Anita Bartle, the artist's friend, purchased in 1902 with a series of 12 weekly payments;
Robert H. Haslam, by 1933;
A gift to Dr and Mrs Bolden circa 1950, and thence by descent to the present owner
Two works by William Orpen in the New English Art Club winter exhibition of 1901 called for special attention. They were A Window in London Street, (fig. 1, Coll. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) and The Window Seat (the present lot). Whilst London Street tended to dominate the newspaper columns, visitors would have noted the obvious kinship between the two paintings. They contained the same model wearing the same dress, in a green drawing room looking out of a window. In the former the young woman gazes down from the first floor, her attention drawn by an event or its anticipation, while in the latter, the subject who has been reading, temporarily abandons her book and dreamily rests her eyes on the distant trees. The low casements suggest that these are Georgian houses and in both instances the model is Grace Orpen, the young woman who had recently become the painter’s wife. The reviewer in The Speaker described both paintings, declaring that they represented a consolidation of Orpen's skills, following the previous New English in which he had exhibited A Mere Fracture (Private Collection):
'Mr Orpen … rings the changes on a very familiar theme. The theme is of grey-green walls hung with engravings – an admirable taste, no doubt – of a highly polished card table with flower vases or other knick-knacks to relieve the general air of drabness, and one or more figures that always contrive to make one think of an art school. Here we have but one figure for two pictures. A lady with auburn hair, fresh complexion, and blue dress, does duty for both, and, if we mistake not, she is also the lady of his two portraits at the New Gallery [Society of Portrait Painters Exhibition]. Whether this candid repetition of a single model is a drawback to subject-picture painting we must leave it to the painter to decide; remarking, for ourselves, that such repetition does not appear to aid the expression of what he has to say. And really he has a good deal to say on a subject which he has made, perhaps too religiously, his own' (The Speaker, 30 November 1901).
The Orpen Research Project has been able to establish that The Window Seat dates to September 1901, and was painted on the Orpens' honeymoon, in Lisheens House, Pearsons Bridge, Near Bantry, Co. Cork. The house had been bequeathed to the artist’s father, Arthur Herbert Orpen, and the window was located in the north-east-facing front of the house. This would indicate that it was the morning sun Orpen used to illuminate Grace (see fig. 2, The Derelict Window Seat, Lisheens House, Orpen Research Project, March 2006).
The picture expresses Grace’s temporary sense of alienation in Ireland, her occasional bouts of homesickness, heightened perhaps by the recent wedding arrangements, and having to act as artist’s model - something for which she did not care. She wrote at this time,
'we are having a very pleasant time – everybody is most kind – but I sometimes get a fearful dose of homesickness and feel I must fly straight off to Papa – it is almost overpowering while it stays' (Grace Orpen, quoted in Arnold, op.cit, pp.103-104).
In this year of national mourning for the death of Queen Victoria, both ‘window’ pictures allude to a broader phenomenon. By the winter exhibition of 1901, a consensus had emerged regarding paintings of interiors. This was especially evident in the comparison of Orpen’s work with that of William Rothenstein. The latter, the painter’s brother-in-law was also painting green interiors and his Interior (1901, Private Collection) shown at the previous New English Art Club Spring Exhibition, shows Alice Knewstub, Grace’s sister, looking out of a window in an interior with similar furnishings to A Window in London Street. Looking at these D.S. MacColl was of the opinion that it might require the skills of ‘the Berenson of the future’ to separate the authors of these works (MacColl, ‘Picture Exhibitions of the Month’, The Saturday Review, 7 December 1901, p.711). Indeed taken alongside the work of Mary McEvoy, Ambrose McEvoy, David Muirhead, Charles Stabb and F.H.S. Shephard - as well as the more atmospheric interiors of Philip Wilson Steer, Orpen and Rothenstein can be seen as the centre of what has been termed, 'New English Intimisme'- a new tendency which had little direct contact with the work of the French intimistes, Bonnard and Vuillard, painters who were scarcely know in Britain at the time.
The new century had witnessed an extraordinary flourishing of talent exclusively within the ranks of the New English Art Club. A process which had begun with the appointment of New English exhibitors Fred Brown, Philip Wilson Steer and Henry Tonks to the staff of the Slade School of Fine Art in 1892, began to bear fruit. Not only did this triumvirate attract the best students, but they also smoothed their passage into the club. Accordingly Ethel Walker and Claire Atwood began to show in the late nineties and by 1900, Orpen, Augustus John, Albert Rutherston and Ambrose McEvoy were also exhibiting. Whilst it reflected the passion of Henry Tonks for Victorian genre painting, seen in such works as Rosamund and the Purple Jar, 1900 (Coll. Tate Britain, London), their painting also responded to growing interest in the Dutch masters. Orpen’s first biographers summarized critical opinion when they crystallised his influences at the turn of the century in a reference to Terborch and Metsu. The Mirror, (Coll. Tate Britain, London), shown at the club in the winter of 1900 exemplifies the care for objects depicted with such deliberation that they almost tell a story. In pictures like The Mirror and A Mere Fracture, Orpen takes his technical grounding from the masters and his interest in story-telling from the Victorians – and especially in the present case, from the poetic reveries of poor teachers and sempstresses at attic windows. Reading, a popular pastime at the turn of the century, provided a closely allied motif in the present case, being treated at this point by such notable contemporaries as Gwen John, Mary McEvoy and Ambrose McEvoy.
It is also clear that the setting fascinated Orpen. A more ambitious work The Refugees, (Private Collection) based on the London Street interior, was abandoned at this time, only to be completed in 1905. Windows following in the wake of the present work became one of Orpen’s leitmotifs. A later group of domestic interiors, also featuring Grace by a window, often referred to as 'Window' series, was begun in 1906. The series probably developed from a study entitled A Chelsea Window, circa 1902 (fig. 3, Private Collection), a significant feature which is ‘the deep cobalt-blue late dusk’, a similar blue to that of Grace’s dress in The Window Seat (Arnold, op.cit., p.204). The series includes The Window, 1906 (fig. 4, Coll. Bradford Art Galleries and Museums), Solitude, circa 1907 (Private Collection), At The Window (Private Collection) and Night No.2, circa 1907 (fig. 5, Coll. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne).
These works are more intimate and informal than the earlier works, and they often contain elements of narrative. The later setting is Orpen’s own house in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea and Grace is seated by the window in the first three of the later 'Window' series. A sense of foreboding in this group is finally fulfilled by the embrace, from Orpen himself, in Night No.2.
The Window Seat, rather than London Street, is arguably the inspiration for these works. As he prepared the picture for the New English Art Club at the end of October 1901, he must have felt that there was more to say with these ingredients. The window permitted reflection on interior and exterior space, which resonates with George Moore's recent ruminations on 'exteriority'. For the foreground figure, a Victorian heroine confined, the window and the book, provide release into the world of imaginings. Although it may not have been recognized at the time, The Window Seat was both portent and precedent.
The Orpen Research Project
The present work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the Oil Paintings of Sir William Orpen, R.A., R.H.A., (1878 - 1931), currently being prepared by Christopher Pearson of the Orpen Research Project.
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