Study for ‘The Holy Well’ by William Orpen.

A Nude Couple and a Kneeling Man (circa 1915).


SIR WILLIAM ORPEN, R.H.A., R.A. Born Stillorgan, Co. Dublin 1878, Died London 1931.

25½ x 16¾ inches (64.7 x 42.5 cm): Pencil and black chalk on buff paper, partially squared and numbered for transfer in pencil. Signed in pencil at the lower left centre; ‘ORPEN’. Signed, dated and dedicated in pencil at the lower right; ‘To George Roller / with many thanks / William Orpen / December 1930’.

Provenance: Given by the artist to George Roller, in December 1930 (see notes further on).
Supposedly given by him to the jockey Joseph (‘Joe’) Childs, (1884–1958) was a French-born, British-based flat racing jockey (see notes further on).
Thence by descent;

Washington, West Sussex, Toovey’s Antique & Fine Art Auctioneers & Valuers, Fine Art, 6th September 2017, Lot No. 19, sold £2800 (Hammer price). .

With Stephen Ongpin Fine Art Ltd., between 21st January – 5th February 2019.

London, Christie’s, 300 Years Of British Drawings, Online Sale – 24th November – 8th December 2020, Lot No. 69, Estimate £7,000-£10,000

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Exhibited: London, Stephen Ongpin Fine Art Ltd., Master Drawings 2019, 21st January – 5th February 2019, Catalogue No. 39.

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Previous sale:

LOT 19 – Toovey’s Antique & Fine Art Auctioneers & Valuers, Spring Gardens, West Sussex, UK.
William Orpen – Study for The Holy Well, pencil drawing, squared for transfer, 6th September 2017. Sold – Hammer price: £2,800.

Christie’s online auction 24th Nov – 8th Dec 2020 – Lot 69. Estimate: £7,000 – £10,000. (USD 8,820 – USD 12,600). NOT SOLD.


Inscribed: – ‘Orpen – To George Roller with many thanks. William Orpen, December 1930′.


The Holy Well, tempera on Canvas (234 x 186 cm) by William Orpen. National Gallery Ireland.


Original study for The Holy Well which shows Orpen made a couple of changes on the final painted version.

Detail of The Holy Well by William Orpen.

‘The Holy Well’ is one of three major works produced by the artist during the period 1913-16 which, according to Bruce Arnold, “seem to summarise Orpen’s feelings and attitudes towards Ireland.” (Bruce Arnold, Orpen – Mirror to an Age. London, 19KI, page 289). In this work and ‘The Western Wedding’ (untraced, presumed lost). The other painting in this series is ‘Sowing New Seed’ (see below).

B&W image of ‘The Western Wedding’ by William Orpen (1914).

Orpen shows a symbolic interpretation of his native land, drawing on elements of Irish religion, morality, culture and manners. He took great pains in the preliminary stages for all three paintings, with the drawings and studies holding a more than usual importance for him. Sean Keating described the drawing style thus: “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’, the’ it’s considered heresy to say so.” (quoted by National Gallery of Ireland).

‘Sowing New Seed’ by William Orpen (1913). Mildura Art Centre, Australia.


As mentioned above, Orpen gave the nude study to George Roller in 1930. Roller was an amateur artist who would later turn professional, he was a picture restorer at the Royal Academy and possibly did some work for Orpen. Roller was also a friend and neighbour of John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) at Fairford and loaned him a house to stay in for a while, travelling with Sargent on one (if not more) of his trips to the south of Europe.

Here Roller models for Sargent (along with other friends) for ‘Frieze of Prophets’, (West Wall). Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah and Hosea (from left to right) 1890–1895 by John Singer Sargent. Boston Public Library.

In 1910 Sargent painted “The Cashmere Shawl” and inscribed it to George Roller.

Portrait of Major George Conrad Roller (1856 – 1931) by John Singer Sargent.


Photo of the jockey Joseph (‘Joe’) Childs (NPG). 

The jockey Joseph (‘Joe’) Childs, (1884–1958) rode a horse, the three-year-old, ‘Orpen’ to second place at Doncaster, St Leger Stakes, 9th September 1931. Named after the artist Sir William Orpen, the horse was owned by Sir John Rutherford, whom Orpen had painted in 1928.

Sir John Rutherford (1854 – 1932) by William Orpen. Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.


Other studies for the Holy Well (not in this auction).

Study for Nude Pattern, The Holy Well by William Orpen.

Study for The Holy Well – Woman Dressing (Nora Follett) by William Orpen (1916).


 Study for The Holy Well – Woman Kneeling and Praying by William Orpen.

Study for The Holy Well – Four Figures at Well by William Orpen (1916).

Kneeling Boy.

Semi nude girl.


Holy Well Study – Mother With Two Children (Miss Whithagen).


Kneeling Man.


Post by Dominic Lee, Orpen Research Archives.