Monday, 4 February 2013

Orpen Your Heart To Me...

Good Lord, may I just start by apologising for that appalling title, but there were many other puns that were worse.  Anyhow, today's post is dedicated to the lovely Sally Corvini, who posted the following picture on Facebook this morning...

Night No.2 (1907) William Orpen
Lovely picture, very atmospheric.  The reason I have spent the rest of the morning looking into background information was that the other title for the image is 'The Artist and his Wife, Grace Knewstub'.  Hang about, I know the name 'Knewstub', he was the studio assistant for Rossetti...

Lily and Rose (1875) Walter J Knewstub
Looking at the above image, you will be unsuprised to hear that Walter John Knewstub was a studio assistant to Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the period shortly after Elizabeth's death.  Knewstub was an easy-going, pleasant chap who worked on some of the famous pictures of the years between 1862 and 1866...

My Lady Greensleeves (1863) D G Rossetti
It was while assisting Rossetti that Knewstub met Harriet Eliza Emily Renshaw, usually known as just 'Emily', a soldier's daughter born in 1848.  Emily came to model for Rossetti around 1863, when she posed for My Lady Greensleeves, and Rossetti used her face in versions of famous works, such as Venus Verticordia...

Oh deary me, this was the picture that allegedly caused all the trouble between Knewstub and his erstwhile employer, as young Walter took rather a shine to young Emily.  Rossetti returned from his trip to Paris with Fanny in 1864 and began working up a version of Venus from some sketches of Fanny he had done.  When Knewstub saw his beloved Emily in such an inflammatory picture, he decided it would be safer all round if he  married Emily and removed her from bohemian society.  He also decided that he would stop working for Rossetti and go it alone.  It was said that Knewstub was scandalised by Rossetti's artistic treatment of Emily, but it was probably more to do with the fact that Rossetti had a habit of not paying him.

Emily Knewstub Walter Knewstub
Emily and Walter were married in 1866, and the first of their children, Grace, was born the same year.  She was followed by around 8 siblings, the youngest, Robert, being born in 1880.

Portrait of Grace (1907) William Orpen
While holidaying with her family in France, Grace met the artists Augustus John, Charles Conder and William Orpen, an Irish portrait painter, based in London.  He was part of the 'Celtic Revival', an interest that seems to have rubbed off on Grace, who was the author of a book entitled 'The Dances of Donegal', a collection of traditional Irish dances.

Lady Orpen (1907) William Orpen
The couple were married in 1901 and had either two or three daughters (the jury seems to be out, but there are definitely records for Mary and Christine, born 1903 and 1908 respectively) and lived in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea.  In 1908, Orpen set up the Chenil Gallery with Grace's brother Jack.  The business did quite well but finally failed in the 1920s, when Knewstub was declared bankrupt.  Mind you, Orpen had scarpered from the Knewstubs before then...

Interior at Clonsilla with Mrs Saint-George William Orpen
The marriage wasn't entirely happy and Orpen ran away with one of his models, Madame Saint-George in 1912.  Charming.  The couple do not ever seem to have divorced, so when Orpen was knighted for his work as a War artist in 1918 Grace became Lady Orpen and remained so until her death in 1948.

Actually, Grace wasn't the only one of Walter Knewstub's children to become a celebrated beauty and artist's wife.  Knewstub's second daughter Alice was drawn by Legros in the 1890s...

Alice  Knewstub Alphonse Legros 
It was possibly when posing for Legros that Alice met William Rothenstein.  Rothenstein worked on the continent in the latter years of the nineteenth century before returning to England and settling down with the beautiful Alice, marrying in Spring 1899.

Alice Knewstub Rothenstein Walter Knewstub
Eric Gill and Alice Mary, Lady Rothenstein William Rothenstein
Yikes, Eric Gill.  Anyway Alice had also appeared on stage as 'Alice Kingsley', and the couple had four children, one of whom was the art historian John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery from 1938 to 1964.  As far as I know, Alice's husband didn't run off with a French mistress, which is always a bonus.

All this rambling brings me to the end of today's post.  I like following the lives of Stunners, and it's interesting to see how one of Rossetti's models can bring you all the way through to the director of one of the largest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the country.  What would Rossetti have thought?!


  1. Rivetting post, Kirsty! I've loved Orpen since seeing Robert Upstone's exhibition Politics, Sex and Death (great title) at The Imperial War Museum in 2005. Orpen's Early Morning (1922) is one of my favourite paintings. Yvonne Aubicq, the model, was Orpen's mistress. He was a small man and Yvonne was a tough Frenchwoman and she used to knock him about. P'raps when you've finished with the time machine you could send it back for me, so I can go and marry her? Orpen left her in Paris when he came back to Britain in 1923, the cad. Bagshaw Museum, where I work sometimes, has a lovely Orpen portrait, Mrs Hughes (1901), so he's a regular presence in my life.

  2. Simon, you are welcome to use the time machine, however I will be slightly worried about you.

  3. Orpen was a difficult man. When after dinner conversation struck him as dull he used to get down from the table and crawl around yapping like a dog. He was bitter and twisted from his awful experiences as a war artist. And he had a massive chip on his shoulder: when he was a boy he overheard his parents discussing how strange it was that he was small and ugly when all his siblings were so beautiful. Any woman will have felt the need to give him an occasional slap. I am sure, with my O-level French (1968) and sunny disposition that my relationship with the lovely Ms Aupicq will be violence free. You need have no worries on my behalf.

  4. Ooh, PS: Mrs Saint-George, whose splendidly languid portrait you reproduce, was a very tall American, whereas Orpen, like I said, was a small man. In London's bohemian circles they were nick-named Jack and the Beanstalk.

  5. Thanks again for a very interestiong post. The paintings by both Orpen and Knewstub are wonderful and deserve wider recognition. I must admit that Rossetti's use of "assistants" does worry me a bit. I have a great horror of so called artists like Damien Hirst and Mark Wallinger, not so much because of the arguable quality of their art (which is always a subjective judgement) but because they do not actually "do" the art themselves. They conceive an idea and then employ underlings to do the tedious work. Although I am not a great fan of David Hockney, I think his little statement at his recent exhibition "all works exclusively created by the artist" was very telling. So I am wondering, how much of the work with Rossetti's name on them were actually done by him? I know that he often left his assistants to do the backgrounds but, the quality of Khewstub's own work is so good and so similar to Rossetti that I wonder if left a lot of the foreground to them as well. In which case he wasn't just a cad and bounder in his personal life but also in his professional life...

  6. I think Rossetti was no different than any other artist, he had assistants who trained under him, had a similar style and helped to a greater or lesser extent. I get the impression that Rossetti used his assistants in a variety of different ways, for example to do sketches of items for pictures (I think there is a lovely picture of blossom by Shields, which appeared in Vision of Fiammetta, but I may be wrong), but he didn't have anyone do his work for him entirely. Rest easy.

  7. Kirsty, Your site is great! What a fantastic post! I've put up a link on my seminar's blog-site:

    I teach at the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington DC, and we're all eager for the opening of the show at the National Gallery of Art on February 17. Cheers! -- Caesy

  8. Thanks Casey, I hope you enjoy the show, we're missing it terribly!

  9. For once, we get something over here!

  10. My husband's mother was Deirdre Knewstub, daughter of John Knewstub and granddaughter of Walter and Emily. You can see shades of Emily in our daughter, Nell.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx