Writing on ‘The Problem of Modern Interior Painting’ in 1909, T. Martin Wood summed up the evidence in the case of William Orpen. It consisted primarily in his obvious delight in the atmospherics of a room, and ‘his pleasure in glasses and picture frames … in bright things shining from shadows …’ In short Orpen ‘expressed himself best in interior painting’ (T. Martin Wood, ‘The Problem of Modern Interior Painting’, The Studio, vol XLVII, 1909, p. 256). For seven or eight years, critics had been commenting on the preponderance of interiors in the New English Art Club exhibitions at which Orpen, with Ambrose and Mary McEvoy and the Rothenstein brothers, had been one of the leading young Slade School painters. They represented ‘dingy London rooms with plain walls’, rather than peasant interiors or the salons of the rich (F.J.M., ‘The New English Art Club’, The Speaker, vol VI, (new series), 12 April 1902, p. 106). Devoid of chintz, bric-a-brac and wall-paper, they were plainly painted with no more than a few old, choice furnishings. Such a Spartan setting is that of the present work; apart from the lavish curtains, we only glimpse Orpen’s signature convex mirror, hanging above a single silver candlestick on what we must assume is a chest of drawers (Grace’s basket chair is likely to be that which appears in a number of works – most notably, The Chessplayers, c. 1901, (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).
Formalism, a powerful abstract sense, distinguishes Orpen from his peers. Where they will focus on a seamstress or a woman reading, he often pulls back to take the eye up to a ceiling or off to a window. Indeed this latter motif came to the fore in a series of ‘window’ pictures that in essence began with A Window in London Street 1901 (National Gallery of Ireland). Although they include the artist’s wife, Grace, she is dwarfed by the scale of the jaded Georgian drawing room which almost acts as a prison cell in the seedy hinterland of Tottenham Court Road.
The series was resumed when the artist and his family were living at 13 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea. This small house, later demolished, acted as a studio until 1907, its ‘little rooms [resembling], in their subdued light and the polished high-lit quality of their furnishings, his own early interiors …’ (J. Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, Sickert to Smith, 1952 (Eyre & Spottiswoode), p. 213). The second group was inaugurated with the showing of a watercolour entitled The Window, at the first Goupil Gallery Salon in December 1906 (Illustrated in the artist’s Studio Book, where the size is given as ‘about 14 x 10 inches). This led to Night (aka The Window Light), a major oil, the following year (this picture, also illustrated in the artist’s Studio Book, originally showed a light fitting hanging in front of the window which was removed as the painting progressed. Retitled Solitude, it was formerly in the collections of Edmund Davis, Howden Hulme and Mark Birley before its sale in 1994 as The Window: Night). At the same time the artist worked on a number of variants of which the present picture and Night No.2 (1907, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) are salient examples (All deploy a setting derived from A Chelsea Window, (formerly Mrs Kit Casey), in which there are no figures. For further reference the second series see B. Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, 1981, pp. 214-5. The Open Window, Night, a title applied to the present work in the 1970s (see label on the reverse), is clearly inaccurate). In all, a simple sash window with four large panes is viewed parallel to the picture plane. It dictates both the format, and the essential geometry of the composition. The figure in each case is moved to the side and does not cut the edges of the frame. Where we might expect such a feature to give on to a bright day, as in the Camden Town interiors of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore, in these recent Orpens we look out on a uniform blue darkness. Human drama, the languor of Night, or the passionate embrace of Night No.2 is off, almost in the wings.
That Orpen should have spent so much time on the series is significant. It may derive from the fact that the Goupil Salon picture was so well received by critics – one describing it as ‘a fine declaration of his exceptional talent’ ('Excellent Results of Enterprise and Taste’, The Daily News, 31 October 1907, p. 4; see also ‘Art Exhibitions’, The Daily Telegraph, 2 November 1907, p. 15; ‘Goupil Salon’, The Daily News, 30 October 1907, p. 12; ‘London Letter’, Morning Post, 29 October 1907, p. 5.). Such was its fame that it was recalled by Frank Rinder in a monograph article for The Art Journal in 1909 as an occasion when ‘the dexterous brush forgets its dexterity, and the painter celebrates, graciously, sensitively, and with a certain raison mystique, an aspect of a quiet moment’ (F. Rinder, ‘William Orpen RHA’, The Art Journal, 1909, p. 22; see also ‘Goupil Gallery’, The Art Journal, 1908, p. 30).
Of the three important oils, the present is the most reductive. The pensive Grace reveals no yearning as she gazes out at the night sky. As before, the delicately patterned drapes have been swept aside and the gauze curtain covering the lower panes has been removed. More significant is the deletion of the gaunt silhouettes of the buildings across the street. In their place is what appears to be a wide river or bay with a single sail cutting the horizon. Is Royal Hospital Road removed to the sea, or a wide estuary? Is Grace now awaiting the return of this tiny craft? Or is this reading almost too literal for a magisterial composition that relies for its impact on four simple blocks of cool unclouded cobalt? Such is the totemic quality of the image that it is not too fanciful to read it as an intimation of Rothko.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.