'One of the most important aspects of Orpen's oeuvre was his attention to the 'Self-Portrait'. Bruce Arnold (op. cit., p.261 and footnote) paraphrases Frank Rutter, 'Not since Rembrandt has an artist so consistently examined himself and recorded his own face, as Orpen did, from early youth to the end of his life'. 1
It is indeed the case that the self-portraits span the whole period of his artistic life from the first known, at the age of 13 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: 1963.1 A997), to the last known oil, Aprs le Bain, Dieppe (Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, New Zealand: 1-1932), but the distribution throughout the period is not equal. The self-portraits seem to be clustered around different themes at different times, and it may be that Orpen was undertaking self-assessment at various crucial crossroads, or crises of conscience in his life, and used paint as an aid for his search for resolutions. For instance, one set dates to the period just after he left the Slade circa 1899-1901, when he was also about to embark upon married life as well as his artistic career, which must have been a time of uncertainty. The full-length The Artist When 20 Years Old (Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum: 1843), with the panama hat, suit, bow-tie and gloves, is typical of the group, the artist throwing off his student persona, selecting the road towards conventionality and away from bohemia. Other sets include his self-portraits as a War Artist, 1917, and a small and mainly watercolour group, circa 1924-26, when he found himself trapped by an endless stream of society portraits coupled with the realisation that he was not getting any younger (see Orpsie Boy, you're not as young as you were my lad!, private collection). 2
In the period between 1907 and 1913, Orpen was perhaps trying to come to terms with himself and his ever more complex life, and this could be a key to an interpretation of the number and content of the self-portraits, seemingly offered in a spirit of humour and self-mockery, produced in this period. Could he, in the group where he is dressed in the manner of the 18th Century French artist, Chardin, circa 1907-08, be commenting on his position and role as an artist? 3 Could he be commenting on love and his relationships when he posed with a statue of either Venus or Cupid, circa 1907-10? 4 And could his 'Irish circa 1909' 5 self-portraits, circa 1909-1912, be a comment on his relationship with Ireland? The latter group dates to when Orpen was regularly visiting Ireland but was also becoming increasingly well known in England as a society portrait painter. Trying to maintain careers in both London and Dublin was becoming increasingly pressured, and Orpen probably realised that it was Ireland that would suffer. The move from the more relaxed Dublin, towards the social whirl of a London portrait painter, would mean some sacrifice on his part, but he could have felt the wrench not only represented an uprooting in a physical sense, but also in his attitude to his life, career and values. These works (characterised by an exaggerated ugliness in the face, especially about the mouth), although produced at a time when the 'Irish Revival' of Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory et al was gaining a momentum, more likely give an insight into Orpen's own feelings and attitudes towards Ireland, his relationship with Ireland and himself, but liberally laced with his sense of humour. Until now The Man from Aran has been included in this group. However, recent research suggests that the most likely date for this work is 1916. There is no documentary evidence to support the previously accepted earlier date of 1909 6. Whilst not dismissing the discussions of previous commentators on the work, such as Bruce Arnold, Kenneth McConkey and Pyms Gallery 7 (there are other works from that period to support their contentions, such as Young Man from the West, The Jockey, and The Dead Ptarmigan), the work needs to be re-evaluated in the light of this later date.
Although there are similarities between it and the 'Irish circa 1909' self-portraits, there are also significant differences, which suggests that there may be different agendas at work. Take for instance the face, which although still has a rugged look, it does not have that ugliness with which Orpen imbued those earlier portraits. This may be partly explained by this portrait being a commissioned work, probably the artist's only paid commissioned self-portrait. Orpen therefore probably apparoached it in the same manner as he would any other paid commission, along with the restraints that imposed. The wishes and requirements of the one granting the commission have to be taken into account. In this case it was those of Mrs Evelyn St George, Orpen's mistress, who no doubt wanted a more traditional portrait that could hang alongside the other portraits already commissioned from the artist. In this respect, it could be considered unique among some 35 or more self-portraits, including drawings, watercolours and oils, executed by the artist throughout his life.
