With Knoedler & Co, New York 1919
New York, M. Knoedler & Co , William Orpen, 1914, no. 6, illustrated in the exhibition catalogue;
Buffalo, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Albright Art Gallery, Recent Works by William Orpen ARA, RHA, 1914, no. 6;
New York, M Knoedler & Co, Contemporary English Painting, 1916, no. 2.
From 1909 onwards, William Orpen spent the month of August at Howth Head overlooking Dublin Bay in a house known as 'The Cliffs', rented from the Bellingham family. The holiday followed one of his annual teaching sessions at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin. His wife, Grace, and their two children, Mary and Kit, joined him for these holidays and being so close to Dublin had the added benefit of enabling his parents to see their grandchildren regularly. Initially apprehensive about spending so long away from London, he quickly realized the benefit of working in such a splendid setting.
The headland afforded panoramic views of the Irish Sea to the east and Bray Head, the Wicklow Hills and 'Sugarloaf' mountain to the south. The ribbon development of hotels from Dun Laoghaire to Greystones had not yet taken place on the north side of the bay, where secluded rocky coves gave way to Sutton Strand and North Bull, leading to Dublin port, at the mouth of river Liffey. During his teaching sojourns, Orpen was re-introduced to the coast and countryside around the city on hair-raising drives in his friend Oliver St John Gogarty's 'Tin Lizzie' (see lot 28). Despite Howth's popularity with earlier artists such as Nathaniel Hone and Walter Osborne, it remained relatively unexplored, and it was here, on its rugged crown, that Orpen was inspired to paint a number of his most important canvases. While he was, as Arnold points out, no plein air painter, the distant profiles of Wicklow began to appear almost immediately in this sequence of works.
At Howth, the artist was within easy reach of the students, models and gypsy characters who posed for his work, and apart from Gogarty, his brother Richard Orpen was a frequent visitor. Richard recalled,
'After he had married, I spent some delightful holidays with him at 'The Cliffs', Howth, which he rented for several summers, a place of great charm looking south over the sparkling waters of Dublin Bay, long lovely never-to-be-forgotten summer days, with frequent visits to the sea and the enclosure called Bellinghams Harbour, where we bathed and sunned ourselves on the hot rocks. Bill [Orpen] was always at work and painted many pictures here. It was at 'The Cliffs' that I realized what the 'urge' of the painter is'.
(Quoted in James White ed., William Orpen, A Centenary Exhibition, exh.cat., National Gallery of Ireland, 1978, p. 42)
The Howth pictures stand as an evocation of these 'never-to-be-forgotten' days – a monument to Orpen's industry and a full expression of his 'urge' to create. Nowhere, before 1917, was he more animated with such profound results. The canon essentially falls into three categories – a group of large finished watercolours such as On the Irish Shore, 1910, (Leeds City Art Galleries) and The Draughtsman and His Model, 1910, (Victoria and Albert Museum) involving models and gypsies. A selection of these was exhibited and published as part of a set of photogravure prints by the Chenil Gallery in 1914. Then there was an extensive series of beach and bathing scenes featuring his immediate family, such as On the Beach, Howth, 1910, (Private Collection). And finally, a group of hilltop pictures was devoted, for the most part, solely to Grace. A sub-set of five canvases, known as the 'tent' series - Summertime, (Ulster Museum, Belfast), Looking out to Sea, (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), A Breezy Day, Howth, (Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, fig. 1), In the Tent, 1912, Howth, (Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa), and Afternoon Sleep (McLean Art Gallery, Greenock) – show Grace in, or beside a bell tent which they erected for shelter on the hilltop. At the same time, Orpen painted a number of landscapes and an evocative picture of Grace reclining in the open-air during the late afternoon, now known as Howth Head, looking towards Dublin, across Dublin Bay (Private Collection).
However, in its close relationship to the present picture, Afternoon on the Cliff, (A Summer Afternoon) (fig 2), shown at the New English Art Club winter exhibition in 1910, is the most significant. Here Grace, lit by the sinking afternoon sun, looks to the right towards Dublin. This was lavishly praised by The Times critic as,
'...the most charming, the most generally desirable, and the least faulty of any out-of-door picture of his that we have ever seen. Nothing could be more delightful than the general effect, than the atmosphere bathed in sunlight...'
