Art in Focus: Walter Frederick Osborne – Violet Stockley with Rabbit

Osborne’s painting of his niece demonstrates his understated though impressive skills

Portrait of Violet Stockley with Rabbit (oil on canvas, c1900) by Walter Frederick Osborne. Private collection, courtesy of the Gorry Gallery

Portrait of Violet Stockley with Rabbit (oil on canvas, c1900) by Walter Frederick Osborne. Private collection, courtesy of the Gorry Gallery

 

What is it? 
Portrait of Violet Stockley with Rabbit is a study of Walter Frederick Osborne’s niece Violet. It is rendered in the artist’s characteristically relaxed, easy and very assured manner, although there is definitely a touch of formality in Violet’s attire. Osborne painted several pictures featuring children with animals – perhaps a nod to his father’s occupation as an animal painter.

It’s been suggested that he was looking to Dutch and perhaps Spanish painting as references here. He’d visited Holland with Walter Armstrong, a good friend and at the time director of the National Gallery of Ireland, in 1896, to study the work of Hals and Rembrandt, and Spain the year before to look at Velazquez. In Violet’s portrait, he skilfully plays on the tonal contrasts, and the close connections between flesh tones and whites. One can see why he was acclaimed as a portrait painter.

How was it done? 
Violet was a frequent sitter for Osborne. When Osborne’s sister, also Violet, died during childbirth in the early 1890s, her new-born daughter was sent to live with her grandparents at the family home in Castlewood Avenue, Rathmines, Dublin. This sequence of events may have prompted Osborne to return home himself.

Where can I see it? 
Violet Stockley with Rabbit is included in Lavery & Osborne: Observing Life, at the Hunt Museum (The Custom House, Limerick, until September 30th, huntmuseum.com, admission €10 plus concessions, under-16s free).

A symposium takes place on June 8th, details online at huntmuseum.com/events/symposium.

The exhibition imaginatively pairs two popular Irish artists, Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) and Walter Frederick Osborne (1859-1903). Their paths diverged greatly, and Lavery lived much longer, but for a time they were parallel presences in Irish art. Many works from private collections are on public view for the first time.

Is it a typical work by the artist? 
The element of formality is a little unusual, but the unmistakable warmth and the relaxed manner, not to mention Osborne’s natural fluency are typical. He was an extremely capable artist and there is no doubt that his premature death, from pneumonia, when he was only 43, robbed Irish painting of one of its brightest talents.  

Because Osborne’s father was a painter, it is very likely that he had some studio experience before going on to study at the RHA Schools and possibly the Metropolitan School of Art. A scholarship brought him to Antwerp, and he later travelled to Brittany, staying and working in plein-air locations popular with artists from many countries. Early on, it appeared that Osborne might settle for being a skilled but rather staid genre painter serving a fairly conservative market, but he assimilated the lessons of painting outdoors and had the ability to pursue other possibilities.  

After France he spent time and worked a great deal in England, while maintaining a profile in Ireland. Once back in Dublin, he became a great painter of the city. His West of Ireland paintings were rather critically received but Julian Campbell’s 2004 study makes a good case for them. Osborne’s genuine ease with domestic scenes – gardens and interiors – is notable.

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