This delicate portrait is the last in a series of four successive annual portraits of Evelyn Gardenia Bligh St George which Orpen undertook, whilst in Ireland, during the summers between 1907 and 1910.1
The series was commissioned by Mrs Florence Evelyn St George, Gardenia's mother, daughter of the wealthy New York banker, George Fisher Baker. Evelyn also happened to be the mistress of Orpen at that time as well as the wife of Howard Bligh St George, a first-cousin-once-removed of the artist - thus making Gardenia and Orpen second cousins. The St George family lived in Ireland throughout the period these portraits were executed. Their primary residence was Clonsilla Lodge, Clonsilla, near Blanchardstown, just outside Dublin, but they also had a summer retreat originally rented from the Berridge family at Screebe Lodge, Maam Cross in Connemara, where they had first settled after their wedding in 1891. According to Bruce Arnold the 1907 and 1908 portraits were undertaken in the boathouse at Screebe Lodge.2 The works were primarily intended for private reflection, rather than public display. Given the artist's relationship with the commissioner, it is likely that they contained coded messages that only they could fully appreciate.3
The series shows the development of a girl from the tender age of nearly ten through to her approaching teens and adolescence. As the child develops, so the portraits take on an increasing depth and complexity. They also indicate the growing bond developing between sitter and artist. The 'Peter Pan' aspect of Orpen's character allowed him to relate easily with children and vice versa. He loved to play, and as a result could communicate with them on their own level.4 'Popcorn' or 'Poppy', as Gardenia was affectionately known to family and friends, like many other children, succumbed.5 By the time this portrait was painted, Orpen must have seemed like an eccentric uncle. As a precocious child, she is likely to have engaged him in discussions about the technical details of the picture, just as her mother would do.6 With each succeeding portrait, there is the profound sense of a deepening relationship. Arguably the present example, encompassing the Howth scenario, takes the series to a totally new level.7
It is important to understand the full significance of the introduction of the Howth landscape in the present work. It was both a literal and metaphoric retreat for Orpen. Its rugged terrain overlooking Dublin Bay, for all its topographic accuracy provided a setting for some of his most ambitious and experimental works. Here, Gypsy characters, sometimes played by his students and models from the Metropolitan School of Art, would assemble and perform. On this headland was Orpen's private theatre and into it comes a girl on a donkey. Consequently of all the portraits of Gardenia, this appears to be the only composition that is supported by a full watercolour study (untraced). Arnold suggests that Gardenia and the donkey were painted at Maam Cross, with Orpen giving detailed instruction on how to paint the animal's leg.8 This motif was then recast in a late summer afternoon or early evening on the Howth promontory overlooking Dublin Bay.9 1910 was when Orpen, at the height of his powers, produced some of his best plein air-style works at Howth. In the present work he has used exactly the same section of path that runs along the top of the cliffs as that in the picture now most commonly known as A Summer Afternoon (fig. 1, private collection), a resplendent canvas which depicts the artist's wife Grace, standing overlooking the bay.10 Orpen loved the serenity of this time and place and evidently considered that there was no setting more fitting to complement the adolescent beauty of the young Gardenia, and the noble Nedda, the family donkey, decked in garlands.11
Nedda was not the first donkey to have been painted by Orpen. In the summer of 1907, thanks to the offices of Hugh Lane, he managed to procure a commission to paint the Vere Foster family (fig. 2, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin).12 The somewhat eccentric head of the family, Sir Vere Foster lived the life of a country gentleman, indulging in the conventional pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing.13 The donkey, a favourite animal of the even more eccentric Lady Foster, and featured in the group portrait, is laden with Vere Foster's shooting trophies. The Fosters' two daughters also appear in the portrait. The elder, the nine year old Biddy, thought of herself as a boy, and consequently is dressed as such. Although Orpen was generally pleased with the composition, it caused a stir in Dublin, and the critics were not so generous in their praise as were Orpen's fellow artists.
Mrs St George would undoubtedly have been aware of the development of the Vere Foster portrait, and the interest it had aroused.14 It is probable that Gardenia's blonde tresses reminded Orpen of Biddy Foster's. The third and fourth Gardenia portraits of 1908 and 1909 recall, in the first instance Biddy's pose, dress, and demeanour, while the present work, replaces the earlier donkey's burden of dead birds, with a jeune fille en fleurs. The resonances here are rich, and they draw us into the likely discussions between the commissioner, the sitter and the artist.
