The Performing Bears provides essential understanding of an important group of paintings culminating in The Knacker's Yard, (National Gallery of Ireland) and The Dublin Brawl, (Christie's, 12 May 2005, lot 73). It is exciting evidence of the painter's thought processes.
When he considered the city of his birth, Orpen's abiding impression was one of physical decay. Dublin was a place in which you would encounter a colourful underclass of peddlers, mountebanks and wandering musicians. He was particularly attracted to sideshows involving performing bears and their disreputable keepers, sometimes accompanied by a drummer. These were brought together in an important drawing, Study for 'The Wild Beat', circa 1905, (exhibited London, Pyms Gallery, 1984, no. 37), the central motif of which - the bear and its keeper - was placed in a courtyard setting in The Wild Beast circa 1907 (unlocated). At this time Orpen refined the setting for his street performers using the Merchant's Arch, an ancient archway connecting Crown Alley to the Quays and the river Liffey. This was worked out in a fine watercolour, Merchant's Arch, Dublin, Tinkers and Bears, 1907 (Pyms Gallery, London) in which the flat stone structure, parallel to the picture plane, provides the backdrop for the action. It was to be one of the first important statements of a motif which led to The Dublin Brawl.
Until the present rediscovery, it seemed that Orpen had rejected the 'tinkers and bears' theme as the basis for a Merchant's Arch canvas, in favour of brawlers and knackers. What we have in the present example, however, is a première idée for just such a picture. Swift, dramatic and spontaneous, painted over an earlier working, it lays out the main features of the architecture, sketching in the flagpole/washing line as a final thought. Other details such as the cloud configuration, the buildings on the left, the boarded entrance on the right and the foreground paving are treated with greater deliberation in the Pyms Gallery watercolour. In this, two bears become three, and the figure leaning on his staff on the extreme right acquires a big brass drum. Although a finished oil was never produced, encouraged by the Marchioness of Cholmondeley he returned to the idea in 1925. The colourful underclass are still there, but he has switched the location to a roped ring within a tent at the fair at Neuilly in France.
This work will be included in the catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by Christopher Pearson of the Orpen Research Project.