Howard Avenel St George by William Orpen.

Howard Avenel Bligh St George, 2nd Lieutenant, 1st Life Guards (1894 – 1914) painted posthumously for his mother Mrs Evelyn St George by Sir William Orpen from a photograph (1915).

Medium: Oil on Canvas : 53 x 32½ inches (134.5 x 82.5 cms).

Full length in the uniform of a Second Lieutenant in the First Life Guards.

The work originally included the St George family heraldic shield (see below) consisting of thirteen crests and motto “Firmitas in cœlo.”positioned the top left. It has since been painted out.

Provenance:

Artist’s Studio Book for 1915 – “Portrait of Avenel St George killed 15th Nov 1914 £1000”.

Mrs Evelyn Florence St George.

Family By Descent.

London, Sotheby’s, 2nd June 1995, Irish Sale, Lot: 277 (Illustrated in colour in catalogue, page 124).

Castlecomer, Ireland, Mealy’s, 27th November 1995, Lot Number 432, sold for EP 15,000 (£15,265).

Smurfit Art Collection, Ireland.

Sale at Sotheby’s London 2nd – 9th December 2020 from the Michael Smurfit Collection.

Estimate £15,000 – £20,000.  Sold for £15,000 Hammer price – Total £18,900.

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Literature:

William Orpen, An Onlooker in France, 2nd edition., Williams and Norgate, London, 1924, page 91

P G. Konody and Sidney Dark, Sir William Orpen, Artist & Man, Seeley Service & Co. Limited, London, 1932, Appendices, Chronological List of Paintings, for 1915, page 270.

Apollo, Volume XVI, Number 96, December 1932, Mrs. St. George’s Collection of Paintings by Sir William Orpen by Herbert Furst, illustrated, page 268.

Vivien Winch, A Mirror for Mama, Macdonald & Co. (Publishers) Limited, London, 1965, opposite page 108 (reproduction of original 1914 photograph of Avenel St George, upon which the subject portrait is based).

Bruce Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, Jonathan Cape, London, 1981, pages 241 and 297 (with footnote).

Sotheby’s, London, 2nd June 1995, Irish Sale, Catalogue, Lot Number o. 277, page 124 (Illustrated in colour).Andrew Hamilton and Prof. Alan Reed Stolen Lives. Dene House publishing 2014 (pages 125 – 130).

Studio Book Reference : 28/01-1915.

Cara Copland Ref : S05:15 (“Full length Portrait of Avenal St George – from a photograph – Life Guards Uniform 1915 – £1000”).

Laib Glass Negative Number : 8153.

From a photograph.

The 1914 photograph used by William Orpen to paint Avenel St George (reproduced from A Mirror for Mama by Vivian Winch (nee St George). McDonald & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. London 1965. Opposite page 108.

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Howard Avenel Bligh St George (1894-1914), known as Avenel, and a second cousin of Orpen on the artist’s mother’s side, was born 16th December 1894, the second son of Howard Bligh St. George (1857-1940), (a land agent, and, also in Ireland and then England, a Justice of the Peace (JP)), and Florence Evelyn St. George nèe Baker (1870-1938). At the time of Avenel’s death they lived in Ashorne Hill, Leamington, Warwickshire, subsequently, by 1917, taking up residence in Coombe House, Kingston Hill, Surrey. Avenel’s mother, known as Evelyn, the daughter of a New York banker George Fisher Baker (1840-1931), the ‘Sphinx of Wall Street’, was also Orpen’s friend, mistress and patron.

Educated at Eton College, Windsor, Avenel, joined the 1st Life Guards in January 1914, as a probationary officer, with the rank of Second Lieutenant. Second Lieutenant Howard Avenel Bligh St George landed with his Regiment, at Zeebrugge on the 8th October 1914, as part of 7th Cavalry Brigade, 3rd Cavalry division, which was first in the area of Bruges. The Regiment passed through Ypres on the 13th October and out along the Menin Road. On 30th October 1914 the troops of the 1st Life Guards with the 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the 2nd Life Guards, the Machine Gun section of the Royal Horse Guards under the command of Charles Sackville Pelham, Lord Worsley and other troopers from the Royal Horse Guards, formed the rim around Zandvoorde facing the German attack from the south and east.  From the 7th to the 11th November the Regiment was in billets at Verloren Hoek.  On the 11th November the 1st Squadron belonging to the Composite Regiment joined the Regiment on absorption and in the late afternoon moved to south of Bellewarde Farm to support a counter-attack. On the 14th November 1914 the Regiment carried out reliefs providing 200 rifles to occupy the advanced trenches. The Regiment was in trenches all day on the 15th November with their position being shelled.

