DeVeres – Outstanding Irish Art & Sculpture


By Sir William Orpen, RA, RI, RHA, 1878-1931.

Medium: Oil on canvas (unfinished). Size: 50 x 45 inches (127 x 114.5cm).

DeVeres, Dublin. Lot: 23. Estimate: €100,000 – €150,000.
Bidding Ending: 28/05/2024.

SOLD for €100,000.

Provenance: Acquired by Sarah Purser in 1909 (£35); acquired from her by Mrs Eibhlin Spain and then by descent to previous owner; sold these rooms 15/06/2009 (lot 31).

Exhibited: William Orpen, 1878-1931, A Centenary Exhibition, 1978, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, no. 77 as Gypsy Girl, lent by Miss Anne M. Spain and Dr and Mrs Alex Spain.

Literature: William Orpen, Studio Book, (ms unpublished; National Gallery of Ireland), p. 19 as ‘Sketch (Bear Woman)’ Miss Purser 25.0.0; James White et al, William Orpen, 1878-1931, A Centenary Exhibition, 1978, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, p. 46 (no 77); Bruce Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, 1981, (Jonathan Cape), p. 264.

Having signed up to teach in the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin for a term each year Orpen’s contact with the city of his birth increased when summers stretched into August holidays with his family on Howth Head. Returning with fresh eyes and revisiting old haunts, drinking with his brother at Davy Byrne’s, bumping into friends and observing street performers in the beggared city recharged his imagination. These episodes were augmented by jaunts into the Wicklow hills in the charabanc owned by Oliver St John Gogarty. He had come back from Madrid in 1904 with a head full of seventeenth-century Spanish Caravaggesque mendicants, such as existed for real in the denizens of Dublin, and one theme in particular, The Wild Beast (unlocated), in which a tramp wickedly taunts his dancing bear, fascinated him. It appeared in 1907 – a prototype for sketches set at the Merchants’ Arch.

In the summer of 1909, however, Orpen’s work took a significant turn when he invited George and Edith, the keepers of a brown North American bear, into his studio at the school of art. Two drawings sent to Grace, his wife, report his current fixation. After a four-hour seance, he confessed ‘Dublin (my Dublin) talks of nothing else but bears’.

‘The Arrival and The Departure’ by Sir William Orpen, (not in auction).

From this encounter and others, the present portrait sketch of Edith and the accompanying ensemble oil, In the Dublin Mountains emerged. One of Orpen’s students, James Sinton Sleator, recalled the event.

The subject was both personal and public. In that year, newspapers told of bears in Cork frightening a horse and killing its owner, while in Mullingar an animal escaped, occasioning a hunt by armed police.

Such was their ubiquity that by 1913 letters columns of The Irish Times campaigned against the
cruelty with which performing bears were treated -particularly by eastern European travellers. In this instance, despite their English names, George and Edith were apparently Hungarian.

When In the Dublin Mountains was exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1909, George and Edith were however, resolutely Irish in the opinion of London reviewers. ‘Mr Orpen’s study of Irish peasant types is’, wrote The Daily Telegraph ‘exceedingly valuable’.


Intensity of vitality, intensity of character, atone to a great extent for deliberate ugliness and a rigorous exclusion of sentiment. This directness, this naivete in the portrayal of children of the soil in their own surroundings recalls the manner and the standpoint of the brothers Le Nain, those mysterious seventeenth-century painters of northern France about whom even now we know so little.

And if ‘deliberate ugliness’ was an issue it was no more than might be found in the work of seventeenth-century masters. One critic went so far as to print that while ‘the central figure (the man) is admirable, we cannot admire the painting of the face of the seated woman’ – yet was forced in the end to concede that there seemed ‘no limit’ to Orpen’s ‘power of effective labour’.

Both Hungarian physiognomies were separately recorded – George in a fine pencil drawing and Edith in the present bravura oil ‘sketch’. While Edith’s characterisation is formidable, one can imagine the painter quickly realising the figure on a canvas that had been set aside for additional work. In a fury, he swiftly indicates a fragment of landscape and dramatic overhanging sky – its dull steely blue-greys reprising iconic contemporary works such as The Shower, 1909 (Private Collection) and The Dead Ptarmigan, 1909 (National Gallery of Ireland). If this was the work of an instant, the face of his Eastern European traveller, is incisive. With supremely eloquent impassivity Edith’s withering gaze is caught.

Study of George by Sir William Orpen, (not in auction).

Orpen had however not finished with George, Edith and the bear, for in the following summer at the New English exhibition he showed The Rest.

The Rest by Sir William Orpen, (not in auction).

Here too, the challenging ‘bear woman’, now taking centre stage, dominates the composition. Yet while London critics paled before her in this and In the Dublin Mountains, the present sketch found one significant admirer, and this, unsurprisingly, was a painter. One of such cosmopolitan range and sophistication that what might seem brutally unfinished to the London critic, was positively admirable to the Dublin artist. This was Sarah Purser. In 1909, Miss Purser was moving into Mespil House, where her celebrated salons would be held in rooms where the ‘bear woman’ sketch would hang with works by Vlaminck and Morisot. It took an artist’s eye to appreciate Orpen’s great non-finito. And if Edith’s physiognomy seemed aggressive to some timid London critics – they were English after all.

In the Dublin Mountains (1909) by Sir William Orpen (not in auction).


Another painting with a Bear by Sir William Orpen (not in auction).

Fair at Neuilly or Man v Beast 1925. This painting is currently on display in ‘Sir William Orpen, A Family Legacy’ at Farmleigh Gallery, Phoenix Park, Dublin. The exhibition runs till 25th August 2024, (closed on Mondays & for lunch 1-2pm).

Text from the DeVeres catalogue by Kenneth McConkey.


Additional images added by Dominic Lee, Orpen Research Archives.