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Walter Frederick Osborne 1859 – 1903

Photograph of a Flemish painting by the Irish artist Walter Osborne.

A Flemish Farmstead

Oil on board, 10 ½ x 6 ½ inches. Signed by the artist in monogram

Provenance: Private collection, Cork;
James Adam Saleroo
m, Dublin, 25 Sept. 1996, Lot 73 as A View in Brittany

Milmo-Penny Fine Art, Dublin;

Private collection, Dublin

Exhibited: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Autumn 1884, number 905

This farmyard scene relates to the group of paintings of 1882 which Osborne sent back from Holland, eleven of which were exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy the following year, just after Osborne had been elected an Associate Member. In his book, ‘Four Irish Landscape Painters’, Thomas Bodkin refers to this group of "eleven paintings of Belgian scenery, some of them being little more than sketches."

From his earliest days, Osborne was interested in painting farmyards such as this one. These scenes usually contain one or two figures. However, in this work, Osborne does no more than suggest that the farmyard is active by including the jacket that hangs on the open door and the clogs that stand against the wall. As we can see from the carefully drawn water jug, Osborne was a keen observer of detail. He has noticed that the clogs stand on end, perhaps to allow them to drain after a wet morning in the fields.

The earlier title, A View in Brittany, cannot be relied on. It is taken from an inscription on the mount which is not contemporary. The same inscription gives the artist's name as Walter F. Osborne, RHA. This would be correct if the painting was 1886 or later, which it clearly is not.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist Walter Osborne.

A Garden Party

Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches. Signed by the artist.

Provenance: Henry R. Kelly, by 1903;
Christie’s London, as Children and Rabbits;
Mr. & Mrs. Reginald Toms, late 1950s;
Sotheby’s. London, 2nd June, 1995, lot number 267 as Spoilt Pets
Exhibited: Royal Hibernian Academy, 1883, number 144, £21;
Royal Hibernian Academy, 1903, Memorial Exhibition, number 148

This painting was miscataloged by Sotheby’s, London, in 1995 as Spoilt Pets, a painting which was exhibited at the RHA in 1886. However, in a saleroom notice, we identified the painting as A Garden Party, first exhibited at the RHA in 1883.

In a contemporaneous article on the 1886 exhibition, an illustration of Spoiled Pets was printed in the Dublin University Review, which shows a dog and a doll, side by side on a garden bench, which clearly does not correspond to the present work. However, we identified the painting from a sketch in the National Gallery of Ireland, which shows only minor variations to the finished canvas. For example, the gable end of the thatched house beyond the farm buildings was altered in the final version. Other minor variations relate to the young boy. In the sketch, he points a finger towards the rabbits; wears a different hat; and has the face of a scarecrow. Osborne was more content with the drawing of the young girl whose costume and posture he faithfully reproduced. His inscription on the drawing records the title, the size as 24 x 20 inches, and the date as 1885. Both the size and the date are at variance with the finished painting. However, differences such as this occur elsewhere in his sketchbooks. For example, a similar observation is made below with reference to Suffolk Sands. It may be that he added these details some time after the sketches were made, which may explain the discrepancies.

All the indications are that this is an English painting. The boy’s boots, trousers, jacket, and hat may be compared to paintings such as A Shepherd and his Flock, and other work from the English villages where Osborne worked for a number of summer seasons in the mid-1880s. The girl’s straw hat, pleated blue skirt, and pinafore are also quintessentially English. Compare for example the costume worn by the girl in James Guthrie’s To Pastures New. The thatched buildings also suggest an English setting. This is an important observation because the painting places Osborne in England prior to the generally accepted date of 1884. However, the RHA records are clear, and the painting must date to 1883 or earlier. If this is correct, it may solve the problem of a small number of paintings, which do not fit in with Osborne’s work from France or Belgium in 1882 and 1883. It may be that he spent a short time working in the English countryside en route to the continent in these years.

Osborne’s best work from this period features children engaged in outdoor activity, and the feeding of animals was one of his favourite topics. One of the earliest of these paintings, The Morning Meal, 1879, shows a small boy feeding goats. His masterpiece from 1885, Feeding Chickens, continues the theme, and shows a young girl in a farm yard, feeding grain from a basket to a flock of chickens. It has been suggested that the same girl may have modelled for A Garden Party but the costume detail is slightly different, particularly in the frayed elbows and the pleating of the skirt. The painting is more loosely handled than Feeding Chickens, although this does not detract from the detail. It is difficult to know if the boy is engaged in feeding the rabbits, or simply offering his young sister food from his bowl. The latter suggestion may be the most likely as this would follow the theme of a garden party. The posture of the small girl suggests that she is feeding the rabbits with leaves, which she has taken from the straw basket, which sits on the ground beside her. It is interesting to note the positioning of the birch tree in the foreground, a device borrowed from the Glasgow School.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist Walter Osborne.

