Lot 76: Sir William Orpen RA RWS RHA (1878-1931)Sheep and Goats: Figures on a Cliff at Howth (1911)Pencil and watercolour, 75 x 96cm (29½ x 37¾'')Signed and dated 1911Exhibited: 45th exhibition of modern paintings New English Art Club, London 1911 Cat.
December 7, 2016
Dublin 2, Dublin, IrelandLive Auction
Description: Sir William Orpen RA RWS RHA (1878-1931)Sheep and Goats: Figures on a Cliff at Howth (1911)Pencil and watercolour, 75 x 96cm (29½ x 37¾'')Signed and dated 1911Exhibited: 45th exhibition of modern paintings New English Art Club, London 1911 Cat. No. 31;Drawings and studies from life by William Orpen Goupil Galleries, London 1912 Cat. No. 18;Recent works by William Orpen M. Knoedler & Co. New York 1914 Cat. No. 14 which travelled to Buffalo Fine Arts Academy and Albert Art Gallery ;English Drawings Exhibition Hazlett, Gooden and Fox, London 1990 Cat. No. 71;William Orpen: Politics, Sex & Death Exhibition The Imperial War Museum Jan/May 2005 Cat. No. 93. This later travelled to The National Gallery of Ireland.Literature: New York American by Charles Caffin 30th March 1914 p8 The whimsical strain again peeps out in Sheep and goats, a group of figures, possibly assembled to watch the sunrise, for one of the party is still in pyjamas. This is done in pencil with washes of pure colour;English Drawings Exhibition Hazlett, Gooden and Fox, London 1990 Cat. No. 71 illustrated in colour;William Orpen: Politics, Sex & Death The Imperial War Museum 2005 full page illustration P150 Considerable effort has been made to identify the figures in the image, a quite commonplace tactic with a group portrait such as this, particularly since the title offers us little clues to the individuals or their actions gathered here as they are on a cliff at Howth at dawn. Orpen had strong connection to the area where he holidayed between 1909 and 1914. The time spent experiencing the ever-changing light over Dublin Bay influenced his use of colour and form which was expressed in a series of plein air drawings and watercolours that were executed by Orpen in that four year period. This can also be seen in the accents of details on the figures clothing which expressed a deep interest in costumery within his painting such as the intricate patterning on the skirt of the woman sitting to the right of the foreground. These elements of colour liven up the somewhat hazy and faded background. The figures are understood to be a mix of students and models from the Metropolitan School Art in Dublin where he taught. A number of these individuals appear in other works by Orpen, in particular the young man reclining to the right of the painting is present in an earlier watercolour The Draughtsman and his Model, 1910 which seems to be almost a smaller study for the Sheep and Goats, with the man adopting an identical pose. The nude model he is sketching could be woman standing in the green hat in the centre of the later composition. The relationship between these series of watercolours, from preparatory studies to fully fledged works, is fitting to the message of Sheep and Goats in relation to process of artistic production. The title itself is very unusual, most noticeably in the fact that are no sheep amongst this group of individuals but rather only a singular goat on the sand dune beyond. Instead it has been explored as a work of allegory creating an iconography between the anthropomorphic and animal elements to reflect the social and political climate of the day. In particular the effect that these socio-political events had on the development of a modern Irish school of painting. The emerging Celtic Revival in the years before the outbreak of the First World War was in many ways to be viewed with suspicion by Irish artists as promoting a more conservative and traditional approach to cultural expression. The garland goat standing proudly aloft in the background is at odds with the rest of the figures as possibly a parody of mythological imagery and themes within art. As part of Irelands oldest Celtic festival Lughnasa, which symbolized the beginning of harvest, the goat a symbol of pagan fertility is crowned and worshipped for the two day festival, as King Puck.Orpen, as a teacher in the Metropolitan School of Art, was heavily involved in reforming art education in Ireland. He took a number of steps to create a less systematic and regimented curriculum in particular by introducing 'live nude' models to the drawing class. An attempt to counteract the lack of representation and understanding of the nude body amongst Irish painters. Rather than a separate and distinct Irish School born out of the Celtic Revival he fully supported Sir Hugh Lane's attempts to create a modern art gallery in Dublin which would establish Irish artists on an international scene. Fashioning himself as the good shepherd, embodied in the elderly man reclining to the left of the picture, who guides his flock of younger generation of artists in the reactionary struggle against a deep rooted fear amongst the cultural administration of Irish society towards progressive change.We acknowledge with thanks the Orpen Research Project whose research and writings formed the basis of this catalogue entry.Niamh Corcoran, November 2016