Born on 13 September 1870, Florence Evelyn St George 8 was the eldest child of the American banker George Fisher Baker, the Sphinx of Wall Street, and Chairman of the Board of the First National Bank of New York. Being a woman of strong character, who usually got her own way, against her father's wishes, she married an Irishman, Howard Bligh St George, who was a cousin of Orpen's on his mother's side. The family settled in Ireland, living at Screebe Lodge, in Connemara, during the spring and summer, and, in the hunting season, at Clonsilla Lodge just outside Dublin. Orpen's mother seems to have brought them together in about 1906, no doubt thinking that as a socialite, Mrs St George's society contacts could be helpful to the advancement of her son's career, by introducing commissions 9. Although eight years his senior, and being over six feet tall, Mrs St George and Orpen seemed to 'hit it off' on a more personal level from the first, perhaps finding that they had much in common 10. The friendship developed over the next few years with Orpen visiting her when he was teaching in Ireland or corresponding with her by letters, which were often illustrated by drawings. 11
As their relationship developed beyond mere friendship, Orpen's wife's generally beneficial influence on her husband's affairs seemed to wane, and by 1912, when Mrs St George permanently moved from an Ireland she did not much care for 12, and set up a Pied--terre, complete with four-poster bed designed and decorated by Orpen, in Berkeley Square, her opinions increasingly carried more weight with the artist. As can be seen in his letters, he certainly discussed pictures with her, but how much these discussions influenced the content and approach to individual pictures is difficult to tell. It is almost certainly his association with her that gave him the springboard, from which, as an up and coming 'Society Portrait Painter' he was later to dive in, and immerse himself almost completely in portrait painting. With the benefit of hindsight one can see that there relationship was probably at its height in 1916, their association having become somewhat an open secret in London society, where they were known as 'Jack and the Beanstalk', 13 a reference to the great difference in their heights. It was Orpen's prolonged stays in France from April 1917, as an Official Artist of the Great War and subsequent Peace, that changed him, just as the war itself had changed the English social order, forever. It is hardly surprising that their relationship would inevitably suffer, and begin to shrivel on the vine. He was changed by the realities of war, something of which Mrs St George had had no experience, and had become enthralled by Yvonne Aubicq, perhaps less sophisticated, but someone with whom he could share, and who understood his war experiences. However he continued to write to Mrs St George frequently during this period, but he also kept up vigorous correspondence with his wife, Grace. The relationship actually finished in about 1921, according to Vivien Winch, by mutual agreement not to see one another again, as the scandal was getting too much. 14
Although Orpen was not overtly political either in conversation or in his art, it is interesting to consider the work in terms of the situation in Ireland at that time. If the 1916 scenario is accepted, this work would date to the time of the Easter Uprising. Could, then, the moon-lit figure represent the revival of Irish identity and the dark sky, with the even darker clouds threatening and foreshadowing with foreboding the violence and turmoil which may accompany it? Such skies are certainly more akin to those employed later by Orpen in his war works, 15 rather than the more conventional 'Dublin Bay' skies so typical of the earlier works, although dark stormy skies had been previously used on occasion. 16
However as with Sowing the Seed, 1913, 17 although the picture can be given an interpretation within a wide political context, Orpen's actual pretensions for the work were probably more parochial and personal. This view can be supported to some extent by Mrs St George's involvement with the picture. It is interesting to note that although not fond of Ireland, 12 she chose to have such pictures as The Man from Aran and The Holy Well (together with its studies) on her walls. The fact that she did may give some clues to the artist's true intentions, as it is inconceivable that these works were not discussed 18. It is also perhaps significant that Orpen was working on The Holy Well (National Gallery of Ireland: 4030) at the time of the revised date, and that Mrs St George purchased not only the main work but 17 studies for it also. The two works were also both exhibited at the New English Art Club, Summer Exhibition in 1916. There are also other connections between them: the clothing 19 (with the possible exception of the woven belt) worn by Orpen in The Man from Aran could well be the same as that worn by Sean Keating, as the model for the figure above the well, standing in front of the tree with dark patches of leaves set against the deep blue of the water. The deep blue and dark patches of this background can be said to be reflected in the dark blue sky and dark patches of cloud forming the background for The Man from Aran. Similar dark patches can also be seen in the shadows cast by the people around the well.
