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

Lewis R. Tomalin

Sir William Orpen, R.H.A., R.A. (1878-1931)
Lewis R. Tomalin
signed 'ORPEN' (upper right) and signed and dated 'Orpen 1909' (lower right)
oil on canvas
36 x 32 in. (91.5 x 81.3 cm.)
Commissioned by the sitter, and by descent to the present owner.
Anon, 'Art Notes, The Society of Portrait Painters', The Observer, 14 November 1909, p. 9.
Anon, 'The Society of Portrait Painters, The Athenaeum, 20 November 1909, p. 630.
P.G. Konody and S. Dark, Sir William Orpen, Artist and Man, London, 1932, pp. 200, 268.
B. Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, London, 1981, pp. 222-223, illustrated.
London, Royal Society of Portrait Painters, 1909, no. 52.
Manchester, City Art Gallery, Autumn Exhibition, 1910, no. 27.
London, New English Art Club, Retrospective Exhibition, 1924, no. 92.
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, William Orpen 1878-1931: A Centenary Exhibition, November - December 1978, no. 64.
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Lot Essay

We know from the memoirs of Augustus John that students of fine art at the Slade School were sent off regularly to the National Gallery to study the work of the old masters in detail. 1 This pedagogy was supplemented with visits to the Royal Academy winter shows, the Burlington Fine Arts Club and Guildhall Art Gallery old master exhibitions. In Orpen's student years and immediately after there was a sudden surge of interest in Dutch and Spanish 17th Century painting. 2 Beyond Rembrandt and Hals, the keen student would have absorbed the neat, middle class homes of Holland, depicted in the work of Terborch, Metsu, Vermeer and De Hooch, in which wealthy merchants quietly accumulated wealth and possessions. Protestants who abjured the cavalier swagger of Van Dyck's English sitters had more in common with those who would emerge from the shadows to patronize Orpen and his contemporaries at the turn of the 20th Century.

From the start of his career, when he painted James Staats Forbes' portrait (Manchester City Art Galleries), Orpen's work appealed to such collectors. Some of his most significant early interiors depicted men of taste - Charles Wertheimer, J.H. Fitzhenry and the Hon. Percy Wyndham. These were not classic Wildean aesthetes, so much as connoisseurs who were more likely to have earned their trophies through hard work and dedication. Like Lewis R. S. Tomalin (1849-1915), whilst not lacking in ambition, they were modest about their art interests. Riches were in many cases, an embarrassment. Dickens' Gradgrind, through art acquisition, obtained refinement. Not that Tomalin was a typical Gradgrind. 3 He was an enlightened manufacturer and retailer of woollen garments of the type advocated by the German zoologist and physiologist, Dr Gustav Jaeger of Stuttgard. 4 This clothing was generally believed to absorb body toxins which, according to the social theorist, Max Nordau, contributed to the degeneration of Western society. For this, Tomalin's Jaeger products had the endorsement of such prominent, socially progressive pundits as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. 5 His firm had the moral justification of a progressive eco-friendly energy producer today - and hence its success.
By 1909, twenty-five years after its establishment, 'Jaeger' had expanded greatly, to the point where its owner, equipped with fine furniture and old masters, sits like a burgomeister under Orpen's attentive eye. However, not everything observed at Tomalin's house in Cambalt Road, Putney Hill, was considered useful in pictorial terms. After starting the canvas he wrote to the sitter, 'I have been thinking hard today while I was at work of what changes might make the picture better. And as I am a very bad talker - I am now going to try and set down what I think in telegraphic form.' 6 He then proposed a series of changes - red curtains to replace the yellow ones and chime with the red in the Dutch picture above the sideboard; a convex mirror - Orpen's signature item - to replace another painting; a vase to be removed, and most dramatic of all, the insertion of black and white tiles, between six and nine inches square, on the floor. He was evidently nervous about making such radical alterations on Tomalin's dining room and felt compelled to explain, 'Forgive me writing all this - just say no if you don't like the ideas - but I want to make the picture as good as I possibly can - and please don't think I am making a criticism of the room - I am only looking at my corner from the point of view of the picture.' 7

It is clear that the proposals steered the Tomalin interior towards Orpen's own current areas of interest. The change of colour in the curtains brought pictorial harmony; the mirror, replacing a rectangle with a circular shape, brought more interest to the background, thus also acknowledging the gold framed mirror in the centre of the Dutch picture on the wall next to it, and changing the floor not only echoed Dutch masters, but added a form of spatial delineation which was one of the painter's abiding fascinations. 8 And while Tomalin evidently concurred with these alterations, the question remains as to whether this interior was in the end, truly his habitat or Orpen's.