(Anon, 'Art Exhibitions – The New English Art Club', The Times, 26 November 1910, p. 6)
The present picture, On the Cliff, Dublin Bay, Morning, in which Grace looks out to the Irish Sea and the rising sun, is a companion to this. In both instances Grace faces an uphill sandy path. The overhead clouds mimic its general direction, and the model stands with one leg forward. Orpen's extreme sensitivity to pictorial harmony has lead him to repaint the face and hat profiles carefully, recognizing that these are the focal points of the composition.
These two canvases transcend the Howth canon and speak in a universal language about nature and humanity. The romantic fascination with empty seascapes goes back to Caspar David Friedrich's Monk on the Seashore, 1809-10 (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin), a theme that was taken up by Gustave Courbet, James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet in the 1850s and 60s. Courbet frequently entitled his seascapes l'immensité to convey the fact that they necessarily involved looking out into huge expanses of sky. Unlike the earth, the sea bears no traces of human industry. Nothing remains on its surface; the tracks of passing ships quickly vanish and perfect purity returns, as on the first day of creation. These thoughts were implied in Courbet's rendering of The Beach at Palavas, 1854 (fig. 3) in which the artist symbolically salutes God's great blank canvas. They continued to haunt generations to come, as turn-of-the-century painters such as Alexander Harrison and Jean-Charles Cazin, invoked poetic sentiment in dawn and twilight pictures of the sea. At the same time white-clad figures walking along the shore, borrowing from Monet's essaies de figure en plein air, became an international currency in the work of the Spanish painter, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, the Dane, Peder Severin Krøyer, the American, Frank Benson and Orpen's fellow countryman, John Lavery. It may have been Lavery's recent paintings at Pourville and Tangier (fig. 4) that provoked the Howth series - these and the recent paintings of Augustus John.
Since the spring of 1908, when he showed The Young Pyramus (Johannesburg Art Gallery) at the New English, John had been toying with allegorical themes, recalling the work of the French mural painter, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. This became clearer a year later, when The Way down to the Sea (fig. 5) was exhibited. If anything the figures are more statuesque and the setting more generalized. Orpen would have recognized that these paintings addressed grand pictorial concepts, beyond the here and now, and that John's figures stood out against the sky, their caryatid poses and shift dresses suggesting classical Greek simplicity.
Such were the visual filters through which he conceived On the Cliff, Dublin Bay, Morning. His challenge lay in adapting the Impressionism of Lavery and others into a more classical idiom. Grace would not imitate John's gypsy giocondas because Orpen's goal was naturalistic. The windswept headland was indeed a place of isolation on the threshold of the immensity, but gazing into its heart, the morning sun breaks through and strikes the dress, the pale yellow shawl and the face of the figure. His was the light and atmosphere of Dublin bay, not that of a studio-confected arcadia.
Orpen dispatched the picture to Knoedler in New York for his solo exhibition in 1914. An important show designed to introduce his work to the American public, it included works like The Irish Volunteer, The Chinese Shawl, and Orpen's self-portrait, Leading the Life in the West (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The cocky character who poses for this picture was ready for a new market, but the timing was wrong. Within four months of its closure, Europe was plunged into war. By that stage the painter who had mythologized the headland at Howth, had worked its contours into his own symbolic language in the complex allegory of Sowing New Seed for the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland (see Kenneth McConkey, 'Politics and That Girl: A Study of William Orpen's Sowing New Seed for the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland', in Neil Garnham and Keith Jeffrey eds, Culture, Place and Identity, University College Dublin Press, 2005, pp. 53-65).
In later years however, the central significance of Howth reappeared in Orpen's random reminiscences, Stories of Old Ireland and Myself. Then, the whole experience was tinged with nostalgia as he wrote,
'... of an evening as the sun dips, the water in the bay becomes a brilliant gold ... or if the night is fine, the lights along the shore from Bray Head to Dublin, begin to twinkle. And the Sheerwater gulls start their laughter, like a bunch of young girls at the side of the road laughing at the passer-by. Ireland! Romance, laughter and tears!' (William Orpen, Stories of Old Ireland and Myself, Williams and Norgate Ltd, London 1924, p. 4)
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