While there is ample evidence that Orpen cared deeply about art teaching in Ireland and was in the vanguard of its reform, the primary source for the beliefs he held is contained in a number of highly finished drawings produced around 1910. The most important of these is the present example, the resplendent Life Class on the Beach.
Praised by The Athenaeum as an ‘admirable’ example ‘of academic draughtsmanship just touched by the beginnings of a decorative sense’, it proved that Orpen retained ‘his pre-eminence’ (The Athenaeum,1910, p. 528). At the same time, regarded by The Art Journal as ‘a drawing of great charm and originality’ (The Art Journal, 1910, p. 359), the work contrasts apparent indolence with industry. A drama of gazing, glimpsing and day dreaming, it shows a group of students on a summer’s day at Portmarnock outside Dublin, about to start drawing a girl, who is presently in the act of undressing. One attentively observes, one is poised to start, but looks down towards the male student, lazing in the foreground with his carton discarded, while a final member of the group, sitting behind the others, glances out at the spectator.
Orpen had been responsible for introducing nude models to the life class at the city’s Metropolitan School of Art. He had resisted the segregation of male and female students, encouraging freer expression and less regimentation in the pedagogic regime. His own experience moving from the Dublin school, firmly based on the antiquated national curriculum of graded copying set by the Government Art Training School, South Kensington, to the more liberal, modern French atelier-style instruction at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, guided his approach and dictated the evidence he gave to the 1906 Inquiry into art teaching in Ireland. Liberality did not mean lack of rigour or loss of discipline. Orpen’s methods sought to encourage the individual strengths of a precocious group that by 1910 included Margaret Crilley (later Clarke 1888-1961), thought to have modelled the central student in the present picture, and James Sinton Sleator (1885-1950), the figure in the foreground. When she posed for Orpen as An Aran Islander Crilley wore a shawl of similar pattern to that on which the model kneels in the present work. From contemporary photographs of Orpen’s student groups it seems possible that the figure on the extreme right of the composition looking out at the spectator is Kathleen Fox (1880-1963).
With these favourite students centrally placed, Life Class on the Beach conveys Orpen’s vision of a young Ireland expressing itself through its artists for the first time. This was the aspiration he shared with Hugh Lane who, in 1904, had published his manifesto for ‘a distinct school of painting in Ireland’ created by raising ‘the standard of taste and a feeling for the relative importance of painters’ – and by bringing the finest French Impressionism to Dublin. Orpen’s role was to stimulate the best of national talent. He later recalled; ‘…at that time [c.1906-1914] there were, among the young of Ireland, men and women with the real gift and love of nature, together with the wish and energy to try to express their love both in line and colour—James Slater [sic], Margaret Crilly [sic], Bertie Power, Kathleen Fox, John Keating, and young Touey [sic], … For five or six years before the war I used to go to Dublin and teach in the school for a fortnight, twice a term ... The school was really turning out good work, and there was a lot of promising youth… The spirit of these sessions was that of ‘a happy working family’, and although its members went their own ways, their teacher hoped they would all meet again for ‘they were merry times’. (Sir William Orpen, Stories of Old Ireland and Myself, 1924, pp.68-69, 78)
If for Orpen in the twenties, the pre-war past took on a golden hue, it does not diminish the remarkable precision of Life Class on the Beach. It forms part of a fine sequence of tinted drawings produced between 1910 and 1914 which PG Konody remembered as; ‘… marvellously delicate and yet incisive drawings in pencil heightened by transparent washes in water-colour. Nothing could be further from Orpen’s aims in such drawings as The Life Class on the Beach, or Nude Study, than the classic perfection of Ingres. Yet in the mastery of his life-giving pencil-line he recalls the crayon work by the greatest figure draughtsman of the nineteenth century.’ (PG Konody and Sidney Dark, Sir William Orpen, Artist and Man, 1932, pp.188-191)
The reference to Ingres is apposite. For the French master, drawing was ‘the probity of art’ and line, the primary means of recording and interpreting visual sensation. Orpen’s masters at the Slade, most notably Henry Tonks, revered the Ingrist tradition and elevated the practice of drawing to a form of empirical science, based on the treatise of the great eighteenth century Anglo-Irish philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley. Studying ‘life’ was the most intellectual activity in which a human being could engage. Indolence, enforced idleness, moments of dreaming and imagining were as important as reflective, self-conscious observation. In producing master-drawings such as The Draughtsman and his Model (The Open-Air Life Class), On the Irish Shore, 1910 and Sheep and Goats: Figures on the Cliffs at Howth, 1911 (Private Collection ), Orpen was marking out a mythic territory that brought artists and their models into ideal juxtaposition. There could be no more incisive exposition of the techniques of the visionary observer, and it is easy looking at Life Class on the Beach to see why Konody regarded 1910 as ‘the climax’ of Orpen’s career, resulting in ‘an outburst of joyous self-expression’.(ibid Konody and Dark, 1932, p. 191.)
Sadly Orpen’s ambitions for the reform of art education went unrealized. The Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland which ruled over Irish art schools demanded more design skills and less of the fine art practiced by Orpen and his pupils. ‘Don’t imagine for one moment’, he ruefully commented in 1924, ‘that they could sell their works in Dublin’ (David Bomberg quoted in Lynda Morris ed., Henry Tonks and the ‘Art of Pure Drawing’, 1985, p. 16) in those halcyon days. And in order to make his views explicit at the time, he painted the enigmatic allegory - Sowing New Seed for the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland, 1913 (Mildura Arts Centre, Victoria, Australia). In marginalia addressed to his wife, Orpen maintained a romantic idea of his messianic part in leading the ‘Old Lady of Erin’ to better and brighter things, and in Life Class on the Beach, his Jeanne d‘Arcs of future Irish Art, pencils in hand, are being trained-up for the aesthetic battles ahead.
They would never meet again in Dublin or anywhere else. After the Great War Orpen never returned to Ireland. Yet as Bruce Arnold has noted, his impact on his students “… was enormous, and his influence on Irish art in the first half of the twentieth century was greater than anyone else’s.” (Bruce Arnold, Orpen: Mirror to an Age, 1981, p.163) The inter-war Free State Realism of Keating, Charles Lamb, Touhy and Leo Whelan owed everything to his example and if talented women such Crilley, Fox and Beatrice Elvery took more independent ‘Symbolist’ lines, we may credit him at least for some of their strength and independence of spirit.
The picture was initially owned by the Duke of Marlborogh and later by Percival Duxbury a paper manufacturer and distinguished collector who donated works by Paul Gauguin and John Singer Sargent to Manchester City Art Galleries.
We are grafeful to Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.