1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Orchardson, Sir William Quiller

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 20
Orchardson, Sir William Quiller
See also William Quiller Orchardson on Wikipedia; and our 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica disclaimer.

ORCHARDSON, SIR WILLIAM QUILLER (1835-1910), British painter, was born in Edinburgh, where his father was engaged in business, in 1835. “Orchardson” is a variation of “Urquhartson,” the name of a Highland sept settled on Loch Ness, from which the painter is descended. At the age of fifteen he was sent to the Trustees' Academy, then under the mastership of Robert Scott Lauder, where he had as fellow-students most of those who afterwards shed lustre on the Scottish school of the second half of the 19th century. As a student, he was not especially precocious or industrious, but his work was distinguished by a peculiar reserve, by an unusual determination that his hand should be subdued to his eye, with the result that his early things reach their own ideal as surely as those of his maturity. By the time he was twenty, Orchardson had mastered the essentials of his art, and had produced at least one picture which might be accepted as representative, a portrait of Mr John Hutchison, the sculptor. For seven years after this he worked in Edinburgh, some of his attention being given to “black and white,” his practice in which had been partly acquired at a sketch club, which included among its members Mr Hugh Cameron, Mr Peter Graham, Mr George Hay, Mr M‘Taggart, Mr John Hutchison and others. In 1862 he came to London, and established himself in 37 Fitzroy Square, where he was joined twelve months later by his friend John Pettie. The same house was afterwards inhabited by Ford Madox Brown.

The English public was not immediately attracted by Orchardson's work. It was too quiet to compel attention at the Royal Academy, and Pettie, Orchardson's junior by four years, stepped before him for a time, and became the most readily accepted member of the school. Orchardson confined himself to the simplest themes and designs, to the most reticent schemes of colour. Among his best pictures during the first eighteen years after his migration to London were “The Challenge,” “Christopher Sly,” “Queen of the Swords,” “Conditional Neutrality,” “Hard Hit” — perhaps the best of all — and proortraits of Mr Charles Moxon, his father-in-law, and of his own wife. In all these good judgment and a refined imagination were united to a restrained but consummate technical dexterity. During these same years he made a few drawings on wood, turning to account his early facility in this mode. The period between 1862 and 1880 was one of quiet ambitions, of a characteristic insouciance, of life accepted as a thing of many-balanced interests rather than as a matter of sturm und drang. In 1865 Pettie married, and the Fitzroy Square ménage was broken up. In 1868 Orchardson was elected A.R.A. In 1870 he spent the summer in Venice, travelling home in the early autumn through a France overrun by the German armies. In 1873 he married Miss Helen Moxon, and in 1877 he was elected to the full membership of the Royal Academy. In this same year he finished building a house at Westgate-on-Sea, with an open tennis-court and a studio in the garden. He was knighted in June 1907, and died in London on the 13th of April 1910.

Orchardson's wider popularity dates from 1881. To that year's Academy he sent the large “On Board the Bellerophon,” which now hangs in the Tate Gallery. Its success with the public was great and instantaneous, and for ten or twelve years Orchardson's work was more eagerly looked for at the Academy than that of any one else. He followed up the “Bellerophon” with the still finer “Voltaire,” now in the Kunsthalle at Hamburg. Technically, the “Voltaire” is, perhaps, his high-water mark. Fine both in design and colour, it is carried out with a supple dexterity of hand which has scarcely been equalled in the British school since the death of Gainsborough. The subject is not entirely happy, for it does not explain itself, but requires a previous knowledge on the part of the spectator of how Voltaire was beaten by the servants of the Chevalier de Rohan-Cabot, and how the duc de Sully failed to avenge his guest. The painter was attracted by the opportunity it gave for effective opposition of character, line, colour and movement. The “Voltaire” was at the Academy of 1883; it was followed, in 1884, by the “Mariage de convenance,” perhaps the most popular of all Orchardson's pictures; in 1885, by “The Salon of Madame Recamier”; in 1886, by “After,” the sequel to the “Mariage de convenance,” and “A Tender Chord,” one of his most exquisite productions; in 1887, by “The First Cloud”; in 1888, by “Her Mother's Voice”; and in 1889, by “The Young Duke,” a canvas on which he returned to much the same pictorial scheme as that of the “Voltaire.” Subsequently he exhibited a series of pictures in which fine pictorial use was made of the furniture and costumes of the early years of the 19th century, the subjects, as a rule, being only just enough to suggest a title: “An Enigma,” “A Social Eddy,” “Reflections,” “If music be the food of love, play on!” “Music, when sweet voices die, vibrates on the memory,” “Her First Dance,” — in these, opportunities are made to introduce old harpsichords, spinets, early pianofortes, Empire chairs, sofas and tables, Aubusson carpets, short-waisted gowns, delicate in material and primitive in ornament. Between such things and Orchardson's methods as a painter the sympathy is close, so that the best among them, “A Tender Chord,” for instance, or “Music, when sweet voices die,” have a rare distinction.

As a portrait-painter Orchardson must be placed in the first class. His portraits are not numerous, but among them are a few which rise to the highest level reached by modern art. “Master Baby,” a picture, connecting subject-painting with portraiture, is a masterpiece of design, colour and broad execution. “Mrs Joseph,” “Mrs Ralli,” “Sir Andrew Walker, Bart.,” “Charles Moxon, Esq.,” “Mrs Orchardson,” “Conditional Neutrality” (a portrait of Orchardson's eldest son as a boy of six), “Lord Rookwood,” “The Provost of Aberdeen,” and, above all, “Sir Walter Gilbey, Bart.,” would all deserve a place in any list of the best portraits of the 19th century. In this branch of art the “Sir Walter Gilbey” may fairly be called the painter's masterpiece, although the sumptuous full-length of the Scottish provost, in his robes, runs it closely. The scheme of colour is reticent; had the picture been exhibited at the time of the Boer War of 1900 the colour would have been called khaki; the design is simple, uniting nature to art with a rare felicity; and the likeness has been found satisfactory by the sitter's friends. The most important commission ever received by Orchardson as a portrait-painter was that for a group of Queen Victoria, with her son (afterwards King Edward VII.), grandson, and great-grandson, to be painted on one canvas for the Royal Agricultural Society. The painter hit upon a happy notion for the bringing of the four figures together, and as time goes on and the picture slowly turns into history, its merit is likely to be better appreciated. He continued painting to the end of his life, and had three portraits ready for the Royal Academy in 1910.

Orchardson's method was that of one who worked under a creative, decorative and subjective impulse, rather than under one derived from a wish to observe and record. His affiliation is with Watteau and Gainsborough, rather than with those who would base all pictorial art on a keen eye for actuality and “value.” Among French painters his pictures have excited particular admiration. (W. Ar.)