The tendencies evident in the present work had been emerging for some time. In the previous year for instance, Laurence Binyon had classified Orpen with his teachers, Philip Wilson Steer and Henry Tonks as painters who were 'secluded from the unrestful emotions of our age, with its fever of ideas and its profound dissatisfactions'. Collecting pieces of admirable furniture, choosing with fine judgement gaily harmonious patterns of fine chintz, their art dwells in charming interiors, where filtered sun caresses old silver and porcelain and bowls of flowers reflected in polished wood. 9

This characteristic ensemble reappeared in 1909 when Orpen showed six portraits at the Society of Portrait Painters exhibition, three of which might be regarded as 'portrait interiors'. These according to The Athenaeum were 'much more than essays in pure portraiture', he has, the critic observed, ' ... far finer feeling for the continuity of lighting in a room than the unifying spirit of a head'. As a consequence his interiors tended to 'show Orpen at his best'. 10 Noting that three of Orpen's six portraits on show were actually 'portrait interiors', The Observer commented that, 'he creates the intimate atmosphere of the interiors by Dutch 'small masters' with means that are entirely modern. The extraordinary thing is that he gets the effect of minute precision with a broad touch of vague outline which yet seems to have the crispness of sharp delineation.' 11

The Dutch were masters of illusion. Like them, Orpen gave the appearance of sharp delineation in broadly handled areas of light and shade. No one was more renowned in this regard than Vermeer, then as now the subject of fevered debate. It is likely for instance that Orpen would have seen A Lady writing a Letter around this time since it had recently been acquired by Otto Beit. 12 Here are similar features to those in the Tomalin portrait - soft light from a window on the left, a table on the right, a red patterned carpet and of course, the tiled floor which Orpen was so keen to introduce. At a more subtle level, however, the painter has absorbed Dutch master precedents. Look for instance at the way in which the black picture frames in the background are 'broken' by the sitters' heads - encroaching upon, but not obscuring the concealed message in a picture of well-ordered intimacy in Tomalin's portrait.

In the present work this talisman is an interior by Pieter Janssens Elinga, a minor Dutch master and follower of Vermeer and Pieter De Hooch. 13 Orpen has faithfully transcribed this picture, working a 'hidden' inscription - 'Orpen 1909' - into the gold beading on the upper edge of the ebonized frame. 14

In 1909 Janssens Elinga's A Woman reading a letter was probably ascribed to De Hooch, a revered master who, according to Orpen, quoting Walter Armstrong, was 'absorbed by one problem, that of capturing and bottling the sunlight.' 15 Vermeer and De Hooch revealed a 'secret geometry' of windows, doors and floor-plane perspectives, providing the key to the Tomalin portrait and Orpen's anxiety to make it 'as good a I possibly can'. 16 The rest - his choice English silver, his fine sideboard and Levantine carpet - are what we might expect. Even the subject's appearance, with his neatly trimmed beard and 'Jaeger' clothes support the view that this is every inch the Edwardian equivalent of a wealthy merchant of the Golden Age of Dutch Art. Orpen relished Tomalin's visual richness, as James Laver aptly remarked in 1925, 'he enjoys relating a man to his surroundings; yet is far from using books and pictures as mere accessories, as mere hieroglyphs, as some of the late Renaissance Italians used St Catherine's wheel and the arrows of St Sebastian. The figures tell their own tale, and it detracts nothing from their completeness as portraits that they also play their part in a larger decorative scheme.' 17

We could conclude with these comfortable generalizations, were it not for the fact that Orpen returned to the basic format of the Tomalin on more than one occasion after 1909. The most important of these brings the fascination with art of the past full circle, back to Otto Beit in his study in Belgrave Square, 1913 (Johannesburg Art Gallery).

Here too, the subject is placed to the right of the canvas, giving a view of the sunlit room, with windows to the left. However, there the similarity ends. Dutch decorum has given way to fine furniture, fitted bookshelves and a suite of Spanish pictures. Putney pales before the opulence of Belgravia.

We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey and Christopher Pearson, Orpen Research Project.

