Lot 301
  • 301

Sir William Orpen, R.W.S., N.E.A.C., R.A., R.H.A.

20,000 - 30,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Sir William Orpen, R.W.S., N.E.A.C., R.A., R.H.A.
  • Study for Nude Pattern: The Holy Well
  • signed l.l.: ORPEN
  • pencil and watercolour
  • 61 by 33cm., 24 by 13in.


Mrs Evelyn St George, 1916;
Her sale, Sotheby’s, London, 26 July 1939, lot 35;
Private collection;
Purchased by the previous owner in the late 1980s by whom gifted to the present owner

Catalogue Note

When in the spring of 1916 Orpen delivered Nude Pattern: The Holy Well (National Gallery of Ireland, fig.1) to the New English Art Club, it was the most ambitious of three canvases which have become known as the ‘Irish Trilogy’. Tackling the subject of peasant piety, it was also an envoi to the Celtic Revival Ireland of Orpen’s youth. Executed in ‘marble medium’, and designed as an allegory in which Aran Island fisher-folk ritually bathe in the sacred waters of a holy well, it would echo the great solemn fresco cycles of revered Renaissance masters. As a student Orpen would have studied the iconic Piero della Francescas in the National Gallery, London, and marvelled at the daring naturalism of the man removing his shirt in The Baptism of Christ.

When shown, the painting was immediately purchased by Orpen’s lover, Mrs Evelyn St George, to hang at her London residence, Cam House, Campden Hill, W.8. P.G. Konody tells us that this tall, commanding client acquired seventeen ‘finished’ or ‘stand-alone’ studies of the principal figures in the picture, not all of which have come to light in recent years (Sir William Orpen, Artist and Man, 1932, p.169). All, as here, are touched with watercolour. It is unclear if they were produced prior to the painting, or after its completion, but they undoubtedly demonstrate Orpen’s ability as a master draughtsman to create interesting figure groups within a complex composition. Around this figure, others appear in attitudes of adulation – some kneeling in prayer, some bathing, others hailing the shrine and its Dominican keeper. This same model is likely to have posed for other figures in the composition, as did her male companion, the painter, Séan Keating.

In the present instance she draws in her abdomen to remove her clothing in the cool sunlight. She looks down as she does so. Presently she will be naked before her maker. When, after Orpen’s death, Konody had access to his sketchbooks, he marvelled at the artist’s facility with ‘the intricacies of the human structure, the interplay of bony and fleshy forms, the suggestion of actual and of potential movement, the whole articulation of the human mechanism’ (The Studio, December 1932, p. 310). This, as much as the drapery that falls to her feet, characterises Orpen’s Study for ‘Nude Pattern: The Holy Well’.

We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for kindly preparing this catalogue entry.