Sir William Orpen’s ‘Portrait of Kit’ at Bonhams’ Debut Island Sale, Estimated at €80,000 to €120,000,
Bonhams, The Irish Sale – Vision & Voice – 28th November 2023.
City Assembly House, Dublin (link at the bottom).
Kit – age 6 painted by her father Sir William Orpen (1912).
Kit Orpen-Casey (1906 – 2003) was the daughter of William and Grace Orpen.
The Portrait of Kit, painted by Sir William Orpen in 1912, is a remarkable piece from The Irish News Collection. This collection, owned by the late Jim Fitzpatrick, former owner of The Irish News, spans over 40 years and is now being featured in Bonhams’ first-ever sale on the island. With an estimated value of €80,000 to €120,000, this portrait depicts Orpen’s daughter Christine when she was six years old.
infants’ toys. In the strict social codes of the period, this behaviour was indefensible and John Rothenstein in 1952, rained savage criticism on his
long dead uncle accordingly (See note 1 below). There could be little justice for a painter who although traumatised by his experiences on the Western Front, and bitterly cynical of Peace Conference hypocrisy, had seemingly turned his back on the mainstream of European Modernism. Rothenstein’s words failed to acknowledge the Edwardian fascination with childhood that produced JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and Rudyard Kipling’s Puck. He did not appreciate a period when WB Yeats talked of the ‘human child’ inhabiting ‘the waters and the wild’, a world of fairy fantasy. And more especially, he closed his eyes to that aspect of the work of Orpen’s contemporaries, Augustus John, Charles Sims and the popular illustrator, Arthur Rackham, in which children were idolized and upheld as a synonym for innocence and magic. Orpen, from the point in 1902 when he painted the infant Clara Hughes, aged 4½, was the most sympathetic recorder of childhood. Famous family
portraits depict the offspring of the Swintons, the Vere Fosters and the Nicholsons, and in his child portraits, before 1912 there is an intuitive
understanding of child psychology. Watching his two daughters play, Orpen, like many Edwardian intellectuals was enthralled by the imaginative world that seemed to open. The mystic setting for these reveries was Howth, where from 1909, with Grace, his wife, and the girls, ‘Bunnie’ and ‘Kit’, he would spend idyllic summer holidays. Here, in 1912, he placed the six-year-old Kit, precariously ‘on a drawing board on top of a sculptor’s high stool’, to pose for her portrait (See note 2 below). ‘As the board overlapped the stool considerably on all sides’ she later recalled, ‘one was bound to sit absolutely still or have a nasty crash’. Sittings lasted ‘only an hour at a time’ and were followed by ‘a dash along the cliffs for a bathe – golden days’. For enduring this suffering Kit was generously rewarded by being ‘paid half a crown an hour for sitting for these portraits – a fortune in those days’. (See note 3 below).Kit posed for Orpen on many occasions on the hilltops and coves around Howth Head. (See note 4 below) Irish summers required that thick woollen garments were always readily to hand, and thus attired, she sat for her portrait in 1912, in what is the simplest, most direct rendering of her features. As is evident in the present work, Kit had inherited her father’s impish eyes – a characteristic which she retained in old age.
The work coincides with the full-length portrait of Noll Gogarty, her playmate at Howth, who is similarly dressed in a woollen hat and pullover. (See note 5 below).