Commissioned then, at what possibly turned out to be the high point of their relationship, collaboration would seem highly probable, but, at the very least, Mrs St George would have known what was in Orpen's mind, the contents with which she no doubt concurred. Consider therefore that a clue may be in the title: Ireland had bred this rugged manly individual (at least in the eyes of Mrs St George) now bathed in the rays of enlightenment as if he were held in an eternal flame that casts no shadow. But the glow is not coming from his native land, at his back, which is not lit up at all. A barren waste, offering nothing and still wallowing in the Dark Ages with its Holy Wells and Pagan-Christian rituals, the epitome of which is 'Aran', the Ark of Irish identity, the Avalon of the Irish Grail, the Well-Spring of Gaelic tradition, the Repository of Irishness and the Mecca of Revivalists. The work has an air of the private joke about it, with many of its meanings being hidden. The symbols are there but one needs to know how to interpret them and perhaps some were never meant to be revealed as only Mrs St George and Orpen knew the key to break the code. The whole composition in itself is like one of those Irish legends or traditions that it is parodying 20. It also has a humour so typical of Orpen's works, as well as the same self-mockery, although more subtle, that typifies so many of his self-portraits, and may well be parodying his own, earlier 'Irish' self-portraits. An Orpen work is rarely, if ever, entirely what it seems from a cursory glance and this highly imposing self-portrait is no exception'.
We are very grateful to the Orpen Research Project for their assistance in cataloguing this and the following lots by Sir William Orpen.
1. In the footnote, Arnold incorrectly cites the source magazine for Rutter's article Orpen's Self-Portraits as The Studio LXXX, no.18, 1932, pp.268-77. The correct publication is The Strand Magazine LXXXIII, no.495, March 1932, pp.268-77, the full quote being: 'Practically all great portrait painters have painted themselves frequently, but it may be doubted whether any artist since Rembrandt has painted himself so frequently, and in so great a multitude of disguises, as the late Sir William Orpen, R.A.'.
2. Illustrated in B. Arnold, op. cit., p.413.
3. Orpen would dress in a long dressing gown and white scarf wrapped and tied around his head, and wear a pair of spectacles. They are based on Chardin's self-portraits (such as Self-Portrait 1778, The Louvre, Paris). Other examples can be found in Mildura Art Centre, Australia (M8) head and shoulders, 1907; and Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (B685 19-1402) full-length, 1908.
4. An example of Myself and Venus (1907) is in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin (230).
5. The term 'Irish circa 1909' is used here to cover works from circa 1907-10, in which Orpen seems to be exploring both his Irishness and Irish identity. The works consist mainly of self-portraits and portraits (mainly female) of his students at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he taught for short spells generally at least twice a year, between 1902 and 1914, the outbreak of the Great War. He often gave these portraits evocative Irish titles. The self-portraits which would sometimes have Orpen seemingly playing a role, include A Young Man from the West, 1909 (private collection, sold in these rooms on 8 November 1990, lot 54); with a shotgun after a game-bird shoot in The Dead Ptarmigan, 1909 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin: 945); wearing racing colours and sporting a whip in The Jockey or The Baldoyle Steeplechaser, circa 1909-10, (National Museum of Stockholm, Sweden: NM 1730) and see also lot 25 in the present catalogue; and dressed in fancy 'Sunday best' clothes, complete with gloves and riding crop in Leading the Life in the West, 1910 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: 14.59). The portraits include Grace Gifford as Young Ireland, 1907 (private collection); Ruth in Ruth and Boaz, circa 1907 (Mildura Arts Centre, Australia: M47); Beatrice Elvery (later Lady Glenavy) as A Coleen, circa 1908 (present whereabouts unknown); Bridgit, A Portrait of Miss Elvery, circa 1909 (private collection); and Margaret Crilley (later Clarke), wearing a black and white shawl and hat (not authentic Aran Island costume) as The Aran Islander, circa 1909 (private collection). There is a further work, a portrait of Sean Keating A Man from the West (Municipal Art Gallery, Limerick) which is generally considered to have been painted by Orpen circa 1913-16, and would certainly be in the tradition of the '1909 works' but may be of an earlier date as no documentary evidence has been found to support an exact date. For a more detailed discussion on these works and their place in Irish art, see McConkey, op. cit., 1990, pp.54-65.