Firstly, the donkey motif, a potent symbol of Irish country life, is consciously chosen.15 It appears in nineteenth century Irish genre scenes. A pack-animal, it is led by the nose, rather than ridden with purpose. Sancho Panza trots behind Don Quixote on such a beast in numerous late works by Honoré Daumier, some of which Orpen would have known.16 Orpen produced his own version of the Don Quixote theme, looking back to Daumier and Dorè around 1905.17 In classical mythology, it is frequently used to convey the drunken Silenus to and from the bacchanal - also a Daumier theme - while in a secular context, it and its close relative, the mule, are shown bringing peasants to, and taking them from, the local market.18 However, by far the most popular usages of the donkey, are in the Christian contexts of the flight into Egypt and the entry of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.19 Orpen again would have been familiar with this image community in the work of the Renaissance and Baroque masters. The modernity of Orazio Gentileschi's treatment of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, for instance, would, had he known it, have greatly appealed to him.
Christ's entry into Jerusalem in particular was of interest to Orpen and he based at least two of his later paintings on it. The first, one of his satirical war works, was a Goya-esque parody entitled The Official Entry of the Kaiser into Paris (private collection), in which the Kaiser is dragged in defeat and derision on a pantomime donkey through the streets of Paris - a parody of Christ's triumphal entry. The other was one of Orpen's last paintings, causing controversy as a stark modernist version of the subject, when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1931 as Palm Sunday A.D. 33, (private collection). According to the artist it was a straight interpretation of the scene with no hidden meanings. The stiff, naïve treatment of the Christ figure on the donkey was adapted from a photograph Orpen had had taken of a Gothic twelfth century statue which had inspired him.20
Around 1910 however, Orpen was preoccupied with themes of Irishness in various forms. Some were undoubtedly influenced by the Celtic Revival movement championed by such characters as Lady Gregory, J.M.
Synge, W.B. Yeats and his brother, Jack B. Yeats. Others were exemplifications of the beauty and vigour of Ireland's youth witnessed in his talented Irish students, and embodying an act of faith in the artistic future of the land of his birth. In the majority of cases these pictures were given titles that suggested Irishness, such as Young Ireland (private collection), Bridjit (private collection), The Colleen (untraced) and The Aran Islander (private collection). Each of these is a 'symbolic' portrait, a single figure subject which brings forward a member of Orpen's student cast for a solo performance, in which individual personality is restated within the aura of Irishness.21 When he turned to the present work, Orpen was deepening his Irish agenda in ensemble pieces like On the Irish Shore, (Leeds Art Gallery), using Howth as an explicit setting. Some of these performers, like Gardenia and her donkey, are decked in garlands and theatrical hats.22 This too had come from the earlier symbolic portraits although the meaning may alter with each specific work. In one case, for instance, Orpen, transposes his student model, Grace Gifford, an avid 'Sinn Fein-er', and depicted as Young Ireland, 1907 (private collection), into the Old Testament figure of the 'comely maiden' plucked from the cornfields in Ruth and Boaz, c.1907 (Mildura Arts Centre, Mildura, Australia).23 Gifford, as Ruth/Young Ireland is festooned with sets of beads and flowers, vaguely alluding to rituals and rites of passage - a first communion, a flowering time, the moment when a girl becomes a woman, and when a colony becomes a country.24 The same thoughts haunted Orpen in the present work. Gardenia here, astride her donkey, is the archetypal Irish colleen, brought, like her land, to symbolic maturity on a glowing day on the Hill of Howth.
We are very grateful to the Orpen Research Project for providing the catalogue entry for lots 56-61.
1 Orpen also undertook a fifth portrait, a three-quarter-length Portrait of Gardenia, (50 x 40 ins; RA 1916, no. 87; sold Phillips, London, 7 March 1989, lot 39), in circumstances very different from those of the present work. It was painted in 1915, probably in London rather than Ireland. After such a break it cannot be considered part of the same series. It shows a fashionable young woman, dressed for to go to a ball, her hair bobbed. The tension which underscores it may derive from the grim circumstances of the Great War, shortly to impinge on Orpen's life, coupled with the realization of this very artist's infidelity with her mother. For her it must have seemed a betrayal. The innocence portrayed in Gardenia and Nedda had gone for both artist and sitter, and was lost forever. Barely two years later, in October 1917, Gardenia married Derrick Wellesley Gunston. The present work is referred to in Orpen's Studio Book as Portrait of Gardenia St George (on Donkey) sold for £525; its Laib Glass Negative Number is 4920.