A New Arrival

Oil on canvas laid on board, 18 x 14 inches. Signed by the artist and dated 1885.

Provenance: Private collection, Dublin, early 1940s;
Sotheby’s, London, May 2000, lot 101

With the exception of the orientation of the objects on the table, and other minor details, this painting coincides line for line with a small ink drawing in the National Gallery of Ireland. Osborne recorded the title, the date 1885, and dimensions in his sketch book (no. 4, p.3); one of a collection presented to the Gallery by Sophie Mallin in 1984. He kept meticulous records in these sketchbooks of the exhibition venues for each painting. As he does not record a venue for A New Arrival, it is reasonable to suggest that the painting was sold directly from his studio to a patron. This is one of the few paintings by Osborne which is not included in Jeanne Sheehy’s comprehensive catalogue of 1974. The work does not appear to have been exhibited before and must be regarded as one of the most exciting discoveries of recent years.

The title refers to the tabby cat who is encouraged to drink milk from a saucer on the lap of the young girl. The theme of the painting recurs in other works of the period. Cupboard Love, for example, painted in the following year, shows a young boy eating at a table watched by a cat. In the wider group of works of the 1880s, which feature children and domestic pets, the animals are treated with great sensitivity by Osborne. This special skill was fostered by his father who was a fine animal painter.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Walter Osborne

On Suffolk Sands

Oil on canvas 10 x 12 inches
Signed by the artist on stretcher, W. Osborne
Inscribed on canvas verso Boy
& Donkey by Walter Osborne

Exhibited: Royal Hibernian Academy, 1887, number 300, £25;
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Autumn Exhibition, 1887, £20;
The Hunt Museum, Limerick, Shades of Light, June 2005

Literature: Walter F. Osborne RHA, Jeanne Sheehy, 1974, catalogue no. 164;
Southwold; An Earthly Paradise, Geoffrey C. Munn, Antique Collectors Club, 2006, illustrated p.202
Ref: Osborne Sketchbooks, pen and ink drawing dated 1886, National Gallery of Ireland, catalogue number 19,206

In 1883, Osborne moved from Antwerp to Brittany, where he worked until the following year, and painted his famous Apple Gathering, Quimperlé, now in the National Gallery of Ireland. He then moved to England where he painted with Nathaniel Hill and Augustus Burke at Walberswick, a small fishing village on the Suffolk coast. A small group of artists had settled there about 1875, led by Edwin Edwards and his wife Ruth, and Charles Keene. In those days, its very remoteness attracted a number of artists who found that accommodation was inexpensive and readily available. They had followed in the footsteps of Turner who explored the area in 1824, and recorded the coastal villages in his sketchbooks. By the time Osborne arrived, a small colony was well established, attracted by the special quality of the light, and the excellent subject matter. The equally quaint location of Southwold, on the opposite side of the harbour, was an added bonus. Osborne became friendly with Philip Wilson Steer who was working there at this time. Amongst the other visitors were George Clausen and Walter Sickert. Osborne continued to paint there over the following three seasons.

On Suffolk Sands is evocative of the earthly paradise described by Geoffrey Munn in his recent book. “Southwold is a nostalgic place where childhood memories are made from sunny holidays beside the sea, coloured beach huts lining the shore and the delicate pier straddling the waves of the North Sea. To some it is nothing short of Paradise – indeed it was Southwold that inspired William Morris to write his epic poem The Earthly Paradise.” The scene is set on the Walberswick side of Southwold harbour, and shows the River Blyth as it runs into to North Sea. A small boy sits on the sands beside his donkey. He wears a wide hat for protection from the sun as he gazes into the distance, waiting patiently for his next customer. His donkey is quite happy to remain motionless in the heat of the afternoon. At the far end of the beach, a mother watches over her children at play. The flagpole behind the huts is shrouded in a heat haze. Clouds drift in from the sea, their white edges mirrored in the breaking waves at the mouth of the estuary.

The lookout huts, which sit on the end of the wooden pier, built in 1752, are a local landmark. They feature in many paintings, most notably Osborne's Southwold Harbour, painted in 1884, which compares very closely with the present work in theme and detail, and A Tale of the Sea, which appeared in Sotheby’s Irish sale in 2008. One of Osborne’s best known works, An October Morning, was painted on Walberswick pier, and is now in the Guildhall collection, London. Walberswick, Early Morning, was well received when it appeared at the RHA in 1885, together with On the Sands, Southwold. There is a drawing of On Suffolk Sands in an Osborne sketchbook in the National Gallery, dated 1886. The size is given as 14 x 18 but variations such as this are not unusual. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in the following year.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Walter Osborne

Calves Grazing at Portmarnock

Oil on artist board laid on panel, 13 x 16 inches

Exhibited: Walter Osborne Memorial Exhibition, Royal Hibernian Academy 1903;
Milmo-Penny Fine Art, Dec. 2003

It is exactly one hundred years since this painting was last exhibited at the Memorial Exhibition of Walter Osborne, held at the Royal Hibernian Academy. The painting surfaced recently at a local auction rooms in London as part of a clearance from the house of an Irish family. Also included in the dispersal were two Malahide oils by Nathaniel Hone, both inscribed S. H. Purser, Mespil House, on Daniel Egan’s backboard labels. A cousin of Osborne’s, Sarah Purser was one of the main organisers of the Memorial Exhibition. It is unlikely that our painting was in her possession at the time of the Memorial. Her name does not appear in the catalogue as a lender although her family and friends appear extensively.

Jeanne Sheehy notes in her catalogue entries for the 1983 Osborne exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland that although Osborne hardly ever painted cattle in his earlier years in England, he painted them a great deal in the Irish phase of his career. This may have been due to the influence of his friend, Nathaniel Hone.

During these later years, Osborne used to take a summer cottage for six weeks every year in Malahide or Portmarnock, where he stayed with the Reilly family in their thatched cottage on Strand Road, just at the entrance to the golf links. Here, in 1902, he painted The House Builders ; the Reilly twins at a young age, playing with cards at their table. Here he was close to Hone and his friends, the Jamesons.

It is most likely that our painting dates from these years, probably in the early 1890’s. It has not been possible to tie the painting with any particular exhibit from the Memorial list although titles such as Sketch and Study from Nature obviously fit. The Trustees lent a number of these and it may be that Sarah Purser purchased our painting from the estate.

The Jamesons possessed a number of Osborne’s paintings for which he produced several sketches, most of which included cattle. Referring again to Sheehy, she observes that: “The existence of such studies is an indication that Osborne still prepared his pictures with great care, but there is much more directness and vigour in his later work. It is not that a move towards a more impressionist handling is necessarily better of itself, but that the later paintings have a directness and confidence that the earlier ones lacked. Osborne was by now a mature painter, sure of his medium, and of his responses.”

This long lost work appears to relate to this series. The grazing calves in the foreground form part of a zigzag line with a number of sheep, which leads the eye towards the buildings on the horizon. A related painting may be Landscape , which Jeanne Sheehy suggests was painted circa 1901, possibly showing farm buildings at Portmarnock. The current view appears to be taken from Portmarnock Point, looking northwest across the peninsula, which now forms Portmarnock Golf Links. Osborne would have set up his easel just behind the present 4 th tee box with his back to Howth. To the left on our horizon line is a glimpse of the estuary. Baldoyle is out of view, immediately to the left.

One of the buildings on the horizon line to the right might be the outhouse belonging to Maggie Leonard. Situated just behind the present first green, this was Portmarnock’s first clubhouse, replaced in 1897 by a timber structure with a corrugated roof, which stood on the site of the present car park. Another one of the buildings may be the Savage property. This stood on the first fairway of the new nine and was purchased by the club in 1952. The other buildings may be those of the McCanns and the Russells, two other families who farmed there and eked out a living from potatoes and rye. The present clubhouse is in the same line of view and from the Point could be mistaken for the buildings in our painting, nestling among the trees with identical shrubbery on the horizon. There is a glimpse of high ground in the distance, which is probably a view of Feltrim or Garristown. Fluidly painted in a turpentine wash, the lightness of the foreground portrays the sandy soil, which shows through the long grasses of the peninsula.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Walter Osborne


