Group associated with the New English Art Club

Group associated with the New English Art Club, by Sir William Orpen, circa 1904 -NPG 6345 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Group associated with the New English Art Club

by Sir William Orpen
Pencil, black chalk [or charcoal], pen, ink and watercolour on cream paper, circa 1904
8 7/8 in. x 16 3/8 in. (225 mm x 415 mm) paper size
NPG 6345

This portraitback to top

This lighthearted sketch features seven prominent members of the New English Art Club, who follow in line behind two eminent Frenchmen: Alphonse Legros leads the way with arm outstretched and Auguste Rodin walks beside him. The group stroll through the countryside progressing from right to left. Their hats have recently been thrown (or blown) off and hang suspended in the air. Before them, a mountainous scene with a lake below is lightly indicated. A wash of bright blue ink is used to describe the patch of sky and water. In contrast, heavy use of brown wash on the right-hand side of the composition suggests that the men are emerging from dark and murky conditions. Arguably, the image serves as an allusion to the French influence upon English art towards the beginning of the twentieth century, in particular Impressionism, which was evident in many canvases exhibited at the NEAC. These young artists purposefully move out from the dank English gloom towards sunnier plains.

In this context, the positioning of Legros at the head of the group is appropriate. The painter and printmaker moved permanently from Paris to London in 1863 and became naturalized in 1880. Between 1876 and 1892 he held the post of Professor of Art at the Slade School of Art. This was a successful period at the school, as Legros sought to establish it along the lines which were to make it increasingly famous, nurturing a tradition of fine draughtsmanship among his students and introducing sculpture and etching classes. [1] Frederick Brown, fifth from the left in this image, succeeded Legros as professor (1892–1917). He in turn was succeeded by Henry Tonks, fourth from the left (until 1930).

Rodin became firm friends with Legros in the 1880s and continued to visit him in London for some three decades after this, returning ‘once or twice a year between 1902 and 1907’. [2] He was as famous as Legros in England, if not more so, his reputation reaching its height in the early 1900s. A banquet held at the Café Royal in 1902 marked his entrance into English society and in 1903 the students of the Slade felt compelled to hold another dinner in his honour, over which Alfred Gilbert – at that time the most prominent sculptor in England – presided. [3]

Of the sitters in NPG 6345, only two actually studied at the Slade, Augustus John(1894–8), seventh from the left here, and William Rothenstein (briefly, in 1888), sixth from the left; the others spent their student years in Paris or at the Westminster School of Art. [4] However, a unifying characteristic of the group following Rodin and Legros is their status as exhibiting members of the NEAC. [5] (Steer and Brown were among the fifteen founding members of the club.) Moreover, they were frequently elected to the annual selecting jury for the club’s spring and winter exhibitions, thereby influencing its direction and artistic emphasis. [6]

There is no confirmed date for William Orpen’s sketch, nor is there a title or inscription to indicate the context of its production. Up until shortly before its acquisition by the National Portrait Gallery in 1995, the drawing remained in the possession of the artist’s family and is not known to have been published. Stylistically, it is very close to another humorous image by Orpen entitled Crisis at the NEAC (1904), referring to an unsettled period caused by the loss of the Dudley Gallery as an exhibition venue. [7]. In that work John, Rothenstein, Tonks, Philip Wilson Steer and Brown are represented dramatically perched upon a high rocky outcrop, with mountainous scenery below. [8] The characterisation of the sitters is also comparable to the artist’s 1905 compositional drawing for the Selecting Jury of the New English Art Club, 1909 (NPG 2556). [9] In comparison with these works, a date of around 1904 for the sketch is perhaps plausible. It is made more likely by the fact that Rodin was well and truly fêted in London in the same year. After the death of James McNeill Whistler in July 1903, the French artist was elected the new President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. A grand presidential banquet took place on 9 January 1904 at the society’s headquarters at the New Gallery, Regent Street; it was one of the best-chronicled of Rodin’s visits to London in the early 1900s. [10] It is possible that Orpen wished to mark the occasion and, by placing Rodin at the forefront of this symbolic grouping, make reference to his position as a pioneer in the field of modern visual art.

Elizabeth Heath

Footnotesback to top

1) Arnold 1981, p.40.
2) Lampert, Romain et al. 2006, p.125.
3) Butler 1993, pp.180–81.
4) Orpen was also enrolled at the Slade (1897–9), studying under Frederick Brown.
5) Legros exhibited only once with the NEAC (winter 1896).
6) For more on the club, see also NPG 2556.
7) Pen, ink and watercolour on paper, 240 x 215mm; coll. Shane Grant Esq.
8) This sketch is inscribed by the artist: ‘William Orpen / 1930 by 1904’. In 1930 it was with P&D Colnaghi, before which it was in the collection of Mrs A. Cecil Lawson. This suggests that the dealers asked Orpen to sign the work retrospectively before selling it and that the artist meant to indicate that the drawing was executed in 1904, signed in 1930.
9) Pencil and red chalk, 190 x 260mm, exh. Orpen and the Edwardian Era, Pyms Gallery, London, 1987 (21); repr. Hobart & Hobart 1987, no.21, p.61.
10) The accuracy with which Orpen captured Rodin’s likeness is illustrated by a photograph by the London Stereoscopic Company taken on 4 Jan. 1904, just days before the event; M. Rodin, Paris / Meudon, Ph.1923. He is shown seated formally with other members of the society, before a cast of The Thinker (1902). He does indeed appear a short, stout, stiff-necked man, with long stream-like beard and stern expression.

Referenceback to top

Arnold 1981
Arnold, B., Orpen: Mirror to an Age, London, 1981.

Butler 1993
Butler, R., Rodin: The Shape of Genius, London, 1993.

Hobart & Hobart 1987
Hobart, A., and M. Hobart, Orpen and the Edwardian Era, Pym’s Gallery, London, 1987.

Lampert, Romain et al. 2006
Lampert, C., A. Romain, and others, Rodin, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2006.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1996.

Provenanceback to top

Family of the artist; purchased by NPG, 1995.

Exhibitionsback to top

Twentieth Century British Drawings, Cassian de Vere Cole Fine Art, London, 1995 (22).

View all known portraits for Frederick Brown

View all known portraits for Charles Edward Conder

View all known portraits for Alphonse Legros