Walter Frederick Osborne RHA, ROI (Irish, 1859-1903)
Feeding the chickens signed and dated 'WALTER OSBORNE/85' (lower left) oil on canvas 91 x 71.5cm (35 13/16 x 28 1/8in).
PROVENANCE: Collection of George McCulloch His sale, Christie's 23-30 May 1913 Mr Shaw, Reigate n.d. Acquired by the family of the present owners Private collection, Ireland
EXHIBITED: London, Guildhall Art Gallery, Works by Irish Painters, 1904, no. 39 London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, The McCulloch Collection of Modern Art, 1909 Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, Walter Osborne, 1983, no. 19 Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy, An Artist's Century, February, 2000 Dublin, RDS, Celebrating 150 years of the RDS Taylor Art Award, 2011 Loan Collection, Limerick University, from 1999
LITERATURE: Thomas Bodkin, Four Irish Landscape Painters 1920, Irish Academic Press ed., 1987, p. 149 Jeanne Sheehy, Walter Osborne, Gifford and Craven, Ballycotton, Co Cork, 1974, pp. 21, 116, no. 83 Jeanne Sheehy, Walter Osborne, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Ireland, 1983, pp. 70-1 (illustrated in colour)
When he completed his art training at the Académie Royale d'Anvers, Antwerp, the young Irish painter, Walter Osborne, spent a year at the burgeoning artists' colony at Quimperlé. It was clear that the most interesting modern painters were working from life in the open air with unprofessional models and the Breton fishing villages were a melting pot. The rural 'Naturalism' of Jules Bastien-Lepage dominated the Paris Salon and a peasant in an orchard, shaking down apples, was a more attractive subject for Osborne than themes from history or mythology (fig 1). Bastien-Lepage's principles and techniques were spreading rapidly and when he returned to London at the end of 1883, Osborne noted with enthusiasm the work of his principal interpreter in Britain, George Clausen.
In the new year, with his friends Nathaniel Hill and Edward Stott, Osborne travelled through East Anglia and Lincolnshire, but was back in London in May for the spring exhibitions where, apart from a Whistler portrait, Clausen's work was again in evidence. In the summer he, Hill and Stott set off once again, this time for Worcestershire where at North Littleton, near Evesham in October 1884 that he produced what may regarded as his Naturalistic thesis picture, Feeding Chickens.
A canvas, three feet high, this depiction of a child wearing an embroidered bonnet and holding a basket of grain, surrounded by a brood of hens, was his most ambitious painting to date. Its progress was not unproblematic, as he made clear in a letter to his father, dated 12 October 1884 (fig 2).
'Now I am pretty far advanced on a kit-kat of a girl in a sort of farmyard, a rough sketch on the opposite page will indicate the composition. The figure of the girl which is a little over two feet high is coming towards finish, but the immediate foreground with poultry is merely sketched in as yet. The fowl are very troublesome, and I have made some sketches but will have to do a lot more as they form rather an important part of the composition.'
Osborne then asked his father to see if he can find the sketches of chickens he had made at Quimperlé the previous year, as they may be of some help, and adds,
'The weather, I am sorry to say has been bitterly cold the last week, so much so that my model nearly fainted and I had to send her home ... It will probably seem funny to you all that my model's name should be Bessie Osborne and Stott's ...Annie Osborne ... They are no relations as you might think, but merely form two in about a list of twenty people of that very aristocratic name.'
Local worthies came to watch Osborne paint the picture, one, leaning on his pitchfork, exclaiming,
'Well I'm dd if you painters are good for either king or country, if you were my son I'd have you behind the plough and not wasting your time there.' (Sheehy, 1974, pp. 20-1)
Osborne nevertheless enjoyed his evenings in the village inn where 'the House of Lords receives little mercy' from the village politicians, one of whom was deputed to sit by the fire and read the paper to his neighbours. Sometimes he was drawn into the conversation on the Franchise Bill, the locals thinking that 'painters [are] still more mystical beings when I tell them they never trouble about politics'.
Surprisingly this important work appears not to have been exhibited after its completion and the circumstances under which it entered the distinguished collection of George McCulloch remain obscure. A Scots mining engineer who had made a fortune in the goldfields of Western Australia, McCulloch was acquiring work by Bastien-Lepage, Whistler and younger artists who were gaining reputations in the Grosvenor Gallery and the Royal Academy. McCulloch lent the picture to Hugh Lane's ground-breaking first exhibition of Irish art at the Guildhall Art Gallery in 1904 and in 1909 it reappeared when the Academy staged a winter exhibition of the McCulloch collection, two years after his death. The works were then dispersed by Christie's just over three years later.
Feeding the chickens however, remains one of Osborne's most significant early pictures, its theme reiterated by Stott in Feeding the Ducks, (fig 3) painted at the same time in North Littleton. It is possible that the farm buildings in the background of Stott's picture are those seen in close-up in Osborne's. It is also worth recalling that the Irish painter's other travelling companion in these years, Blandford Fletcher, would paint this subject, albeit in a more conservative style (fig 4).
Osborne, Stott and Fletcher, in their ramblings through the English counties were essentially looking for old world themes, to be expressed in a modern way. Bastien-Lepage had urged his followers to return to their rural roots, to find a coin de terre, a little corner of the world that would uniquely be theirs. Stott would find it eventually at Amberley, Fletcher, in later years, in Oxfordshire and Osborne arguably only after his permanent return to Dublin in 1892. Stephen Gwynne, recalling his friend eighteen years after his death, noted that, Osborne loved the country with a feeling that pervades all his studies of its beauty things that are poems of Nature. But I do not think that he had the instinct that keeps the born countryman uneasy till he can attach himself in permanence to some particular corner of land. (Garden Wisdom, 1921, pp. 43-4)
By this reckoning, the Bastien-Lepage ideal eluded him but the quest was nevertheless initiated with a girl feeding chickens on cold autumn days at North Littleton in Worcestershire, and at least temporarily achieved.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.