Walter Osborne (British, 1859-1903) Feeding the chickens
Wrong time, wrong place

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 31, Summer 2012

Page 32

In his lifetime Walter Osborne was a misfit. He came from the wrong class. He had the wrong friends and painted the wrong portraits. Not only did he portray titled British rulers or their representatives: the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Houghton, later Earl of Crewe; the Second Duke of Abercorn; the Archbishop of Dublin, William Plunket; Viscount Powerscourt and Sir Walter Armstrong, but he knew them socially and numbered some among his friends. His cultivated stance reflected authority at a time when Ireland was just beginning to seethe with the revolutionary fervor that led to a cultural revival. He was often described as 'an English painter'. Thomas Bodkin, in his brilliant early essay on Osborne in Four Irish Landscape Painters, makes the important point that "the study of Osborne's work discovers nothing distinctively Irish in its author. He does not seem to have any special sympathy or understanding for Irish character, or even for Irish landscape... His faith, upbringing, and environment certainly cut him off, to a considerable extent, from close contact with the majority of his fellow countrymen. He was what John Eglinton calls an Anglo-Irishman, what a Sinn Feiner would probably describe as 'a West Briton'."

Bodkin also makes the important point that Osborne was entirely indifferent to local character when there is a regional emphasis in his painting. Other artists, most notably Jack Yeats, made much of being Irish. He even put a stamp on his life as an artist by entitling ten years of early exhibitions Life in the West of Ireland. Such a notion would never have entered Osborne's head.

Bodkin suggests that Osborne was happier in places such as Walberswick, Hastings or Rye than he was in Galway, where he painted for a time in 1893. "One need only compare his western types with those of Mr Jack Yeats to realize Osborne's lack of anxiety to depict anything more than the mere appearance of his models. His peasants, even in the picturesque costume – tall hat, frieze coat and knee breeches – are not nearly as Irish nor as romantic as those painted by Mr Yeats in their present-day suits of shoddy tweed and their hideous artisan's cloth caps."

Art is neither caricature nor tribal history. If you are Yeats, you give life to location. If you are Osborne, you locate life without any guidebook to typecasting, attitude, place or style, for these have nothing whatever to do with the perception of truth and its depiction that guided both men, though in entirely different directions.

These defining and carefully considered views and artistic ambitions, including, essentially, a chosen indifference, set him aside from the cultural mainstream. This style only gathered momentum in the 1880s and 1890s and was easy to dismiss. But in due course, Ireland would come to be defined by the changes in that period and W.B. Yeats would emerge supreme. The politics of it all would lead to independence.

This might have meant artistic oblivion, but Osborne had an extraordinary talent and a faultless eye and this saved him. He painted the visual truth and he made magic of it in his art. But it was a long and difficult struggle that lasted into the quite recent years when Irish art became a leading expression of the Irish cultural spirit, with Osborne achieving a distinguished place as one of the country's truly great painters. He is rightly admired for his landscapes and his portraits, but perhaps is loved most of all for his genre scenes in which he often deploys good landscape painting with faithful and revealing portraiture to which he adds narrative, exemplified by works depicting children, such as Feeding Chickens.

Walter Frederick Osborne was born in 1859 in Rathmines, the son of a painter, William Osborne, also born in Dublin and an academician, who sent his son to the Royal Hibernian Academy Schools rather than to the other main teaching institute, the Metropolitan School of Art. They were quite distinct – the RHA Schools were more suited to Osborne's clear but reticent nature, to his background and class. He was a distinguished cricketer. Stephen Gwynn described him as "the most destructive kind of left-hand bowler". Not only was his father a painter; there was also a family connection with Sir Frederick Burton, the gifted Irish water colourist, who, like Osborne, was charming among close friends, but otherwise reticent.

Osborne made an impact straight away, exhibiting in the RHA annual show in his first year. He won numerous medals and prizes as a student as well as Royal Dublin Society Taylor Prizes. At the age of 23, Osborne went to study in Amsterdam under Charles Verlat, an established and successful painter of genre scenes and portraits.

Verlat's experience of depicting warm sun in landscapes, gained while painting in the Holy Land, left an lasting hallmark on Osborne. He learned other characteristics of the Antwerp School, where Verlat studied, but spent his best time as a student traveling out of Amsterdam and painting around Zaandam.

Osborne's genre scenes, with their narrative inspiration, define his greatness as a painter. There is a natural human element, often concerned with scenes of poverty in Dublin, such as the poignant In a Dublin park, light and shade, with its study of infancy and old age displayed on a bench in Phoenix Park. Other works, such as The Fishmarket, Patrick Street and Life in the Streets: Hard Times have a similar appeal.

But he was no sentimentalist. Osborne soberly depicted life as known by the vast majority in Ireland at the end of the 19th century. He brought to middle-class subjects the same coolness and objectivity as in his studies of the poor. The Luster Jug and Tea in the Garden, both in the National Gallery, are late works dating from 1901 and 1902 respectively. The first, an interior, shows his great gift in convincing and truthful execution of child portraiture. His three seated figures are naturally disposed, their setting a fine interior in which we see the rather bored discussion of a no-doubt treasured family possession. The other work, a beautifully realized garden scene in a well-to-do setting, has all the detached quality of observation, the true mark of Osborne's genius. In the long artistic haul to greatness, this detached way of observing his subjects has proved a strength.

In general, though with notable exceptions, Osborne looked east across the Irish Sea, towards England first of all, and then to France, Belgium, Holland and Spain. From Paris in 1895, on his way to Spain, he wrote to his cousin, Sarah Purser, dismissing much of the art in the Luxembourg and praising the artistic skills of Millais, Watts and Orchardson above their French contemporaries. He suggested that in landscape painting, Constable, Turner, and David Cox far surpassed what Paris had to offer.

Osborne, whose gentle character shines out of his canvases, painted beautifully in many different places, including the English rural heartlands of Norfolk, Surrey, Sussex, Warwickshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. He boarded with farmers whose lives and houses were material for his work, such as Milking Time, Joe, the Swineherd and Potato Gathering.

He found the beautiful autumn setting for Feeding Chickens on one such visit near Evesham in Worcestershire. In this painting, which is offered by Bonhams New Bond Street in July, the young but self-assured girl, with her solemn, serious expression as she scatters corn for the chickens, is the daughter or a servant in the substantial house at the back of the scene (in fact she was a model, Bessie Osborne, though no relation). In the pencil sketch for the work, there is another figure, a gardener with his wheelbarrow, but in the painting this idea was abandoned, perhaps strengthening the focus of the work. Jeanne Sheehy, in her valuable monograph, gives a map of the English rural districts he stayed in on painting expeditions.

And, of course, he painted brilliant and seminal works in Brittany and other part of France, as well as in Flanders and in Spain. Place mattered enormously, but the search for it and the enthusiasms particular scenes evoked has a catholicity that is very much in character.

A parallel fluidity derives from his easy absorption of influences. In A Glade in the Phoenix Park, his handling of trees and their reflection in water, as well as the addition of a boy fishing in the foreground, is worthy of early Turner. He loved or was influenced by Millet, Whistler, George Clausen, Fred Brown, as well as the other, mainly English artists mentioned earlier. But he acknowledged no master. French Impressionism was also an influence, though by no means overwhelming. Osborne grew up and passed through the school of his Antwerp teacher and others, rapidly acquiring his own views on design, a great depth of feeling and his objective independence.

Bruce Arnold writes for The Irish Times. His most recent book is a biography 
of the Irish artist, Derek Hill.

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