Just over a month after having disembarked to go to the Western Front on 8th October 1914, at the tender age of 19, on 15th November 1914, Avenel was killed in action at Zillebeke. A few days later a report of his death appeared on page four of the Leinster Reporter of Saturday 5th December 1914: –

“Another Gallant Young Officer in the Roll of Honour”.

 “Sec-Lieut. Howard Avenel Bligh St. George, who was killed at Zillebeke, near Ypres, on 15th November, while gallantly leading his men against a charge of the Imperial Prussian Guard, was the second son of  Mr. and Mrs. Howard Bligh St. George, formerly of Brackenagh Lodge, Ballinasloe, and now of Ashorne Hill, Leamington, Warwickshire, and a nephew of Mrs. Burdett, Coolfin, Banagher. The deceased officer was born in 1894, educated at Eton, and joined the 1st Life Guards as a Second Lieutenant, on probation, in January last, 1914. He was deservedly popular with all ranks; and only a few days before his death had distinguished himself by capturing three German prisoners single-handed. His body was found by a personal friend, Lieut. L. Straker, of the Irish Guards, who had it interred in the local churchyard under a heavy shell fire, and afterwards wrote and informed the deceased officer’s relatives.

However, the official record gives a somewhat different account of events. A brief entry in the 3rd Cavalry Division’s War Diary for the 15th November 1914, related that, at about 3pm on that day, 2nd Lt. H. A. St George, went from a forward trench to headquarters to report intelligence on enemy activity. Whereupon, after leaving to return to the trenches, he was shot dead by a sniper, who was apparently posted in a house on the Zillebeke to Klein Zillebeke Road. One may suspect that the discrepancy between accounts may be attributed to an act of kindness towards Avenel’s parents, by his personal friend, 2nd Lieutenant (later Captain) Laurence Seton Straker (1891-1920), of the Irish Guards.

Map showing the area of of the Zillebeke to Klein Zillebeke Road, along which Avenel was killed .

 

Entry from the “3rd Cavalry Division’s War Diary” for the 15th November 1914, relating to 2nd Lt. H. Avenel St George.

[Nov 15th ZWARTELEEN: At about 3pm 2nd Lt. H. B. ST GEORGE went to H.Q. from a forward trench and reported that enemy seemed to have {………} a forward trench at edge of wood at Z in ZWARTELEEN {………..} thought to be {….} to the very heavy shell fire {……}  that had been brought to bear on these trenches by one of our batteries in position somewhere about N. edge of square K. 17. C.

On setting out to return to the trenches 2nd Lt. ST GEORGE was shot dead by a sniper apparently posted in a house on ZILLEBEKE – KLEIN ZILLEBEKE road.]

After recovery of his body, 2nd Lieutenant Avenel St George was then interred by his comrades in Zillebeke Churchyard.

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Second Lieutenant Howard Avenel Bligh St George – Decorations: –

Posthumously, 2nd Lieutenant Howard Avenel Bligh St George was awarded the Victory Medal, British War Medal, and the 1914 Star with clasp, which was sent to his father in 1920, by then at Coombe House, Kingston Hill. The clasp, together with two small silver roses, was awarded “to those who had served under fire or who had operated within range of enemy mobile artillery in France or Belgium during the period between 5 August and 22 November 1914”.

Medal Card for ‘H. A. B. St George’.

‘1914 Star’ Clasp and Silver Rose.

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Entitlement to Decoration Earned – 1914 Star.

Entitlement to Decoration Earned – Victory Medal and British War Medal.

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Avenel St George, Orpen, Zillebeke, and its Church and Churchyard.

Zillebeke Church before prior to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

Zillebeke is a village in the Flemish province of West-Vlaanderen in Belgium. The former municipality is now part of Ypres. In the first months of the Great War, and beyond, it was at the centre of much fighting, sustaining damage that virtually wiped it out.

Second Lieutenant Avenel St George was buried in the Church Graveyard in November 1914. Although it is not certain how much damage the Church had sustained at that time, significant damage can be seen in the March 1915 photograph of Zillebeke Church.