1 Augustus John, Chiaroscuro, 1952, p. 37.
2 For a discussion of Orpen's interest in Spanish art, see K. McConkey, 'Dark Identified: Orpen's Hispanic repertory', British Art Journal, Vol. VII, no. 3, 2006-7, pp. 62-69.
3 Tomalin, who obtained the rights to the Jaeger name, founded his company in 1884 and began manufacturing and selling what were described as 'sanitary woollen system' undergarments in a shop in Fore Street, London. Jaeger - and Tomalin - believed that only woollen clothes made from animal fibres, principally wool, were health-giving. Soon the 'system' was extended to 'outer wear' with suits, socks, shirts and dressing gowns being added to the range.
4 In 1905 when foreign firms came under fire and the stock market was volatile, Tomalin wrote to The Manchester Guardian, (1 June 1905, p. 5) pointing out that Jaeger from its inception had been a British company, 'working on British capital'. Although the ideas were foreign, 'we were soon able to arrange for large quantities of our goods to be made in Great Britain'. In the midst of the rumblings of European war and the infiltration of German spies, he also converted the roof of his warehouse in Moore Street, on the advice of Lord Roberts, to a rifle club for his workers, in the belief that every British male should be able to shoot.
5 Shaw's patronage of the Jaeger 'system' went with Fabian politics, an abhorrence of idleness, healthy exercise and a diet restricted to bread and fruit; see R. Skidelsky, 'The Fabian Ethic' in M. Holroyd, ed., The Genius of Shaw, London, 1979, pp. 126-28.
6 Quoted in B. Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, London, 1981, p. 222.
7 ibid.
8 As in his celebrated early picture of Emily Scobel, The Mirror (Tate Britain), Orpen not only reveals himself in the convex mirror, but an unidentifiable female onlooker, possibly Tomalin's wife. The cameo also indicates the other half of the room. Orpen has a penchant for incorporating statuettes into his portraits of the period and frequently used Verrochio's Putto with a Dolphin to this end. The putto on a shelf between the two windows in the present picture has yet to be identified.
9 L. Binyon, 'Three Exhibitions', The Saturday Review, 6 June 1908, p. 720; quoted in K. McConkey, 'The New English: A History of the New English Art Club', London, 2006, p. 90. Orpen's portrait interiors taken alongside those of Tonks, Steer, William Rothenstein, Ambrose McEvoy, Mary McEvoy, David Muirhead and Walter Westley Russell, came at a time to inspire younger Slade students such as Charles Staab, S. Noel Simmons and F.H.S. Shepherd, all of whom exhibited at the New English Art Club. For a contemporary consideration of this phenomenon see T. Martin Wood, 'The Problem of Modern Interior Painting;, The Studio, Vol. XLVII, 1909, pp. 251-59; see also K. McConkey, 'New English Intimisme; The Painting of the Edwardian Interior', in A. Gray, ed., The Edwardians, Secrets and Desires, 2004 (exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), pp. 89-105.
10 Anon., 'The Society of Portrait Painters', The Athenaeum, 20 November 1909, p. 630.
11 Anon., 'Art Notes - The Society of Portrait Painters', The Observer, 14 November 1909, p. 9.
12 Alfred Beit purchased Vermeer's A Lady writing a Letter, in Paris around 1895; it then passed to his brother, Otto at his death in 1906; see A.K. Wheelock Jnr, et al, Johannes Vermeer, 1996 (exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) pp. 186-89. For the Beits see M. Stevenson, Art and Aspirations, The Randlords of South Africa and their Collections, 2002 (Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, South Africa), pp. 115-147. Orpen is likely to have made contact with Otto Beit through dealer friends such as Langdon Douglas and Hugh Lane. Indeed Lane was in contact with Alfred and later Otto Beit from 1905, and regularly during 1907-8 when he rented space in Orpen's studio in South Bolton Gardens. In April 1910, Lane purchased Orpen's early self-portrait Un Amer Curaçao from the John Maddocks sale at Christie's, on behalf of Otto Beit, to be donated to Johannesburg Art Gallery. Orpen's portrait of Otto Beit, 1913 (Johannesburg Art Gallery) has, like that of Tomalin, the subject seated to the right with a view of the room and the windows on the left.
13 This work, presumably in Tomalin's collection, has been identified as a copy of A woman reading a letter and a woman sweeping by Pieter Janssens Elinga (Stadelisches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main). I am grateful to Christopher Pearson for drawing my attention to this picture. Dr Jochen Sander of the Kunstitut, indicates that the original version, also in 1936, recorded under the title Sunny Interior, has been in the Frankfurt collection since 1878 and that the woman sweeping, painted out at the turn of the century, has latterly been reinstated. He also indicates that a copy, without the woman sweeping was known by 1913 and this may be the Tomalin picture. Both resemble works such as A Girl Reading, (see William Orpen, An Outline of Art, n.d., Newnes, p. 153) then [in the 1920s] thought to be by De Hooch. Janssens Elinga (1632-1682?) was born in Bruges, but moved first to Rotterdam where he resided in the 1660s in the street where Rembrandt once lived. Whilst the full range of Tomalin's collecting interests remains obscure, he did acquire a formidable group of Orpens. In addition to the present work, for which he paid £200, he also purchased The Wild Beast; Bridgit, a Picture of Miss Elvery; Young Ireland and The Rest (Edith, George and the Bear) from Orpen for a total of £745.
14 Further research may reveal the reason behind this conceit.
15 William Orpen, n.d., p. 146.
16 Whistler for instance, whose work was extensively exhibited and discussed in these years, referred to the Dutch fascination for using the features of a façade to create rectangles within the rectangle as 'little games'.
17 James Laver, Portraits in Oil and Vinegar, 1925 (John Castle), p. 71. Laver was probably reacting to the re-showing of Tomalin in the New English Retrospective, on show at the time he was writing.

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