Throughout the 1920s, portraiture was Orpen's 'golden treadmill'. 1 His income from this source rose steadily until, in 1929, it reached a staggering £54,729,2 the equivalent of £2.5 million today. Although there were occasions when some sitters failed to excite his curiosity, the disregard for his portraits in the decades after his death remains unjustified. 3 Orpen's portraits, exhibited at the Royal Academy, were among its highlights. While epitomizing twenties chic, they also betrayed considerable psychological insight, often providing definitive images of world-renowned sitters. These included the extraordinary Peace Conference suite, the portraits of Edward, Prince of Wales and Winston Churchill, and the iconic John McCormack. Here, in slight disarray, his suit crumpled and shirt collar open, was the Pavarotti of the era. A romantic figure whose spell-binding voice was oddly silenced in this captivating portrait.
John McCormack (1884-1945) the celebrated Irish tenor, was born in Athlone, the fourth of eleven children by Andrew and Hannah McCormack, workers in the local woollen mills. 4 His exceptional talent was recognised when a pupil at the Marist Brothers School, Athlone, at Summerhill College, Sligo and as a chorister and soloist in the Pro Cathedral choir in Dublin. In 1903 he won a gold medal at Feis Ceoil, the Irish Music Festival in Dublin, and funds were raised to take him to Milan for voice training with Vincenso Sabatini. In 1907 he made his debut at Covent Garden in Cavalleria Rusticana and immediately his fame spread to North America and Australia, where he was the star of Dame Nellie Melba's Grand Opera Season in 1911.
Despite the fact that his operatic career lasted a further twelve years, McCormack was happier as a solo artist, singing Irish ballads and stirring war melodies such as It's a Long Way to Tipperary. Under contract to the Victor Talking Machine Company as a recording artist he embraced the new medium with popular sentimental songs. This brought him wealth and fame and enabled the purchase of apartments in New York and London. After the Great War, McCormack continued with a hectic touring schedule that saw him as much in Europe as in the United States.
However, in April 1922 a severe streptococcal infection forced a re-assessment of his commitments and after the spring season at Monte Carlo in 1923 he gave up opera for a concert career. During that and the following summer, he rented Esher Place, Surrey, where he and his family were painted by Sir John Lavery (fig. 1.). This describes the opulent life style of a man who could command huge audiences around the globe. 5
By 1927, although naturalised as a US citizen, McCormack had rediscovered his Irish roots and bought Moore Abbey at Monasterevan, Co Kildare, where he hoped, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to breed a Derby winner. At the same time his generous donations to Catholic charities led to his being appointed Papal Count in 1928 by Pius XI. However, the pinnacle of his career was yet to come. Four years later, when he sang Panis Angelicus at the Eucharistic Congress in Phoenix Park, Dublin, his audience was estimated at nearly one million people - a staggering statistic since it implies that over a third of the entire population of Ireland was present. The cultural significance of McCormack's achievement for Ireland was immense and his shadow is cast in sections of James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. 6
Lily McCormack records that Orpen, then in Paris, described his initial thoughts for the picture in a note arranging sittings. He wrote, 'My dear John McConnack (sic): (A little less of your Sir William, please.) Thanks for your letter that's fine about dates evening clothes would also be excellent, but it would have to be a soft shirt. Is this possible with the order of St Gregory? A stiff white shirt is almost impossible unless the picture is full length, and I do not think that either you or I would like that. I would like to get you all "hunched up" with a soft white shirt and a large black tie.
I may be all wrong, but that's in my mind at present. I want to make the head the main thing and big (as yours)! ... I'll be in London from the 24th till the 30th. If you happen to be there between those dates we might lunch or meet and talk things over a glass (large or small) ...