The Zillebeke Church, March, 1915.

By the time Orpen, as a war artist, visited Zillebeke, including the site of Avenel’s burial, in October 1918, some four years after Avenel’s death, and just weeks before the guns of war fell silent for the last time, on November 11th 1918, the village and church were practically unrecognisable. However, he still sketched what was left of both the village and the church.

 Zillebeke” by Sir William Orpen (October 1918) Mildura Arts Centre, Australia.

What was once the church tower, Orpen now saw as a muddy mound.

Zillebeke Church” by Sir William Orpen (October 1918).

Orpen dedicated his poem “The Church, Zillebeke, October 1918” to “Avenel Bligh St. George. 1st Life Guards. Killed at Zillebeke Nov. 15, 1914.”, as an epitaph (see William Orpen, “An Onlooker in France”, 2nd edition, Williams and Norgate, London, 1924, page 91).

“Mud
Everywhere—
Nothing but mud.
The very air seems thick with it,
The few tufts of grass are all smeared with it—
Mud!

The Church a heap of it;
One look, and weep for it.
That’s what they’ve made of it—

Mud!

Slimy and wet,
Churned and upset;
Here Bones that once mattered
With crosses lie scattered,

Broken and battered,
Covered in mud,
Here, where the Church’s bell
Tolled when our heroes fell
In that mad start of hell—
Mud!

That’s all that’s left of it—mud! “

 

Zillebeke in 1919

“Here Bones that once mattered

With crosses lie scattered,

Broken and battered,

      Covered in mud”.

It is clear from this portion of Orpen’s poem, that when he visited the location in October 1918, he would not have been able to pinpoint where exactly Avenel had been originally interred.

In the early days of the war, whilst the front line was still mobile, specific cemeteries for soldiers were comparatively rare and the dead were often buried in local churchyards or municipal burial grounds near where they were killed. Zillebeke was on the front line for much of the war and its churchyard was used for the war dead. These 1914 burials of British and Canadian soldiers, such as Second Lieutenant Howard Avenel Bligh St George, reflect the mobility of the front line as they are largely of officers, and reflect the officer class of that point in the war as they were nobility or the sons of the wealthy and the well-connected.

Zillebeke Churchyard Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery forms part of the village churchyard located around the Catholic parish church of Zillebeke in Belgium. A section of the parish churchyard used by the inhabitants of Zillebeke is maintained as a war cemetery by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) as a burial ground for the dead of the First World War near Ypres (now Ieper) on the Western Front. The grounds of the war cemetery were assigned to the United Kingdom in perpetuity by King Albert I of Belgium in recognition of the sacrifices made by the British Empire in the defence and liberation of Belgium during the war. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission part of the cemetery, within which the body of Second Lieutenant Howard Avenel Bligh St George now lies, at grave reference A2, was designed by W H Cowlishaw.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission part of Zillebeke Churchyard Cemetery. Avenel’s grave is the second from the right in the nearest row. [Photograph  www.1914–1918.co.uk].

 

Plan of CWGC part of Zillebeke Churchyard Cemetery.

Grave of 2nd Lieut. Howard Avenel Bligh St George (Grave A2 on plan above). 

Avenel’s headstone bears the insignia of his regiment the First Life Guards and is inscribed:-

SECOND LIEUTENANT H. AVENEL B. ST. GEORGE 1ST LIFE GUARDS

15TH NOVEMBER 1914 AGE 19, FIRMITAS IN COELO.

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Second Lieutenant Howard Avenel Bligh St George – Memorials and Rolls of Honour.

The motto “Firmitas in Cœlo.” (‘Stability in Heaven’), is the St George family motto, and the headstone is not the only place in Zillebeke where it can be seen.

The “equality in death” principle practiced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission precluded variant headstones in their cemeteries (although, unusually, there are two exceptions in this graveyard).

In the years following the end of the Great War, work on the Churchyard, accompanied the rebuilding of the church itself, which gave Avenel’s parents the opportunity to commission a more substantive memorial to their son, in the vicinity of where he was buried, in the form of a stained-glass window in the church.

Zillebeke Church – New Building (Photos by Priory Studios).

 The Avenel St George stained glass window is the one on the top left.

