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Sir William Orpen, R.A., R.H.A. (1878-1931)
Sir William Orpen, R.A., R.H.A. (1878-1931)

Study for Nude Pattern, The Holy Well

Sir William Orpen, R.A., R.H.A. (1878-1931)
Study for Nude Pattern, The Holy Well
signed 'ORPEN' (lower left) and inscribed 'Kneeling boy to cover/her back' (lower right)
pencil, charcoal and watercolour
20 1/8 x 16 3/8 in. (51 x 41.6 cm.)
Executed circa 1916.
Mrs Evelyn St George, London.
Her sale; Sotheby's, London, 26 July 1939, part of lot 105.
with Alex Reid & Lefevre, London.
Private collection, USA.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 13 December 2005, lot 64.
Purchased by the present owner at the 2006 exhibition.
Exhibition catalogue, An Exhibition of Master Drawings and Oil Sketches, New York, Jean-Luc Baroni, 2006, n.p., no. 52, as 'A Seated Female Nude'.
London, Royal Academy, Commemorative Exhibition of Works by Late Members: Winter Exhibition, January - March 1933, one of nos 735-750 or 766 (all studies for 'The Holy Well' lent by Mrs St George).
New York, Jean-Luc Baroni, An Exhibition of Master Drawings and Oil Sketches, May - June 2006, no. 52, as 'A Seated Female Nude': this exhibition travelled to New York, Jean-Luc Baroni, June - July 2006.

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Albany Bell
Albany Bell

Lot Essay

In the spring of 1916 Orpen dispatched his Nude Pattern, The Holy Well (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) to the New English Art Club. This large canvas depicting the ritual bathing of pilgrims at a Holy Well overlooking Faul Sound on the Aran Islands was the final painting in what has become known as his ‘Irish Trilogy’. Containing twenty figures - men, women and children in various states of undress - it is arguably the most complex of the three. The others are Sowing New Seed for the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland, 1912 (Mildura Art Centre, Victoria, Australia) and A Western Wedding, 1915 (formerly Matsukata Collection, destroyed in the Bourlet fire, 1939). Its exhibition, coinciding with the Easter Rising and within weeks of the slaughter of Irish regiments in the Somme offensive, adds immeasurably to its significance.

Letters referring to the evolution of this ambitious composition with thumbnail sketches are contained in the National Gallery of Ireland. It developed from swift graphite studies of individual figures and these were followed by a series of highly finished, tinted, ‘stand-alone’ drawings, of which the present example is one of the largest and most complete. This particular figure appears at the lower right of the composition in Nude Pattern, The Holy Well, 1916.

These were then manoeuvred into position in the whole, in a procedure that echoes that of great 19th Century French muralists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Thus the note – ‘Kneeling boy to cover/her back' – in the present drawing refers to A Kneeling Boy pulling off his Shirt, 1915 (private collection), and locates the figure precisely in the ensemble.

P.G. Konody indicates that some seventeen of these ‘finished’ studies were acquired by Mrs Evelyn St George with the large picture, to hang at her London residence, Cam House, Campden Hill, W.8 (P.G. Konody and S. Dark, Sir William Orpen, Artist and Man, London, 1932, p. 169. These drawings then subsequently appeared at her sale at Sotheby’s, 26 July 1939). They functioned as a kind of ‘key’ to the painting.

In the present instance the motif – that of a nude girl, hair unclasped, donning a black stocking – was one that Orpen would return to some six years later. (Since her companion is evidently drying his face, we may assume that both figures have already been baptised). When he had completed his Official War Artist and Versailles Peace Conference commissions for the Imperial War Museum in 1921, one of his first tasks was to paint a formidable series of nude studies, one of which, Nude Girl Reading (private collection) shows his model, Yvonne Aubicq, in a similar pose. In this later work, the young woman pauses to read and her stocking is white.

We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.

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