William Orpen met Grace Knewstub whilst holidaying with Augustus John (1878-1961) and Charles Conder (1868-1909) at Vattetot-sur-mer, France, in the summer of 1899. Grace was the daughter of the minor Pre-Raphaelite figure, John Knewstub, and Orpen and Grace married in London in August 1901.
Portrait of Grace was painted whilst the Orpens were holidaying in the seaside resort of Margate, east of London, with their friends, William Nicholson (1871-1945) and his wife Mabel, in the summer of 1907. The Nicholsons had a passion for elegant costumes and their interests strongly informed this painting.
The elaborate costume Grace wears - as well as a homage to the Nicholsons’ friendship and in particular, William Nicholson’s fondness for gloves - illustrates her penchant for hats. Here she wears an elaborate arrangement: a large, stiff brimmed hat decked with either roses or peonies and a transparent veil, which cascades seductively over her face. She wears an extravagant trimmed with black satin, and the whole ensemble denotes elegant Edwardian living. Grace’s face is caught by a flush of light from below, creating an arresting portrait.
Portrait of Grace is one of Orpen’s finest paintings, executed at the height of his powers. Orpen’s contentment is perfectly articulated in this sensitive portrait of his wife. The years of domestic harmony, however, were not to last. In 1908 Mrs. St George (1870-1938) became his mistress, and usurped Grace’s role in Orpen’s life.
William Orpen (1878-1931)
Portrait of Grace, 1907
Oil on canvas signed lower right: Orpen
90 x 70 cm M72