The stained glass window consists of a representation of St George in the central panels surrounded by thirteen heraldic shields representing Avenel’s ancestral heritage, set against, left to right, top to bottom, a diagonal sash, upon which is repeated the St George family motto, “Firmitas in Cœlo.”

The stained-glass window in remembrance of Avenel St. George in Zillebeke Church donated by his heartbroken parents Howard and Evelyn St George.

The bottom centre panel bears a dedication which reads:- To the memory of Avenel St George 1st Life Guards Killed in Action November 15th 1914. Aged 19 years.

Features of this window are reminiscent of the amorial which originality formed part of the Orpen’s painting but was subsequently painted out.

Photograph of Orpen’s original painting shows Amorial which formed part of Portrait of Howard Avenel Bligh St George (1915) (upper left) by Sir William Orpen.The same thirteen heraldic shields can be seen on both works as can the St George family motto, “Firmitas in Cœlo.”

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The St George Coat of Arms.

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At the time of Avenel’s death, his parents were living Ashorne Hill, Leamington, Warwickshire, which was also Avenel’s home address. As such his name was entered onto “The Roll of Service of the Men of Newbold Pacey and Ashorne in the Great War 1914-1918”, as well as on the War Memorial at their parish church, St. George the Martyr Church, Newbold Pacey, Leamington, Warwickshire.

GEORGE, Howard Avenel Bligh, 2nd Lieutenant, 1st Life Guards. 15 November, 1914.

The War Memorial at St. George the Martyr Church includes the name of Howard Avenel St George (Photo by Michael Dane).

HOWARD AVENEL BLIGH ST. GEORGE 2nd LIEUT. 1st LIFE GUARDS 15 NOV 1914.

In addition to the memorial stained-glass window in Zillebeke Church, Avenel’s parents also commissioned a memorial plaque for his local parish church at the time of his death, appropriately named, St. George the Martyr Church, Newbold Pacey, Leamington, Warwickshire, UK. They were resident there, at Ashorne Hill, from at least 1912, where Avenel’s father Howard Bligh St George, was a Justice of the Peace (JP). By 1917 his parents had moved to Coombe House, Kingston Hill, Surrey.

Memorial plaque at St. George the Martyr Church, Newbold Pacey, Leamington, Warwickshire, UK. Howard Avenel’s father (also named Howard) was the Justice of the Peace at Newbold Pacey. He had previously been the Justice of the Peace in Galway, Ireland.

Inscribed: – In proud and loving memory of HOWARD AVENEL BLIGH ST GEORGE 2nd Lieut. 1st. Life Guards Born 16th December 1894. Killed in Action near Ypres 15th November 1914.

Buried in Zillebeke Churchyard, Flanders.

This tablet is erected by his parents as a tribute to a gallant and beloved son.

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A page from Ireland’s Memorial Records 1914 – 1918.

Text from page 77 : –  GEORGE, HOWARD AVENEL BLIGH. Rank, Lieutenant, 1st Life Guards; killed in action, Zillebeke, November 15, 1914; age 19.

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Biographies of Fallen British Officers – Page 347.

2nd LIEUTENANT HOWARD AVENEL BLIGH ST. GEORGE, 1st LIFE GUARDS, who was killed in action at Zillebeke on the 15th November, 1914, in his twentieth year, was the second son of Mr. and Mrs. St. George, of Ashome Hill, Leamington. He was gazetted to the 1st Life Guards on probation in January, 1914.

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UK, De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour, 1914-1919, page 175 – Howard Avenal Bligh St George.

GEORGE, HOWARD AVENEL BLIGH,

2nd Lieut., 1st Life Guards, 2nd s. of (—) St. George, of Ashorne Hill, Leamington; served with the Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders, and was killed in action at Zillebeke 15 Nov. 1914.

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A St George family photo from A Mirror for Mama by Vivian Winch (opp page 141). Published by MacDonald & Co. London 1965.

Back row – Avenel, Howard & George (eldest son).

Bottom row  – Gardenia, Evelyn with Vivian on her lap and Ferris.

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A photograph of Evelyn St Georges house (Possibly Leamington Spa) showing the Orpen portrait of Avenal St George and a portrait of Evelyn St George at Clonsilla, both by William Orpen.

 

Rest in Peace Howard Avenel St. George (photo).

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Post by Dominic Lee.