It was a common feature of Orpen's letters to his family, to tell his daughters, especially Mary, known to the family as 'Bunny' about animals, whether real or imaginary, he met and made friends with on his visits to Dublin. In other letters he talks of the bear that featured in several works of a Hungarian gypsy couple, George and Edith (see lot 102).
The location for this encounter may well be a room in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, but where the chimpanzee comes from is not known. Perhaps it was part of the menagerie of Orpen's friend and mistress, Mrs Evelyn St George. Mrs St George was a keen animal lover and kept quite an extensive menagerie containing a number of exotic animals. Alternatively it may have been a resident of Dublin zoo. According to Augustus John, Orpen would regularly visit the zoo in his student days, and in his reminiscences Finishing Touches, amusingly recounts a story told him by Orpen himself of how a female monkey fell in love with Orpen and the drastic and tragic measures that had to be taken to resolve what was becoming an increasingly dire situation.
'Orpen gave me the following account of an episode at the Dublin Zoo, in which he figured honourably enough. It appears that as a student he was in the habit of visiting the zoo for the purpose of sketching the animals. One day, he was sketching a large anthropoid ape when he was surprised by this creature's behaviour. It would approach as near as the bars of the cage permitted, and, stretching out its arm, endeavour to divert the attention of the young artist, but without malice, while at the same time uttering soft, conciliatory sounds. Orpen, touched by these overtures, and perhaps a little flattered, responded with a smile and a cordial handshake. 'It seemed the only thing to do', he said. But on succeeding visits, for he had still his studies to finish, he observed with some anxiety that his model's friendly attentions not only persisted but became progressively warmer and more intimate. The hesitating touch had now become a frank caress, and there was an expression in the creature's eye which could only mean one thing - Billy Orpen was loved by a monkey!
Was he offended? Not a bit! He was but a youth and still a turo in amatory experience, although subject no doubt, like most boys and girls, to mysterious urgencies of sex. Besides, as he confessed, he had grown, if not yet to love, certainly to esteem his simian suitor, and if the latter could hardly be classed as a beauty by European standards, no more, for that matter, could he himself. The situation was difficult, but in the end common sense, with which he was well provided, prevailed. There could be no alliance. Popular prejudices were too strong; there was the Law to think of too, and what about his career? He consulted the keeper, who, taking the only sensible course, arranged a swop, and his disconsolate charge, in exchange for a duck-billed platypus and a young South American peccary, was removed to another establishment. I will not attempt to describe the final scene, except to report that it was heart-breaking - and violent' (A. John, Finishing Touches, London, 1964 and 1966, pp. 41-2).