Unlike the Hughes portrait, or the Gogarty, or indeed the two versions of Miss Harmsworth, the Ferris St George or Master Spottiswoode, Orpen was not obliged to flatter or please the parents of the offspring he painted, and here he dispenses with a quotation from the old masters to confront the six-year-olds inquisitive gaze. Only in the later watercolour Kit c. 1913 is there equal directness. (See note 6 below).A counterpoint to her finely recorded features in the present work is evident in the swift, staccato notation of texture in her clothing and the muted
windswept cloudy sky, a familiar backdrop for the Howth compositions. Centrally placed and primly posed with her arms folded she looks out at the spectator with doll-like passivity. In this moment, Orpen was absolved from the need to perform as his daughter adopts her gamine gaze. Nothing has come between them. Orpen, in contrast to his nephew, so well understood, the universal child, the essence of the present portrait.Notes:
1. John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, Sickert to Smith, 1952 (Eyre and Spottiswoode), pages 212-227.2. Christine, known as ‘Kit’ (1906-2003) was the Orpens’ second daughter. After the First World War, Kit’s carefree childhood had come to an end. She trained as a pianist and singer, and even trod the London boards for a little time, making her debut, in 1931, as “A Chelsea Guest” in A.P. Herbert’s hunting-cum-Chelsea musical satire Tantivy Towers, at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Like her father she was a keen and competitive tennis player. In 1933 she married Mr Barrie Nicoll, with whom she had three children. She was widowed in 1955 and remarried twenty years later.3. Quoted from James White ed., William Orpen, 1878-1931, A Centenary Exhibition, 1978, (exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Ireland), page 49; Arnold 1981, page 269.
4. A further portrait, slightly smaller in size, was lent to the Royal Academy Late Members exhibition in 1933, number 135 by Alfred Jowett (unlocated). In addition, she appears lying beside her mother in On the Beach, Howth, c.1910, partially undressed beside her elder sister in On the Beach, c. 1910-12 (unlocated, Arnold page 268 illustrated), sitting on a headland near the Bailey lighthouse in Watching the Yacht Race and The Edge of the Cliff, Howth, c. 1913, sitting with crossed legs and black hat in Kit and posing in striped bathing costume with arms folded in Kit, c. 1913 (all Private Collections).5. Sotheby’s Irish Sale, 8 May 2009, catalogue entry by ORP.
6. By 1913, Kit’s pigtails were gone and her golden hair was cropped in the then fashionable ‘Renaissance pageboy’ style. The ‘bathing costume’ watercolour portrait was used for reproduction in a series of facsimiles issued by the Chenil Gallery in 1914.
Orpen Research Project, April 2009.
A Poem to Kit by Oliver St John Gogarty 26th Nov 1912 (same year as painting).
Tell me are you feeling fit Kit?
Capering ‘twixt six and seven’
like an imp let loose in Heaven, Sit,
And Keep still a minute, Kit!
And I’ll show to make you laugh
first, a lawn beside the sea;
Then a journey out for tea
In a coloured motor-car
On the road that went too far
Past an old, deserted mill –
Don’t remember? Mummy will.
(My ignoring her direction
Then, may aid her recollection).
Here’s Portmarnock! Here we are!
Take your clothes off for the sea.
Quick! make haste! You mustn’t dally.
Are you coming humming Ally?
See the sunlight on the spray!
Go in Kitty, that’s the way:
Artist Orpen’s younger daughter
Jumping in the jumping water!
Drowning, dipping up, surviving –
Who has ever seen such living!
Dipping, tripping up and skipping!
Wonderful the way you spit
out the pouring water Kit!
Blest if I could manage it!
Next, a lull without cessation –
We must find the Coastguard Station,
If your Mummy won’t despise it!
Tea, and talk to appetise it.
Noll, you must not tell such whackers;
Give back Kitty Orpen’s crackers.
Home…. when all is done and said
Kit, there comes a time for bed
But we’ll send up to the moon
An enormous fire balloon,
And will warm it and steer it
With some methylated spirit.
Is there none? No matter. Quick!
Bring coffee-cooker’s wick
Off it goes! and more’s the pity
Off you go to bed now Kitty.
Never had such a mirth day
As on Kitty Orpen’s birthday.
I could mortalise, kitty,
With all insincerity
But that saving commonsense
Sets a time for innocence
And knows the worth of difference.
Tell me now where would the glee be
If I could you or you could me be?
Yet there’s this remark to add
When I think of you and Dad,
And I envy him to own
Such a daughter – you atone
For Old Age that comes to dim
Equally both me and him,
Since it brings us sight to see
Goodness in all Gaiety
Atoning for whatever else he
may have done amiss in Chelsea.
Oliver St John Gogarty.
Link to Bonhams’ sale:-
Post by Dominic Lee, Orpen Research Archives.