Sir Gerald Festus Kelly enjoyed one of the most distinguished careers of any twentieth-century British artist. He was one of only four artists to be awarded The Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO); the others were Frank Brangwyn, Augustus John and Sir Alfred Munnings. The monarch was grateful not only for a pair of magnificent state portraits (of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), but for his highly effective Presidency of the Royal Academy, where through a ground-breaking series of exhibitions he helped popularise the institution.
Of Irish descent, Kelly was proud to become the first Old Etonian President of the Royal Academy. In order to appease parental opposition, he read poetry at Cambridge, before leaving to study in Paris in 1901. There he met Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Walter Sickert and Auguste Rodin, while including in his closest circle of friends talents as diverse as Sarah Bernhardt, Somerset Maugham, and Clive Bell. Maugham used Kelly as the basis for characters in several novels and funded his first extensive foreign tour to Burma in 1908. Combined with his tour to Cambodia in 1936, these led to the series of Eastern dancers for which Kelly is perhaps best remembered.
Kelly travelled extensively throughout his career and enjoyed painting such plein air sketches as this as a relief from producing portraits of such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Henry Clay Frick, Harold Macmillan and Vaughan Williams. A great raconteur and bon vivant, he delivered what might serve well as his epitaph, at a speech to the Royal Academy in 1953: ‘I am a naughty old man, utterly unrepentant in my love of things beautifully done'.