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The Artist as Model: Alfred Rich for William Orpen

Andréa Fernandes

Yesterday was the 154th birthday of Alfred William Rich (1856-1921), an English watercolorist. Although Rich painted for more than 30 years, portraits of him are more readily available online than his own work. Rich is featured prominently in several works by Sir William Orpen (1878-1931), including Orpen's 1911 painting, "The Model," shown above. Some fascinating facts about Rich and Orpen:

1. Education

William Orpen was considered "something of an infant prodigy," entering the Metropolitan School at age 7, Dublin's School of Art at age 11, and the Slade School of Art at age 17. Alfred Rich also began his artistic studies at a young age, but he didn't receive the schooling Orpen did: Rich was self-taught from age 8. Only after 20 years as a heraldic painter did Rich study at the Slade School.

2. Methods

The two painters may have attended the same school, joined the same group (the New English Art Club), and been friends, but Rich and Orpen had very different work methods. Rich disliked working in a studio, or on an easel in general; he preferred sitting in a camp chair, with stretched paper on a board flat on his knees. Orpen, on the other hand, was a master in the studio, to the point that his process was something of a production line. With two sitters, one at each end of his studio, Orpen would work on one portrait while his palette for the other was being cleaned by an assistant.

3. Lovers

Alfred Rich's love life was apparently scandal-free; the only mentions of any women connected to him refer to his wife, whom he remained married to until his death. William Orpen's love life was quite a different story. Originally engaged to Emily Scobel, a model at the Slade School, Orpen became "besotted" with Grace Knewstub and broke off his engagement to Scobel. Orpen and Knewstub married and had three daughters, but their marriage was unhappy, and Orpen became known for his affairs. He carried on a long affair—that produced a daughter—with Evelyn St. George, a wealthy married American. The two were referred to as "Jack and the Beanstalk" by the press, since Orpen was just over 5 feet tall and St. George was over 6 feet tall. When a decade-long affair with another mistress, Yvonne Aubicq, came to an end, Orpen gave his spurned lover his newest Rolls-Royce, along with the chauffeur.

4. Fame

Orpen was considered "the most popular painter of his day" and "the most famous painter in Britain" and regularly raked in $10,000 a portrait, making him one of the most successful portrait painters. He was once offered $5 million to paint a series of 300 portraits in New York, but turned it down because he was getting enough work at home. Rich doesn't seem to have been as successful, financially or in fame, but he had strong opinions about those who were. While Rich was critical of his colleagues, he only had good words for the artist Peter de Wint, of whom he said, "No artist ever came nearer painting a perfect picture."

5. Friendship

"The Model" isn't the only William Orpen painting to feature Alfred Rich. Both artists were members of the ">New English Art Club, and so Rich appears in both Orpen's "The Selecting Jury of the New English Art Club, 1909" and "Le Café Royal à Londres" (1912). Additionally, on a letter from Orpen, Orpen drew a humorous picture depicting a large Rich sitting with a small Orpen on his knee.

6. Self-Portraits

Rich appears not to have painted any self-portraits, but Orpen is known for his self-portraits, most of which are self-mocking (like the drawing of him and Rich) or allegorical. Apparently, Orpen was "intensely self-conscious of his looks" due to a conversation he overheard between his parents in which they discussed why he was so ugly when their three other sons were so good-looking. Orpen, who nicknamed himself "ickle Orps," said, "I began to think I was a black blot on the earth." In addition to the many self-portraits he produced, Orpen also wrote two memoirs: "An Onlooker in France 1917-1919" (about his time as an official war painter in the First World War) and "Stories of Old Ireland and Myself" (1924). Rich also published a written work, though his was a 1918 treatise on watercolor painting.

A larger version of William Orpen's "The Model," featuring Alfred Rich, is available here. Fans of Rich should check out his "Emmanuel College, Cambridge", "A Garden Near Hazelhurst", and "Lewes, Sussex"; as well as his works at the Tate and the British Museum. Fans of Orpen should check out his 1910 self-portrait; the portraits and self-portraits of him at the National Portrait Gallery; the collections of his works from the Telegraph, the Tate, and the National Gallery of Victoria; his official paintings from the First World War; and his letters to friend Beatrice Glenlavy. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.