into the Slade circle by Henry Tonks during Orpen's student years. Sadly he died after a trip to the Prado in 1904 within weeks of Orpen's visit.
6. Like Orpen, Lavery's support for the cause of Irish art had been enlisted by Hugh Lane; see Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery, 1993 (Canongate), pp. 98, 149-150. His Girls in Sunlight was actually shown to some acclaim at the Royal Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in 1909.
7. Sorolla's widely reported London exhibition was held in the Grafton Galleries in May and June 1908.
8. Laurence Binyon, 'Our Young Painters and a Critic', The Saturday Review, 11 December 1909, p. 726.
9. P.G. Konody, 'The Goupil Gallery Salon', The Observer, 1 November 1908, p. 5.
10. The Goupil Gallery, an offshoot of the famous Paris art dealer, Boussod, Valadon and Co. was managed by William Marchant from the turn of the twentieth century. Son of a Bristol iron-founder, Marchant was educated in France following the death of his father. He worked for Goupil's Paris office in the nineties after the death of Theo Van Gogh before taking over the London branch - best known for the fact that Vincent Van Gogh had, in the 1870s, been an employee. In 1906 Marchant acquired an upper floor from Howell and James's old shop and extended the business with four new top-lit galleries, in order to hold larger mixed exhibitions, known as 'Salons'. Mary, (untraced) is a portrait of the artist's eldest daughter, affectionately known as 'Bunny'.
11. J[ames] B[one], 'The Goupil Salon', The Manchester Guardian, 6 November 1909, p. 10. 'EM', writing in The Illustrated London News, 30 October 1909, p. 610, stated that Orpen 'the most devoted of "interiorists" is now posing his models against skies and pools instead of wallpapers and mirrors - at the Goupil Salon his admirable three portraits are all windy...'
12. Anon, 'Art Exhibitions', The Times, 26 October 1909, p. 11, noted that all three works on display were 'strong and vigorous' but preferred The Baldoyle Steeplchaser because of the painter's 'tendency to run to caricature'.
13. Anon, 'The Goupil Gallery Salon', The Athenaeum, 30 October 1909, p. 533.
14. Bone as in note 11.
15. Anon, 'London Exhibitions - Goupil Gallery Salon', The Art Journal, 1909, pp. 380-1.
16. It will be noted that Grace is similarly dressed and wears the same hat in Bright Morning by the Sea.