The present work is the first 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.
The series was commissioned by Gardenia's mother, Mrs Florence Evelyn St George, known as Evelyn, the 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 first settled after their wedding in 1891.
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. In the present work, she is seen half-length. In 1908 (sold Christie's, 12 May 2005, lot 70) she is seen almost three-quarter length wearing a creamy-yellow jacket and the same hat with ribbons. By 1909 (sold Sotheby's, 18 May 2001, lot 191) she is seen in a smart riding outfit with a hat plumed with pheasant feathers and holding a riding crop, and in the last portrait, 1910 (sold Christie's, 15 May 2003, lot 56) she is portrayed riding "Nedda" the donkey garlanded with flowers. With each succeeding portrait, there is a profound sense of a deepening relationship.
The first portrait is particularly sensitive and poignant. The relationship between Orpen and Mrs St George was in its infancy; just when they met is not clear; in 1906 he had been commissioned to paint portraits of both Mr and Mrs St George, and by 1908 their love affair seems to have become a certainty. In the same year he painted a large portrait of Mrs St George in her bedroom at Clonsilla, reclining on a chaise longue at the foot of her Sheraton four-poster bed. On the wall in the background can be seen the first portrait. This portrait, and the second, were both done in the boat house at Screebe Lodge. Mrs St George liked to be involved and the three grew very close. Gardenia adored Orpen and loved being with him. The summers he spent at Screebe Lodge with his 'other family' were immensely happy ones for Orpen, Mrs St George and Gardenia. Orpen was able to relate easily to children and could communicate with them on their own level. 'Popcorn' or 'Poppy', as Gardenia was affectionately known to family and friends, looked on Orpen as an eccentric uncle. By all accounts a precocious child she would have certainly had quite an input into the technical details of the portrait. The present work, with Gardenia's confident gaze at the man who played such an intriguing part in her life, is a fascinating insight into their relationship.
This work will be included in the catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by Christopher Pearson of the Orpen Research Project.