Thursday, August 4, 2011

Walter Frederick Osborne - Dorothy and Irene Falkiner

signed u.l.: Walter Osborne
oil on canvas
150 by 114cm.; 59 by 45in.

ESTIMATE 500,000-700,000 GBP
Lot Sold: 580,500 GBP

Although better known for his genre paintings, landscapes and late impressionistic garden scenes, Walter Osborne was a superb portraitist, and practised as a portrait painter throughout his life. Amongst his oeuvre are many drawings and paintings, as well as watercolours and pastel studies of members of his family, relatives, children, and friends. He made a series of portraits of fellow artists such as Sarah Purser, Nathaniel Hone and John Hughes, and writers such as Stephen Gwynn and Walter Armstrong.

However, from the mid 1890s onwards much of Osborne's time was taken up by more formal portraits. Partly out of financial necessity, in the pursuit of his own career, and to support his own family, Osborne needed to gain portrait commissions. Even as early as 1892 Osborne made references to the portraits which he was working on. Many of his commissioned portraits of the late 1890s were formal studies of the Establishment and Irish Society: for example of governors, members of the legal profession, academics, the clergy, business people, and of society ladies and their
children. Some of these were purchased directly by the clients, and were never exhibited in public, while others, particularly the portraits of beautiful women and children, were shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, and the Royal Academy in London.

From the mid-1890s to the early twentieth century Osborne painted a series of society ladies and children dressed in their finery. These are amongst the most notable of all of his portraits including Portrait of a lady (Mrs. C. Litton
Falkiner seated at the piano)

Drawings and oil studies are extant of some of these portraits, indicating that Osborne planned and executed them carefully. In some of the portraits the mother and daughter are shown reading together, or there is music involved; while in several the sitter looks directly out at the viewer. In some of the pictures the woman is shown in similar three–quarter seated pose, an elegant dress floating down to her ankles. As the paintings include fine furniture, furnishings and sometimes a piano, it seems possible that Osborne painted the portraits in situ, in the sitters' homes rather than in his studio. Yet despite the potential formality of the occasion, Osborne creates a mood of intimacy. Some of the portraits may have been influenced by the likes of Reynolds, Whilstler and Orchardson, Valasquez and Goya but the closest affinities are with the portraits of Osborne's contemporary Sargent, who often painted mothers with daughters, sisters together, and children, in a brilliant and fluid manner demonstrated in works such as The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The present portrait of Dorothy and Irene Falkiner was obviously commissioned by their parents Mr. and Mrs. C. Litton Falkiner (see fig.2). It was probably painted over the winter of 1899-1900, ready for exhibition in spring. The girls came
from an extremely distinguished Irish family. Their grandfather, Sir Frederick Falkiner (1831-1908), had been born in Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary and was called to the bar in 1852. In 1876, he was appointed Recorder in Dublin, and in 1880, elected to the King's Inns. He was also a leading member of the general synod of the church of Ireland. He was a compassionate man, concerned primarily with pursuing compensation for working men, who had been injured at work, and he became known as the 'poor man's judge' (R.H. Murray and Sinead Agnew, in Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography', Oxford 2004, Vol. 18, p984).

His second son Caesar Litton Falkiner (1863-1908), the girls' father, led a distinguished career as a barrister, politician, historian and writer. He was called to the Bar in Dublin in 1887 and was Assistant Legal Commissioner in the land Commission, 1897-1908. He became a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1896, and was elected secretary in 1906. Among his publications were Studies in Irish History and Biography, 1901 and Essays relating to Ireland: biographical, historical and topographical, 1909, as well as the letters of Jonathan Swift. In 1982 Falkiner
married Henrietta May Deane, daughter of the brilliant architect Sir Thomas Newemham Deane (1828-1899) and Dorothy and Irene were born in the 1890s.

Osborne's portrait of them belongs firmly to his series of double portraits. It is striking in its depiction of the two sisters, and in the luxurious nature of their costumes. The figures are perfectly placed in the centre of the composition, one
seated on, one standing by, an ornate gilded seat. Osborne observes the pretty features and different expressions of the girls with sensitivity and sympathy. Both children look directly out at the viewer. The older girl, Dorothy, has clear
blue eyes, soft cheeks, rosy lips and flowing golden hair. The gentle face and pink cheeks of the younger girl, Irene, are visible beneath her bonnet. Her face is slightly lowered, her blue eyes looking up at us beneath her golden curls.

According to Hilary O'Kelly (lecturer in the History of Costume, National College of Art and Design, Dublin) the sisters were extremely lavishly dressed, even by the standards of society at the time, indicating their high status in society.

The sumptuous cream coloured material of the costumes, possibly of a Kashmir silk is subtly different in each girl, indicating the older and younger sister. Dorothy wears a frock and a double bow, one black and one white, tied under her chin. With her gorgeous flowing hair and striking black hat, somewhat in the Napoleonic style, O'Kelly believes that she was dressed to be presented to society.

Irene wears a long frock coat, and it is notable that she wears a white bonnet beneath her outer hood. She also seems to wear a black ribbon beneath her cream coloured bow and clutches a doll in her left hand. Both girls wear elegant black gloves, and hold muffs. The trimming around the girls' shoulders, and around the hood of the child, appears so light, that Hilary O'Kelly suggests that it is made of swans' down. There are pleasing echoes of Sargent, for example, the standing pose of the child touchingly recalls the girl in Beatrice Goelet , 1890, while the doll, and the gleaming shoes recall those in Sargent's masterly canvas The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882.

In spite of the opulence of the girls' costumes, the portrait is in no sense flashy or exhibitionistic. What Osborne conveys is a sense of tenderness and intimacy. In this it has kinship with a contemporary, but much more informal double portrait The Goldfish Bowl, which likewise features two girls. Although they are absorbed in watching the goldfish, rather than looking at the viewer, and their costumes are much more plain, the sitters are likewise set against a loosely painted brown interior, and Osborne conveys a similar mood of sympathy for the children.

As well as a portrait of the girls' mother Portrait of a lady (Mrs. C. Litton Falkiner seated at the piano (1902, National Gallery of Ireland, her pose seated at the piano closely recalling that of Sargent's Madam Ramon Subercaseaux, 1880-81), Osborne also painted the girls' grandfather, Sir Frederick Falkiner in 1903. Sir Frederick died at Funchal, Maderia in 1908, coincidentally the same year that his son C. Litton Falkiner died in a climbing accident at Chamonix in the Alps.

Julian Campbell

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