On The Cliff – (Howth, Dublin) by Sir William Orpen K.B.E., R.A., R.I., R.H.A. (1878-1931).

On The Cliff (Howth, Dublin) by William Orpen (1913).
Size: 21 by 29.25 inches (53.3 by 74.3cm).
Whyte’s auction 2nd Dec 2019. Estimate: €15,000 – €20,000.
UPDATE: Withdrawn, Bidding reached €14,000.
Note: The present drawing is one of a group of highly finished works, describing Orpen’s idyllic summers between 1909 and 1913 when he and his family rented the Bellinghams’ house on Howth Head. The drawings were augmented by major oil paintings. In themselves however, they were so fine that six were selected by the artist for reproduction in facsimile by Charles Chenil and Co in a set of ten published in a special portfolio at the end of 1913. Such was their quality that one reviewer felt compelled to point out that Orpen’s drawings ‘ … are not incomplete studies, and they are not sketches’. One or two figures may appear in similar poses in paintings, but they are ‘none the less complete in themselves’. (1) On the Cliff was the first of the set. While paintings and other drawings show figure groups on the cliff overlooking Dublin Bay, the present example, closely related in subject matter to The Yacht Race (Private Collection) is unique. Approaching the perilous cliff edge the watcher lies on her stomach to observe the passing ships and survey the majestic sweep of the Dublin mountains to the south of the city. On this warm day, she goes barefoot and her large felt hat, seen elsewhere in the series and a favourite of the painter, protects her from the sun. Comparison with the mood of dolce far niente found in the works of Augustus John and others of the New English Art Club circle, are apposite. By the time the portfolio appeared the impact of Orpen’s Howth Head lotus eaters was already being felt by lesser artists such as Derwent Lees, Walter Bayes, Charles Sims and Gerald Moira, all of whom painted pictures of girls by the sea in full sunlight, in a late flowering of British Impressionism. Perhaps the closest comparison is that of Laura Knight who met Orpen in 1910 and whose choice of subject matter in works such as Wind and Sun (Private Collection) was deeply influenced by him. However, none of his contemporaries attained the unmistakable ‘Ingrism’ of the present drawing and others in the group. Several critics alluded to the Master of Montauban and one, reviewing the Chenil drawings, concluded, “We pay them no fulsome compliment in saying that in their mastery of line and contour and mass they are examples of draughtsmanship of which any school or nationality of artists might be proud”. (2) Even John appears undisciplined in comparison. In Orpen’s accurate eye there is both weight and lightness. Arms, elbows and the folds of the model’s jacket are emphasised to give solidity to the figure, while the ever-sensitive line attains its greatest refinement as it follows the contour of her back – such that for one delirious reviewer, ‘his pencil hovers over the paper with the grace of a butterfly’. (3) The result, for another reviewer of the series, was ‘remarkable’:”The drawings are remarkable not only for their delicacy of handling, but for the loving care with which the pencil has revelled in the beauty of form. Mr William Orpen is thoroughly modern, yet he continues a tradition which has been handed down from the great draughtsmen of the past. His work does not suffer when placed by the side of the Old Masters.” (4) After his death, when he and his work was memorialized, Orpen’s images of Howth took on a golden hue. For PG Konody they breathed ‘a spirit of physical well-being’. (5) Within a few years all would change utterly, and that world imbued with innocence would never be re-created – save in the imagination, and in the magic of line. Professor Kenneth McConkey, April 20191 The Daily Graphic, quoted in Art Criticisms, A Portfolio of Ten Drawings, n.d., [circa 1914-15] (The Chenil Gallery, Chelsea), page 4. 2 ES Grew, ‘The Severe Art of Drawing’, The Graphic, 17 January 1914, page 104.3 The Ladies’ Field, quoted in Art Criticisms n.d., page 9.4. The Art News, quoted in Art Criticisms n.d., page 6. 5 PG Konody and S Dark, William Orpen, Artist and Man, 1932, (Seeley, Service & Co Ltd), page 187.
Medium: Pencil and watercolour
Signature: Signed and dated lower right; with Pyms Gallery label on reverse.
Exhibited: –
‘Orpen and the Edwardian Era’, Pyms Gallery, 1987, catalogue page 103 (illustrated).
Text from Whyte’s catalogue.
Post by Dominic Lee, Orpen Research Archives.