Lady Evelyn Herbert, the sitter for the present work, was the only daughter of the 5th Lord Carnarvon, the wealthy aristocrat and amateur archaeologist who financed the excavation of Tutankhamun’s Tomb in the Valley of the Kings. In November of 1922, Lady Evelyn was with her father and famed Egyptologist Howard Carter as they became the first people in over three millennia to enter the tomb of the famous boy King. Furthermore, according to the diary of Lord Carnarvon’s brother, Mervyn Herbert, Lady Evelyn was the first person in modern times to ever enter the inner burial chamber, as her slender frame allowed her to squeeze through a small gap in the wall. It was here they were to find the perfectly intact sarcophagus of the young pharaoh, and his golden death mask; one of the greatest surviving masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art.
According to the artist’s studio book, Orpen was commissioned to paint this portrait in 1915, for which he received a fee of £500. At the time of painting, Lady Evelyn would have been only 13 or 14 years of age, and here Orpen captures her fresh-faced youth in the rendering of her features, as she sits, gazing pensively to the side, a small smile playing on her lips. It was only seven years later that this budding debutante was to make history alongside the other intrepid explorers who discovered Tutankhamun’s resting place. As she grew towards adulthood, Evelyn became increasingly close to her father, brought together by a shared interest in Egyptology. Lead archaeologist Howard Carter referred to Lady Evelyn as her father’s ‘devoted companion in all his Egyptian work’ (H.V.F. Winstone, Howard Carter and the Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, Gloucester, 2006, p. 142), accompanying him on his annual trips to Egypt, and she was to remain by her father’s side up until his untimely death in Egypt in 1923, shortly after the tomb’s discovery.
The portrait has a particularly personal inscription on the lower left of the canvas, which reads ‘Orpen, Dear Little Peaceful by Woppy’. Of particular interest is the use of Orpen’s nickname ‘Woppy’, the term by which he was affectionately known to his mistress, Florence Evelyn St George and her family. The inscription here suggests that Mrs St George may have had involvement with this very commission. She and Orpen entered into a relationship sometime around 1908 after she took up a house in Berkeley Square, and it is well known that she used her influence a number of times from this point onwards to help the artist gain commissions. As the eldest child of wealthy New York banker, George Baker, Mrs St George was highly connected within upper echelons of London society, and it is perhaps within this sphere that she first came to know the prominent Carnarvon family. Given the personal nature of the inscription, it is likely that the families knew each other well, and one plausible suggestion is that Lady Evelyn was perhaps a friend of Mrs St George’s daughter Gardenia, who was affectionately known as Poppy or Popcorn. Gardenia, who was also painted by Orpen on numerous occasions, and Evelyn were only a few years apart in age, and may well have been friends during their adolescence.