“It is my business in life to study faces. It is also my lot in doing my job to get to know automatically what is in the mind that is behind the face, and I do not hesitate to say that there is no such thing as real beauty of face without beauty of mind. And there is a lot of both kinds of beauty to-day.” (Orpen, quoted in, P.G. Konody and Sidney Dark, Sir William Orpen – Artist & Man, 1932, pp.77-78)
WILLIAM ORPEN AND THE SWAGGER PORTRAIT
Flamboyant, charismatic and technically flawless, William Orpen was a more than able successor to John Singer Sargent, resembling a modern-day Van Dyck, whose portraits were the epitome of Edwardian chic. When Idina Wallace was painted in 1915, Britain had entered a new phase in its history where war had broken the spell of the easy years of the decade immediately after Queen Victoria’s death, when life and wealth, frivolity and leisure-time seemed endless. WWI had awakened Europe to the realisation of life’s transience and cast a grim pall over Britain. The country house cellars were starting to run out of champagne and most of the footmen and the young landowners were facing an uncertain future as it became clear that the conflict would not be over before Christmas, as had been expected in 1914. However, until he enlisted in 1916, Orpen continued to paint the wives, daughters and mistresses of the rich and the images he created glittered with elegance. He showed that not only did life go on, it should be enjoyed for all it had to offer. For Orpen, Britain’s greatest asset was its people, from the soldiers fighting on the Front to the dazzling debutantes waiting patiently at home.
In 1914 Orpen had painted an over-life size portrait of his lover Mrs St. George (sold in these rooms, 16 May, 2003, lot 57). This set the precedent for a series of large full-length portraits painted over the next few years. The strong verticality of these pictures suited Orpen’s depictions of lithe, slender women in flowing silk gowns and simple, dark backgrounds. He also painted on a large scale at this time, mirroring the great portrait painters of the eighteenth century. WWI created a booming market for portrait painters, as grieving families wanted portraits of the fallen, proud sitters wanted to commemorate their accolades and adventures while others simply wanted to immortalise the likenesses of their loved ones when they realised how swiftly they could be taken away.
The commission to paint Lady Idina Wallace was a remarkable one because it was not initiated by her husband and was not intended to hang in her marital home. Orpen was asked to paint her by Sir James Hamet Dunn (1874-1956), a married millionaire industrialist and financier who was smitten by Idina and paid the exorbitant sum of £750. Idina's husband Euan had returned to his regiment in France in March 1915 and it was at this time that she began to seek affection and excitement beyond her marriage and took several lovers, including Dunn. Dunn was a Canadian but spent most of his time in England and France. In 1915, the same year he painted Idina, Orpen also painted Dunn's beautiful daughter Mona (Beaverbrook Art Gallery). It has been stated that Orpen was asked to paint two other young ladies for Dunn in 1915 and it is likely that one of these was the full-length portrait of the former actress Mrs Oscar Lewisohn (née Edna May). It has the same format of a statuesque and slender woman, placed against a striking black background and standing on the tiled floor of Orpen's London studio. The other was probably that of Madame Eugenia Errazuriz (Mildura Arts Centre, Victoria, Australia) who was also painted by Augustus John, Giovanni Boldini, John Singer Sargent and Pablo Picasso. In that same year Orpen also painted a portrait of Rose, 4th Marchioness of Headfort (sold in these rooms, 10 May 2012, lot 136). Like Rose, a former Gaiety Girl and Edna May, a well-known actress - both married to aristocrats - Idina was a woman whose background raised eye-brows in Society. Her reputation had been compromised early in her life when her father, the Eighth Earl de la Warr - known as ‘Naughty Gilbert’, ran away with a cancan dancer. The taboo of divorce destroyed the family and made Idina conscious of being an outsider, invited to all the parties but watched closely by the mothers of the eligible bachelors that she took to the floor with. This did not concern Orpen, who probably enjoyed Idina’s notoriety and there has been some suggestion that he was also seduced by Idina's charm during those long hours sitting for him.