2 Bruce Arnold, Orpen: Mirror to an Age, London, 1981, pp. 240-41.
3 According to identifiable records the 1907 and 1910 oil portraits do not ever seem to have been exhibited in Orpen's lifetime, the 1908 portrait was only exhibited at the Society of Portrait Painters 18th exhibition, 1908, and the 1909 portrait was only exhibited at the International Society's '2nd Fair Women' Exhibition, 1909 as A Young Irish Girl.
4 In letters to his wife (formerly Orpen family; now National Gallery of Ireland), Orpen gives an indication of his relationship with children. Speaking of Sir Vere Foster's two daughters, Biddy and Dorothy, during his commission to paint the family in 1907 he says, 'Terrible Games from 6 to 7, which nearly killed me - pillow fights etc ... But I have to go through it'. According to Bruce Arnold (op. cit., p. 244), in a letter to him dated June 11, 1978 from the younger daughter, Mrs Dorothy May, she recalls, 'I adored him, he had Nursery Tea, burnt the toast daily and said he liked it like that! Then we had glorious pillow-fights - luckily nanny also loved him and forgave the mess!'. However he showed his serious side and professional approach when describing the Foster parents to his wife. Writing from the Vere Foster's home at Glyde Court in Ireland, he says, 'All seems strange here. They seem like two children playing at being married'. Later he wrote, 'I feel years older than Sir Vere [Orpen was 29, Sir Vere, 34] or Lady Foster and find myself giving them advice on how to manage their servants, etc., and children'.
5 Illustrated letters from the collection of Mrs St George (sold Sotheby's, London, 16 May 2002) also indicate that Orpen's relationship with Gardenia was what for the time would be regarded as unusual. In two cases he and she are seen drinking from porter glasses. John Rothenstein, Orpen's nephew, confirms his affinity for children, childlike behaviour and the fact that he had been 'moderately addicted' to spontaneous 'outbursts of horseplay'; see Modern English Painters, 1, 1952, p. 226.
6 Orpen appears to be discussing with either Mrs St George or Gardenia measurements and proportions within the composition in a number of letters. These letters also contained appropriate sketches. The correspondence is now in the National Gallery of Ireland (Orpen Folio NGI 7830, Nos. 18, 21 and 25).
7 In all the portraits Gardenia is wearing a hat and jacket. Her body is also facing to the left of the picture with her head turned toward the viewer to reveal a three-quarter face. The first portrait, 1907, is a half length, 1908 is half to three quarter length, 1909 is three quarter length, and all three figures are set against dark backgrounds. The 1910 portrait, the present work, not only shows a full length Gardenia but also an outdoor setting including a donkey. The props also become greater in number and complexity with each successive portrait, from a simple hat and no hands in 1907, the introduction of a hand partly in a pocket in 1908, to the additions of game bird feathers in the hat, riding crop and gloves in 1909. Even more exotic peacock feathers adorn the hat and garlands the donkey in the present work.
8 There is no evidence to suggest that this oil version of the present work was ever exhibited in Orpen's lifetime. There is a suggestion in Orpen's Studio Book, however, that the watercolour may have been exhibited at the New English Art Club, but no date given. If the Studio Book reference is correct the most likely exhibition would be Summer 1911, when a work simply entitled Portrait was exhibited (no. 44). However without a contemporary description, the vagueness of the title renders a conclusive match impossible. Arnold says of the watercolour (ibid.: p.241) '…a man$ificent full-size water-colour, in many ways more subtle, vibrant and glowing than the oil, which was completed back at Clonsilla'. The painting was nevertheless shown at the New English in 1945, outside Orpen's lifetime.
9 It is likely that the watercolour version was in the main undertaken at Maam Cross, but that the oil was painted mainly in his studio at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he taught a summer course every year between 1902 and 1914. Howth, within easy reach of Dublin, was where he spent his summer holidays between 1909 and 1914. It provided a backdrop of Dublin Bay, with its ever changing, ever artistically challenging, skies, along with the multi-coloured heathers, gorse and other plants that grow over the red-brown and grey rocks of the cliffs.
10 Originally entitled Evening, this was also painted in 1910. By comparing the shadows cast by Grace with those of Gardenia and the donkey, it can be ascertained that both pictures are set in the late afternoon or early evening. For reference to this work see Kenneth McConkey, Orpen at Howth, n.d., 1991, (exhibition catalogue, Pyms Gallery, London); see also B. Arnold, op. cit., 1981, p. 268.
11 The name of the donkey has been ascertained from the catalogue for Royal Academy Winter Exhibition, 1933, where the picture was exhibited under the title Gardenia and Nedda, no.58.
12 The Vere Foster Family consisted of Sir Augustus Vere Foster (1873-1947), Lady Charlotte Philippa Marion (nèe ffolkes d.1938), Philippa Eugenie (Biddy) (1898-1962) and Dorothy Elizabeth, (b.1903).
