William ORPEN (1878 - 1931)

A Kneeling Man Sold

Pencil and black chalk on buff paper.
Signed ORPEN at the lower left centre.
330 x 390 mm. (13 x 15 3/8 in.)


This drawing is a preparatory study for the figure at the left centre of Orpen’s painting The Holy Well, exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1916 and now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. The Holy Well was the last and arguably the most important of three major allegorical pictures of Irish subjects painted by Orpen between 1913 and 1916, the others being Sowing New Seed (Mildura Art Centre, Victoria, Australia) and The Western Wedding (presumed lost during World War II). Painted with a flat, tempera-like finish, each of these three paintings – a group described by one recent biographer as Orpen’s ‘strange and disturbing Irish valediction’ - were preceded by a series of large, meticulous figure studies that attest to the importance the artist placed on the canvases.

Orpen seems to have intended The Holy Well as a satirical allegory of the Celtic customs, morals and religious practices of his native Ireland, and the composition may have been inspired in part by John M. Synge’s play The Well of the Saints. A large painting, measuring over 8 1/2 by 7 feet, The Holy Well depicts the naked figures of the pagan Celtic people of ancient Ireland who, made to drink from a well, are thereby transformed into Christian Aran islanders.

Orpen devoted a considerable amount of time to making careful preparatory figure drawings for The Holy Well, both for individual figures and groups of figures. The present sheet is a particularly fine example of the artist’s draughtsmanship of this period. Orpen’s assistant Sean Keating recalled of The Holy Well that ‘The drawings from which he painted the figures were done in lead pencil on smooth white paper, the tones rubbed in with a paper stump. Orpen greatly admired Ingres’ drawings whom he rather resembled in looks but in my opinion they are finer than Ingres’, tho’ it is considered heresy to say so.’

Orpen’s painting of The Holy Well, together with a number of preparatory studies for it, was sold to the artist’s wealthy American patron and mistress, Florence Evelyn St. George, in 1916 for £2,000. It was hung, alongside the drawings, on the staircase of her London residence, Cam House in Kensington, where it was noticed by one art critic, writing in 1932: ‘Mrs. St. George owns, for instance, one of [Orpen’s] most important paintings – “The Holy Well” – and with it sixteen beautiful, nearly quarter life-size studies...’ The painting, together with its preparatory drawings, was lent by Mrs. St. George to the retrospective exhibition of Orpen’s work held at the Winter Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1933. After her death, The Holy Well and its preparatory drawings, together with the rest of her collection and the contents of Cam House, were sold at two auctions in London in July 1939.

Orpen’s Studio book lists a number of preparatory drawings for the picture with names against them, suggesting that they may have been reserved for other buyers, but it is unclear whether they were in fact dispersed.

Mrs. Evelyn St. George, Cam House, Campden Hill, London
Probably her posthumous sale, London, Sotheby’s, 26 July 1939, part of lot 105
Alex. Reid and Lefèvre Ltd., London.

William ORPEN

A Kneeling Man


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