‘Orpen was a flirt, and more. Idina looked across at him, chin upward, defiant… Ninety years on, electricity still fizzes from the portrait.’ (Frances Osborne, The Bolter, 2008, p.53)
“A woman enters the studio and pauses in the doorway. I may never have seen her before. But instantly I know whether she is wearing the right or the wrong dress. And if she is wearing the wrong one, I tactfully suggest that she goes away and changes.” (P.G. Konody and Sidney Dark, Sir William Orpen – Artist & Man, 1932, p.74)
His portrait of Lady Idina Wallace demonstrates Orpen’s virtuosity at the height of his career. Central to his oeuvre was Orpen’s love of women. It is a celebration of womanhood - not merely physical beauty but also intelligence, spirit and individuality. Throughout his life Orpen had been intimate with various women who shaped his understanding of them. He had doted upon his mother and been devastated by her loss in 1912; he was an adoring (if not faithful) husband to his wife Grace and felt strong romantic and sexual feelings towards a variety of women from all walks of life from musical hall singers to countesses. ‘Orpen seemed driven by a strong erotic compulsion that appears linked in some way to his need to create pictures.’ (Robert Upstone, William Orpen – Politics Sex & Death, 2005, pp.23-24)
Idina was famous for her fashion sense and even when she had been trekking through the wilds of the Congolese jungle she would sit down in a glade looking immaculate, to enjoy a gin and tonic over ice (carried in her thermos flask). In Orpen's portrait she appears to be wearing one of the risque a la mode wrap-around dresses designed for her by her friend, the designer Edward Willaim Molyneux who was working for the irrepressible 'Lucile' (Lady Duff-Gordon). She has cast off her satin opera-cloak with its fur hood to expose her long ivory-skinned arms, the length of which are uninterrupted by jewellery and accentuates her swan-like neck. The black velvet gown gives the illusion of height; Idina was only five foot three.
The glamour personified in Orpen's depiction of Idina recalls that of another infamous portrait of a woman in black, Sargent's portrait of Madame Gautreau, Madame X (Metroplitan Museum of Art, New York). Like Sargent, Orpen here exploited the dynamic sophistication of painting predominantly in black, which was also adopted by Giovanni Boldini when he painted the notorious divorcée Lady Colin Campbell (National Portrait Gallery, London), gifted to the nation only four years before Orpen began his portrait.
Orpen was astute enough to recognise that it would have been inadvisable to exhibit the portrait of Idina at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition where news of it would have soon reached her husband, or worse still, the scions of Society or the gossip columns. Everyone knew of Idina and Dunn’s indiscretions but whispers in the ballroom were very different from the blatant statement of a full-length portrait hung in public; there was nothing to be gained and all to be lost for the reputations of artist, patron and sitter.
THE BOLTER OF HAPPY VALLEY
‘In an age of wicked women she had pushed the boundaries of behaviour to extremes. Rather than simply mirror the exploits of her generation, Idina had magnified them. While her fellow-Edwardian debutantes in their crisp white dresses merely contemplated daring acts, Idina went everywhere with a jet-black Pekinese called Satan.’ (Frances Osborne, The Bolter, 2008, p.7)
The face that looks out from Orpen’s portrait is one that is confident, seductive and beautiful and it belonged to a woman who scandalised her generation. With her Hollywood good-looks, shingled blonde hair and sleek black gown contrasted with the lustre of pearls, Lady Idina is the epitome of pre-war glamour. Enthroned like the black queen of a chess-board, she leans forward as though poised to move or speak, her direct gaze mirrored by that of her alert Pekinese, the wickedly-named Satan who was her constant companion until he finally went to Hell and was replaced by a spotted African wildcat.
The life-story of Lady Idina and her circle of friends known as the ‘Happy Valley Set’ is one that might appear to come straight from the pages of a tawdry novel and indeed it has been the basis for several books and feature films which have dwelt upon her adulterous and hedonistic lifestyle. In The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate both by Nancy Mitford, the character "the Bolter" was based upon Lady Idina and Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies also depicted her lifestyle and character. The heroine Iris Storm, of Michael Arlen’s novel from the 1920s The Green Hat, was a thinly-veiled version of Idina – made into a silent movie, A Woman of Affairs starring Greta Garbo. The most famous telling of excesses of the Happy Valley Set is White Mischief, a film based upon James Fox’s book which dramatised the mysterious events surrounding the death of Idina’s third ex-husband, the Earl of Errol in 1941.
Myra Idina Sackville (she was always known as Idina) was born on 26 February 1893, the eldest child of Gilbert, 8th Earl de la Warr and Lady Muriel Brassey. Her parents' marriage broke down when she was aged only four and her father left the manor house in Bexhill-on-Sea to live close-by with his mistress who he had met at a seafront music-hall. The Sackville's marriage had not been founded upon love; Muriel Brassey married because she wanted to be a countess and Gilbert obliged because he liked her money. This, and the divorce, must have affected Idina's ideas about marriage and shaped her future relationships. Her cousin was Vita Sackville-West and she was raised as part of the aristocratic elite, but her father's frivolous and scandalous lifestyle made the family notorious. However, her character made her popular; one admirer stated that she ‘lit up a room when she entered it’ (Times, 10 November 1955) whilst a girlfriend said that she ‘lived totally in the present... Idina was a darling, but she was naughty.’ (Frances Osborne, The Bolter, 2008, p.8).
