Although William Orpen exhibited regularly with the Goupil Gallery in London, in 1913, the Chenil Gallery, which had been founded by his brother-in-law, Jack Knewstub, proposed publishing a folio of ten photogravure facsimiles of his drawings, produced ‘under the artist’s personal supervision’ in a strictly limited edition. As art dealers diversified in the late nineteenth century, there had been other ventures of this kind and the key to success lay in the quality of reproduction and the range of the selection. In this instance, preparatory drawings related to Orpen’s recent work were combined with nude studies, one or two unconventional portraits and fine prints of figures on the clifftop at Howth Head - the most talked about of which was The Yacht Race.

Classification was a problem for reviewers. Some were described as ‘really drawings’, complete works of art in themselves, and ‘neither studies nor sketches’ and The Yacht Race was one such. It was satisfying, said one critic, that with the ‘simplest materials … [Orpen] shows how much atmosphere the skilled pencil can suggest’. There was much discussion of the draughtsman’s disciplined use of line, The Athenaeum declaring him ‘the most capable living exponent of the art of drawing …’ and placing him above the brilliant Augustus John in terms of ‘accuracy’. While other comparisons were made with Ingres and Leonardo, it was the suggestiveness ‘of sunshine and breeze’ that the master was able to convey in The Yacht Race that appeared almost miraculous.[1]

Orpen’s summer ritual from 1909 onwards had been to rent Arthur Bellingham’s house known as ‘The Cliffs’ overlooking the majestic sweep of Dublin Bay for the month of August. There he would be joined by his wife, Grace, and his daughters, Mary and Kit, along with other members of his family. Since the Howth holiday followed his summer term residency at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin friends and students sometimes joined the party. These convivial gatherings became subjects for drawings and paintings for, as his brother Richard recalled, while these ‘long, lovely, never-to-be-forgotten summer days’ were carefree, ‘Bill was always at work’. At first hand Richard witnessed his brother’s mysterious drive, his inner compulsion - ‘what the “urge” of the painter is’.[2]

If Orpen’s creativity was most on show in the Howth summers, it is encapsulated in The Yacht Race. The fine Chenil folio illustration was merely a monochrome reproduction of the present delicately tinted original drawing that reveals a significant subtext. The picture, showing Grace and Kit on the clifftop, with the sprawling figure thought to be the artist himself, was first shown at the Goupil Gallery Salon in November 1913, where The Studio described it as ‘remarkable for its combination of delicacy and decision’.[3] William and Grace are evidently observing the race while their daughter, her back to the sea, engages the spectator. Kit famously recounted being paid ‘half a crown an hour’ for such sittings and her

pose is replicated in On the Cliffs – a canvas that reveals the coastline on left with the Bailey Lighthouse in the distance (fig 1).[4]

Left: Fig 1 William Orpen, On the Cliffs, c.1913 (Private Collection)

Right: Fig 2 The present lot (detail)

Yacht racing, the offstage activity that preoccupies the adults, has been claimed to have originated in Dublin Bay.[5] A pursuit that had spread rapidly throughout the British Empire during the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was a by-product of the wealth it produced.[6] Although a familiar pastime in Dublin Bay, as a descriptor for the present watercolour, ‘yacht race’ was a second thought, after Sighting the Boat, the work’s original title and a reference perhaps to the commercial traffic heading to Dun Laoghaire or the mouth of the Liffey. Within a few months of the release of the Chenil portfolio the scene would of course become politically charged when Erskine Childers’ yacht, the Asgard, with the assistance of Conor O’Brien, landed a consignment of German rifles at Howth for the Irish Volunteers.[7]

In the months of increasing tension around the ‘Dublin Lock-out’ of the previous year, Orpen supported the activities of James Larkin, the republican socialist trade unionist who opened a soup kitchen at Liberty Hall for strikers and the city’s destitute.[8] Prior to this, he had had more than one encounter with the authorities, and his complex allegory, Sowing New Seed for the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland (Mildura Art Centre, Australia) was currently on exhibition in London.[9] How this impacts on The Yacht Race, a scene of almost Baudelairean luxe, calme et volupté, lies in the green and orange in which the painter is clad – colours long associated with the coming together of Catholic and Protestant communities in Ireland and, after the Easter Rising, taken up as a national symbol. We have no written evidence for Orpen deliberately selecting these colours, but, conscious or not, it is entirely in character, and within his current frame of reference.

If such covert inferences were threaded into the present watercolour, it was the dazzling quality of the work that provoked deep discussion about the ‘severe art’ of drawing, invoking the masters. Ingres claimed that drawing was the most intellectual activity in which a human being could engage. Eye, brain and hand were intimately fused, intense concentration demanded, aesthetic sensibility marshalled in the moment. All this is here in The Yacht Race.

Kenneth McConkey

[1] ‘A Great Draughtsman’, Liverpool Daily Post, 5 January 1914, p. 6; ‘Fine Arts – Portfolio of Drawings by W Orpen’, The Athenaeum, 14 February 1914, p. 235; A Portfolio of Ten Drawings by William Orpen ARA – Art Criticisms, 1915 (The Chenil Gallery, London), p. 10.

[2] Quoted from Pyms Gallery 2002, pp. 110-111.

[3] ‘Studio Talk’, The Studio, Vol LX, October 1913, p. 222.

[4] Quoted in Bruce Arnold, Bruce Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, 1981, (Jonathan Cape), pp. 268-9.

[5] The Royal Irish Yacht Club and the Royal St George Yacht Club were founded in 1831 and 1838 respectively, but by Orpen’s time local sailing competitions around Howth were being organized weekly; see Stephen Gwynn, The Charm of Ireland, Her Places of Beauty, Entertainment, Sport and Historic Association, 1927, (George Harrap & Co Ltd), p. 266. More likely claims for the origins of yacht racing are advanced on behalf of the Netherlands and England from the seventeenth century onwards.

[6] It was of course castigated by serious mariners such as Joseph Conrad who saw it as ‘a function of social idleness ministering to the vanity of … [the] wealthy …’; quoted in Pyms Gallery 2002, p. 111.

[7] Orpen actually witnessed the gun running on 26 July 1914 and its aftermath; Arnold 1981, p. 289.

[8] William Orpen, Stories of Old Ireland and Myself, 1924 (Williams and Northgate), pp. 82-7.

[9] Kenneth McConkey, ‘Politics and that Girl’: a study of Sowing New Seed by Sir William Orpen’, in N Garnham and K Jeffrey eds, Culture, Place and Identity, Proceedings of the Association of Irish Historians’ Conference, University College Dublin Press pp. 53-77.