6. The 1909 date seems to have been first suggested by Cara Copland in her unpublished listing of the works in April 1932, and then taken up by Konody and Dark in their biography of Orpen published in 1932, in which they both confused the title of the 1909 work The Aran Islander, the model for which was Margaret Crilly, with the self-portrait A Man from the Arran Islands, [an alternative title for the present work] although there are separate entries for the two works, 1912 and 1916 respectively, in Orpen's Studio Account Book.
7. For synopses of previous thinking on The Man from Aran see McConkey, op. cit., 1987, p.194, and Pyms, op. cit., 1987, no.28, p.80.
8. For more extensive accounts of Mrs St George and also her relationship with Orpen, consult the book by Mrs St George's daughter, born 1912, Vivien Winch, A Mirror for Mama, London, 1965, p.23 and a number of other references. Arnold, op. cit., covers the entire relationship in some detail, particularly pp.182-86 and pp.237-42.
9. Mrs St George provided Orpen with many commissions for portraits of herself and other family members over a period of ten years between the end of 1906 and 1916. They included three of her, full-length in 1906, sold in these rooms on 7 June 1990, lot 44 (private collection); in the bedroom at Clonsilla, circa 1908, and in 1912; a full-length of her husband in hunting costume, 1906; five of her daughter, Gardenia or 'Poppy' (later Lady Gunston) in 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, and 1916; her father, George Baker in 1909 (3 versions); her son, Ferris, aged 3 in 1911; her son, Avenal, killed in action in 1914, taken from a photograph of him in uniform in 1915. She also purchased a number of his other works, such as Trees at Howth, circa 1910 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin: 1237); The Poet, circa 1915; The Dublin Brawl; Mrs Vera Hone as The Roscommon Volunteer, circa 1913; and The Holy Well, 1916. She was undoubtedly responsible for other commissions like, The Berridge Family, 1911, and The Headforts, circa 1914-15, as well as introductions leading to commissions. Most of these works are either in private collections or remain untraced. However many are reproduced in Arnold, op. cit..
10. Arnold, op. cit., suggests some things, such as boredom, loneliness and a sense of fun, that they had in common.
11. Orpen sent letters to Mrs St George throughout the whole period of their relationship, and the drawings taken from many of these letters are now with the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.
12. Vivien Winch, op. cit., pp.13-14: '[Mama] hated Ireland, deplored its climate and made little effort to understand its people. Almost everything about this God-forsaken country, she insisted, bored her to tears; but although she did not realise it herself I think that loneliness, not boredom, was her real enemy'.
13. Arnold, op. cit., p.281.
14. Winch, op. cit., p.23.
15. See for example, Changing Billets, Picardy; Armistice Night, Amiens; and The Thinker on the Butte de Warlencourt.
16. See for example, The Aran Islander, and The Shower.
17. Mildura Arts Centre, Australia: M40. As indicated by the full title Sowing New Seed for the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland, the work was originally intended as a comment on the state of art education in Ireland. However in 1922, the year of the foundation of the Irish Free State, Orpen allowed the work to be exhibited at the Pittsburgh International with the title Sowing the Seed of the Irish Free State.
18. Winch, op. cit., p.26: 'Orpen had always had the greatest respect for my mother's judgement and sent her preliminary sketches for most of his paintings to test her reactions'.
19. Arnold, op. cit., p.292, describes how Sean Keating brought the clothes back from Aran for Orpen in the autumn of 1915, and suggests that Orpen never went to Aran himself.
20. Much of the speculation in interpreting The Man from Aran can also be applied to The Holy Well, and the two works considered together, aspects of one perhaps relating to aspects of the other. For instance Orpen's sense of 'Aran' as a concept is perhaps more extensively defined in The Holy Well.