Idina fell in love freely and often, but her greatest love was for her first husband, David Euan Wallace, who was 'by all accounts, breathtakingly handsome, heartbreakingly kind and as rich as Croesus.' (ibid, p.12) He was a Captain in the Life Guards and one of the most sought-after bachelors of his generation. He and Idina married in 1913 and led a seemingly idyllic and glamourous life, spending night after night dining at Claridge's, the Ritz or the Carlton and dancing until the early hours of the morning before finally retiring to their beautiful home at Connaught Place. Idina and Euan were intensely in love but sadly the turmoil of WWI and Euan's insatiable appetite for her female friends caused a rift between the two and after six years, the birth of two sons and two daughters, she left him, moved to Africa and they were divorced. She wrote to tell him that the marriage was over on the day the war ended. It seems that she may have feared being abandoned as her mother had been and therefore left him before he could leave her. It was a decision she later lamented but it was too late to turn back. She remarried within a couple of months of her divorce, but always regretted losing Euan and she kept a photograph of him beside her bed until the day she died.
Her second marriage to Captain Charles Gordon lasted only four years and she was divorced and remarried again within the same year, 1923. Her third husband was Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, with whom she had conducted an adulterous affair after he became infatuated with her and was tempted away from his path to high diplomatic office by her scandalous lifestyle. Together they became part of the hedonistic elite of British East Africa who frequented the Muthaiga Country Club in Nairobi, known as ‘The Happy Valley Set’. The Errolls’ large farmhouse, 'Clouds', clung to the picturesque volcanic slopes of Mount Kipipiri (meaning 'Butterfly') above the Rift Valley and was the setting for wild all-night parties fuelled by cocaine, champagne and debauchery. It was at these parties that the Set indulged in their most promiscuous and scandalous liaisons with husbands and wives leaving with different partners in the early hours of the morning. Idina invited guests to chat to her as she bathed in a tub of green onyx and couples swapped room keys according to where a white feather came to rest after being blown across a sheet by a suitor.
After this African ‘honeymoon’, the Errolls divorced in 1930 and their daughter was sent home to England to be raised by an aunt. Idina was free again to marry, and later that year she became Mrs Donald Carmichael Haldeman. This marriage lasted longer than any of her previous and a possessive man, Donald seems to have been able to hold on to the flighty Idina for a while, but after eight years she spread her wings once more. She freed herself to marry William Vincent Soltau, with whom she remained married until 1945. Soltau was a dashing pilot, known by Idina and their friends as 'Lynx' because of his eyesight in the sky. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Euan Wallace and it seems that Idina's love for her first husband may have influenced the choice of her last. Sadly history repeated itself and six months into the marriage Lynx was taken away from Idina by the outbreak of war. This time, the news of the deaths of so many young soldiers broke Idina's heart and when her beloved third ex-husband was murdered in 1941 she was almost tipped over the edge into oblivion. However she stopped herself from taking her own life and lived for another fourteen years but something had changed that could not be undone. She released Lynx from the marriage in 1945 so that he could marry another woman with whom he had fallen in love and Idina continued to seek love elsewhere. One of the last things she did before her death in 1955 was put her daughter Ann in touch with Sir James Dunn, the man who had commissioned Orpen's portrait forty years earlier and the man who would eventually give the portrait to her family.
Beautiful, wealthy, well-connected and sexually liberated, it would be too easy to condemn Idina’s lifestyle but when boundaries are set on a different dial, we must look differently upon her. She was 'preposterously - and secretly - kind' (Rosita Forbes, Appointment in the Sun, 1949, p.274) and only ever took lovers from marriages that were already irreparable, scooping up unhappy husbands into her welcoming arms. Idina was liberated and passionate at a time when the gender of women experienced its greatest transformation. Like the muse Jane Morris and the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (see lot 8), Lady Idina and Orpen challenged the way women were represented and created a new look, where their sexuality was more than just expressed in terms of traditional notions of beauty and correctness.
Idina was well-aware of how attractive she was to men, despite not being conventionally pretty. As has been stated; 'She may not have been a natural beauty - that shotaway chin haunted her - but she had high cheekbones and, above them, a pair of wide, bedroom-blue eyes. She also had the money to dress well, and did so, teaching herself how to walk and stand so that the folds of material hung just so, making her clothes, as they should, appear like a second skin.' (op cit, p.27) When she sat for both Orpen and the photographer Cecil Beaton who shot her for Vogue, it was this elegance and her irrepressible character that they were able to capture. She was a remarkable woman and Orpen was a gifted painter who managed to convey her beguiling spirit with his paint on canvas. It is easy to see why she was so loved, by so many.
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