She continues, Billy decided he wanted John in some unusual attire. They tried evening dress with decorations, but that was ruled out. An elaborate dressing gown was tried and thought too informal; and then one day at tea time, John came in from the tennis court, picked up a piece of music and went to the piano, saying to Laurie Kennedy, the cellist, who was there, 'I've been keeping this for you'. Orpen decided then and there it would be tennis togs and a piece of music in his hand. When Gwen saw the finished portrait she said, 'I don't like it. It's too cross. He looks as if he were going to spank me, and Pop never did that'. I am inclined to agree with her, but I admit that it does show John as I saw him, sitting for Orpen talking politics'. 7
It was this revered figure who placed himself before Orpen in the summer of 1923, looking like he had just stepped from a Riviera cruise ship, his thumb tucked into the belt of his trousers. 8 He has picked up a score, and while the red flash on his lapel indicates the recent award of the Legion d'Honneur, a vaguely Byronic mood of dissipation lingers. 9 McCormack, weary and slightly tousled, has appeared for his most famous sitting. 10 As his eye scanned the studio, it fell upon Orpen's splendid watercolour, The Winner, sometimes known as The Champ - a bruised but unbeaten boxer. The picture spoke to his inner feelings and he offered Orpen £5 for it. The painter, according to legend, replied, 'If you add a nought to it, you can have it'. McCormack apparently did so. 11
W.G. Constable in The Saturday Review, referring to Orpen's portraits of The Duke of Westminster, The Archbishop of York, Lord Milner and Lord Wimborne, all of which were shown alongside the present work in the Royal Academy of 1924, noted, 'the handsome men (always slightly sunburnt) and the linoleum texture of the former, become most tolerable when leavened by the sense of humour of the 'John McCormack', which is comparable to the amusing 'Mr Knoedler' of a year ago. 12 (sold through these rooms, 12 May 2006, lot 62, £215,200).
P.G. Konody, one of Orpen's future biographers, disagreed. Faced with five recent portraits in what was regarded as a 'changing Academy' he saw a new seriousness. There was 'nothing freakish' this year and 'his convention of leathery face textures' had gone. What he had achieved in portraits such as that of John McCormack was 'a mellowed power ... without loss of brilliance'. 13
What was Orpen thinking about in that moment when McCormack appeared in 'tennis togs'? His commanding presence could easily match other celebrated portraits by Dutch masters - McCormack shared Orpen's penchant for Hals. But the image that lingers at the margins of consciousness is the masterpiece of Ingres. It is said that Ingres, when he saw his pupil, Amaury-Duval, sit down in a characteristic way, suddenly realised that he had solved the problem of his most famous portrait. In Count John McCormack, Orpen has risen to produce Ireland's modern Monsieur Bertin, 14 1832 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing this catalogue note.
1 J. Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, Sickert to Smith, London, 1952, p. 222.
2 B. Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, London, 1981, Appendix B, p. 432.
3 See for instance, J. Rothenstein, 1952, pp. 218-222; S. Spender, 'English Artists V English Painting', Art News, Vol. 52, 1953, pp. 15-6.
4 Lily McCormack, I Hear you Calling Me, Milwaukee, 1949.
5 Count John McCormack and his family shows the famous tenor in residence with his wife, Lily and children Cyril and Gwen. At the time the picture was painted, he owned Lavery's The Wharf, Sutton Courtenay, a painting he donated to Dublin in 1935 in memory of Hazel Lavery; see K. McConkey, Sir John Lavery, Edinburgh, 1993, pp. 173-74.
6 R. Ellman, James Joyce, Oxford 1966, pp. 173-74 notes that Joyce, also a fine tenor, shared the billing with McCormack in what was publicised as his last public appearance in Ireland on 27 August 1904, before he departed to pursue his career in British and European venues. 7 Lily McCormack, I Hear you Calling Me, Milwaukee, 1949, pp. 122-23.
8 McCormack returned to the United States at the end of August 1923 and was booked into a recording studio in New York during September.
9 McCormack was admitted to the Legion d'Honneur in 1924. It may be that Orpen added the insignia as a final addition to the painting in that year.
10 The singer had appeared in The Barber of Seville, Tosca, Madame Butterfly and Marthan in Monte Carlo and then in April and May, embarked upon a punishing concert tour in Berlin, Prague and Paris. Orpen's fee was £1,000 - a fivefold increase on the Tomalin portrait (see lot 48).
11 J. White ed., William Orpen, 1878-1931, 1978 (Centenary Exhibition Catalogue, National Gallery of Ireland) no. 226 as "The Champ", p. 86.
112 W.G. Constable, 'The Royal Academy', The Saturday Review, 17 May 1924, p. 501. In addition to these portraits, Orpen also exhibited his painting of the celebrated racehorse, Sergeant Murphy, (sold Christie's, New York, 30 May 2002, lot 108, 13,000). 13 P.G. Konody, 'The Changing Academy', The Observer, 3 May 1924, p. 12. Konody noted that the Academy was 'not what it was' - with uncertainty in the city and country houses coming on to the market. In this context it relied even more upon distinguished Academicians like Orpen, Lavery, Sims and Connard.
14 The compelling aspect of this comparison derives not from palette or technique, so much as from the fact that both artists puzzled over a characteristic pose which they only found almost by accident in the uniquely individual way a person sits on a chair.