William Orpen (1878 - 1931)

Kneeling Figure of Woman – a Study for ‘The Holy Well’, circa 1914 – 15

SKU: 593

Signed ‘ORPEN’ and inscribed ‘Mr Vivian’

Pencil, 23 x 18 3/4 in. (58.5 x 47.5 cm.)


Height – 58.5cm x Width – 47.5cm


Mrs Howard (Florence Evelyn) St George (owner of the finished picture); Sotheby’s, London, Mrs St George Sale, 26 July 1939, as part of lot 105 (The Holy Well and 17 studies sold to Reid and Lefevre for ¬¨¬£210); Reid and Lefevre 1939; Lawrence Rill Schuman

Provenance: Mrs Howard (Florence Evelyn) St George (owner of the finished picture); Sotheby’s, London, Mrs St George Sale, 26 July 1939, as part of lot 105 (The Holy Well and 17 studies sold to Reid and Lefevre for ¬£210); Reid and Lefevre 1939; Lawrence Rill Schumann Art Foundation, Boston, Massachusetts,USA; Tannenbaum Collection, Canada; private collection, Canada (Frederick Weinberg); private collection (before 1995)
Exhibited: Royal Academy, London,1933, 52nd Winter Exhibition, Commemorative Exhibition – Works by Late Members: The Holy Well (no.68) and all 17 studies owned by Mrs St George (nos.735-50,766) were exhibited, but the catalogue descriptions are not sufficient to identify the studies individually. However there are relatively few pencil-only drawings, so the numbers can be narrowed to 735,737,747 or 750.
Literature: Phillip√≠s, London,21 November 1995, catalogue (lot 120 repr.); Sotheby’s, London, Irish Sale,16 May 1996, catalogue (lot 458, repr. p.144).

Between 1913 and 1916, Orpen executed three large Irish allegorical canvases, Sowing New Seed for the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland 1913 (Mildura Arts Centre, Australia), The Western Wedding 1914 (untraced, believed destroyed), and Nude Pattern: Holy Well, also known as The Holy Well 1916 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin). According to Bruce Arnold, ‘These are three major works which pursue themes of Irish art and culture, Irish faith and morality, Irish landscape, dress and manners, Irish sexuality’ (Arnold, Orpen: Mirror to an Age, London 1981, p.294).

All three paintings were preceded by preparatory drawings of exceptional precision and sensitivity.The model for this drawing is believed to be Connie Martin,a professional artist’s model, living at the time at 258 Kings Road, Chelsea.The same pose is found in a number of Orpen’s paintings, including early studies for The Western Wedding and, in his later work, Palm Sunday 1931. Orpen was possibly inspired by the figure of Mary in Piero della Francesco’s The Nativity c.1483-4 (National Gallery, London), and drew inspiration from that artist for all three of his Irish allegorical works.

According to the artist’s studio account book, this study, referred to as ‘Kneeling Figure of Woman … for Well√≠,was originally intended for Mr Vivian,although it in fact appears to have been acquired directly from Orpen by Mrs Howard (Florence Evelyn) St George,with the finished picture.

The above notes have been extracted from an essay written by Christopher Pearson, the unabridged version of which can be read in the biography link.

We are grateful to the Orpen Research Project for their assistance in the preparation of this entry. A catalogue raisonne of the oil paintings of William Orpen is currently being prepared by Christopher Pearson of the Orpen Research Project. For further inquiries, please contact

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William Orpen
1878 - 1931

Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen, Irish-born British portrait painter. He studied art at the Metropolitan School and at the Slade School in London where, at the time, great emphasis was put on the study of old masters.
Born in Stillorgan, County Dublin, William Newenham Montague Orpen was a fine draughtsman and a popular painter of the well-to-do in the period leading up to World War I. He was also involved in the Celtic revival in his native Ireland and he took part in the attempt there to find a visual counterpart to the birth of new national literary language (McConkey 2005). Although his studio was in London, he spent time in Ireland painting, he was a friend of Hugh Lane and influenced the Irish realist painters, like Sean Keating, who were beginning their careers at that time.

Like Sir John Lavery, William Orpen was made an official war painter of the First World War and in 1917 he travelled to the Western Front. He produced drawings and paintings of privates, dead soldiers and German prisoners of war along with official portraits of generals and politicians. Most of these works, 138 in all, are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London.

He was deeply affected by the suffering he witnessed in the war and his To the Unknown British Soldier Killed in France first exhibited in 1923 showed a flag draped coffin flanked by a pair of ghostly and wretched soldiers clothed only in tattered blankets. Although widely admired by the public, this picture was attacked by the press and Orpen painted out the soldiers before the painting was accepted by the Imperial War Museum in 1927.
According to Bruce Arnold, writing in Irish Art a Concise History:
“. . . while at times his portraits are rather shallow, he was capable of excellent and sympathetic work, particularly in family and group portraits.”

The same author notes Orpen’s interest in self-portraits and his self-portraits are often searching and dramatic. In his The Dead Ptarmigan -a self-portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland he scowls from the frame while holding a dead ptarmigan at head height.
In a review of an Orpen exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, Kenneth McConkey (2005) attributes this shallowness of Orpen’s portraits to an emotional exhaustion, a result of what he witnessed as a painter of war; he writes of Orpen’s post war activity:
“Now the portraits were done with mechanical efficiency, and without pause for reflection, save when he scrutinised himself and found a face he could no longer understand. his face… grimaces, it squints, it scowls; in the 1920s it papers over the inner turmoil left by the long pathetic queues of gas-blinded tommies.
Sir William Orpen died, aged 53, in 1931 in London.