My Favourite Painting: Robert Dalrymple

'Our West Highland terrier stood in for the cat; Anna put on a big hat, but, to my regret, I never got round to buying a spotty dressing gown, which Harry would have relished as much as Orpen does.'

Robert Dalrymple chooses A Bloomsbury Family by Sir William Orpen

In the late 1980s, I was working at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. Most days, I passed A Bloomsbury Family on the way to my office. By 1994, we had four children–albeit three girls and a boy rather than the other way round–and commissioned the painter Harry More Gordon to copy both the composition and the individual poses.

Our West Highland terrier stood in for the cat; Anna put on a big hat, but, to my regret, I never got round to buying a spotty dressing gown, which Harry would have relished as much as Orpen does .’

Robert Dalrymple is a leading book designer

John McEwen on A Bloomsbury Family by Sir William Orpen

After the Slade, Irishman William Orpen divided his time between Dublin and London, where, from 1903 until the year of this painting, he ran the private Chelsea Art School with fellow Slade graduate Augustus John. In Dublin, he taught at the Metropolitan School of Art, where he influenced a generation of Irish artists and was an enthusiastic contributor to the Celtic revival.

At this time, Orpen and William Rothenstein were painting peopled interiors, in their case family groups influenced by the Dutch 17th-century Masters. Orpen’s marriage to Grace Knewstub, Rothenstein’s sister-in-law, was ending, despite their three children, and he was about to begin an affair with Mrs Evelyn Saint George, an American millionairess living in London, with whom he had a child.

The painting shows the family of artist William Nicholson at home in Mecklenburgh Square. At the back is his wife, Mabel, sister of James Pryde, other half of the Beggarstaffs design partnership. At the table are Nancy, future wife of Robert Graves, Tony, doomed to die as a soldier in 1918, abstract painter Ben and architect ‘Kit’ (Christopher) in a dress – then fashionable wear for little boys. Orpen’s self-portrait appears in the mirror.

Nicholson was peeved by the title; when it was exhibited in 1908, he had moved to what he considered far more stylish Chelsea. Bloomsbury had yet to assume its Bloomsbury Group notoriety.


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