13 Sir Vere Forster of Glyde Court, County Louth was thirty-eight when the portrait was painted. He was the great-nephew of a pioneering educationist who, in the mid-nineteenth century devised textbooks for primary schools in Ireland, which continued in usage in Orpen's lifetime. For further reference see Mark Bence-Jones, Twilight of the Ascendancy, 1987, London, pp. 114-6.
14 A double-sided letter to Mrs St George, written from Glyde Court, giving train times and containing a sketch showing Biddy Foster in boy's breeches, was sold Sotheby's, London, 16 May 2002, lot 99.
15 Mrs St George is pictured incongruously astride a donkey in an undated letter from Screebe Lodge (Sotheby's, London, 16 May 2002, lot 121).
16 The dissemination of Daumier's work into British collections had already begun by the time of the Exposition Daumier, held at the Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1901 and articles and illustrations were appearing in periodicals like The Studio. Ever eclectic it is possible that Orpen had picked up on Daumier's imagery as early as c. 1903, when he produced dramatic drawings such as The Cream Tarts, (private collection, formerly Pyms Gallery, London).
17 Clongowes Wood College; for further reference see National Gallery of Ireland, William Orpen, 1878-1931, A Centenary Exhibition, 1978 (exhibition catalogue), p. 32 (no.38).
18 Daumier's Drunkenness of Silenus, c. 1851 (Musèe des Beaux Arts, Calais) and variants would have appealed to Orpen for their vigorous monochrome drawing style. Daumier was of course referencing Baroque masters like Ribera who had addressed this theme. Daumier also produced at least one notable Return from Market c. 1855 (Oscar Reinhardt, Winterhur, c. 1980) showing a peasant astride an otherwise laden donkey. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot in the splendid late Le Parc-des-Lions à Mont-Marly, c. 1865 (Thyssen Collection, Madrid) employs the animal for bourgeois recreation in the setting of an imposing landscape. This motif was taken up with more deliberation in Camille Pissarro's La promenade à âne, à la Roche-Guyon, c. 1865 (private collection).
19 Both Christian themes have a rich iconography. Gentileschi's extraordinary Rest on the Flight into Egypt, (Birmingham City Art Gallery), was in Britain in the Talbot collection at the turn of the twentieth century. While it is unlikely, but not impossible that Orpen could have seen this particular work, its radical pictorial strategies were replayed through subsequent image communities. Within Orpen's lifetime, the 'Entry into Jerusalem' had been treated in a memorable sculpture by Jean-Lèon Gèrôme, while both themes are illustrated in James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot's popular edition of the New Testament, 1897 (Sampson Low, Marston and Co.).
20 An unidentified newspaper clipping reporting on the 1931 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition states 'Palm Sunday A.D. 33, was one of the most discussed pictures at this year's academy, and was commented upon throughout the country. Sir William subsequently stated that he had received inspiration for the picture from a twelfth century statue which he had specially photographed and mounted so that he could paint it, although he made several modifications.' 'The picture had no hidden significance' he stated, 'It is just a picture of the entry into Jerusalem.' In another unidentified newspaper clipping reporting on the same work, Orpen confesses his eclecticism. 'I can put any work of art I like into any of my pictures without acknowledgement', he declared.
21 Running alongside these works was a series of 'Playboy of the Western World'-style self-portraits.
22 Orpen may be alluding to old Irish traditions and folklore, popularised at that time by the Celtic Revival in this important sequence. The garlands of flowers about the donkey's neck and head in the present work can for instance be compared respectively to the daisy chain held by, and the circlet of flowers about the young girl's head in the watercolour On the Irish Shore, 1910 (Leeds Art Gallery) and the oil version The Fairy Ring, 1910, (Johannesburg Art Gallery). There is also a garland about the neck of the goat in Sheep and Goats, 1911, (private collection). For a fuller discussion on Orpen's Howth 'ensemble' pictures see Christie's, London, 11 November 1999, lot 34 (entry by the Orpen Research Project).
23 For further reference to this Young Ireland, see, Pyms Gallery, Orpen and the Edwardian Era, 1987, (exhibition catalogue, entry by Kenneth McConkey), pp. 72-3.
24 In Baroque classical painting this 'flowering' of female beauty is most frequently conveyed through the myths of Flora and Pan. Thus in Poussin's Triumph of Pan, 1635-6 (National Gallery, London) the goddess, crowned with ivy leaves, is conveyed to the bacchanal astride a long-haired goat.