Oil on canvas, 10 ½ x 14 ½ inches. Signed by the artist verso

Inscribed by the artist Zaandam May 1901

Private collection, Dublin

Exhibited: Milmo-Penny Fine Art, June 1991

Working from exhibition records it appears that Osborne might have made at least four visits to this picturesque area of Holland. On the Canals, Amsterdam, was exhibited at the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in 1894 and the following year at the Royal Hibernian Academy. With its winding waterways and windmills, the area is rich in subject matter. The second visit is recorded by a watercolour, inscribed by Osborne, Zaandam, and dated 1895. This drawing is from the Osborne family collection and shows a landscape with windmills. The third trip is well documented. Osborne, together with his friend Walter Armstrong, travelled to Amsterdam in 1896, where he painted scenes along the canals. It is likely that on this visit he would have returned to Zaandam, situated just five miles to northwest. It may be that one of the works from this visit, At Zaandam, Holland, was exhibited the following year at The Water-Colour Society of Ireland. Our recently discovered oil, clearly dated 1901, records the fourth visit and it is likely that the 1901 Water-Colour Society exhibit, Near Zaandam, Holland, was painted on the same trip.

The handling of paint is very loose, a feature of Osborne’s work which became apparent as early as 1886 in his sketch Near Didcot. Part of the sky has been worked with a palette knife, an unusual technique for the artist. The handling of the windmills and small buildings on the horizon and the farm building to the right are reminiscent of his earlier work from around the English countryside. The limited palette is not unusual for an artist on a brief sketching trip abroad and shows what can be achieved with just a few colours. Bodkin, ‘Four Irish Landscape Painters’, made the following observations; "His landscapes in oil are, at times, perhaps too fluidly painted; and in some cases they show a tendency to crack. They never show a trace of underpainting nor of ill-considered arrangement. His manner of laying paint became broader and more free with each succeeding year - not less careful but more skilful."

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist Walter Osborne.

Portrait of a Lady Seated at a Writing Table

Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches

Provenance: Castletown House, 1966, lot 377;
De Veres, Dublin, 12th December 1995, lot 37;

Milmo-Penny Fine Art,
Private Collection, Dublin

From 1892 onwards, Osborne’s main output changed from landscape work to portraiture. His practice became so successful, he had to move to a large studio at St. Stephen’s Green in 1895.This is also the most likely date for our portrait. The fine dress worn by the sitter can be dated to the years between 1890 and 1895 when, in general, bodices were designed to fit closely around the neck. The sleeves show the fashionable kick-up at the shoulders. At this period, a considerable quantity of costly lace was worn, sometimes at the wrists or in the form of a frilled shirtfront attached to the corsage. The late Jeanne Sheehy was in agreement with this date. She compared the painting to Osborne's celebrated portrait of Mrs. Noel Guinness and her daughter Margaret, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland. She noted that “the treatment of the dress, flowers and furniture is very typical of Osborne’s portraits of the 1890’s". The detail, sheen and folds of the dress are well painted. The absence of background detail throws the sitter into focus. She is portrayed in a relaxed pose. The flower arrangement on the table mirrors the floral tapestry on the chair. The fallen rose reflected off the the polished table is a painterly touch worthy of note.

From the outset of his career, Osborne was a successful painter. During his first year at the schools of the Royal Hibernian Academy, he won a total of four prizes. This might suggest a training in the studio of his father during his early years in Rathmines. The highest student honour in Ireland at the time was the Taylor prize, which he won in 1881 and 1882 while he was studying at the Academy in Antwerp. Osborne spent the greater part of the following two years painting in Brittany where he developed a naturalist plein-air style. This was followed by extensive periods painting overseas, particularly in the English countryside, where he produced some of his best work. However, his base remained in Dublin. From the Castlewood Avenue studio, he portrayed life on the local streets and in the surrounding countryside and made occasional visits to paint in the West of Ireland. His style and choice of subject matter is wide ranging and never without interest.

NOTE: Due to the continuing proliferation of fake Osborne paintings on the market, we have decided to dedicate a forgery page to this matter. Aloysius O'Kelly, Nathaniel Hone, Augustus Burke, Letitia Hamilton, Paul Henry and a great many others are also regularly forged. Indeed, there is hardly an Irish artist of value who has escaped the attentions of the forgery trade. If you have information you would like us to include on our pages or if you have any reason to suspect the status of any work in your collection, please contact 'dominick at' for confidential advice.

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