"Sad stories, chanced in the times of old" - Victorian Problem Pictures and the Paintings of Sir William Quiller Orchardson

13 April 1910, the Scottish portraitist and painter of domestic and historical genre scenes Sir William Quiller Orchardson died at the age of 78 in London.

“I'll to thy closet; and go read with thee Sad stories, chanced in the times of old.“

(William Shakespeare)

Outsmarting the Duc de Rohan in argument: Sir William Quiller Orchardson's "Voltaire",
arguably the high watermark of his art (1883)

When Sir William, just recently knighted, was about to be gathered unto his Urquhart ancestors and Edwardian society strolled very well dressed, very well mannered and quite blasé towards the first major catastrophe of the 20th century, yet another revolution took place. Upheavals in the art world are thankfully not quite as gory as those fought out at bayonet point on the barricades, but the farewell to narrative painting in favour of perception, form and colour marked the end of a tradition of imagery that might date back to the dawn of time when the first Neolithic artists painted hunting scenes on cave walls. Portrait painting, still-lifes and Realism’s take on actuality aside, but not too far, pictures almost always narrated or illustrated tales and captivated the artist’s interpretation of events on the canvas, along with a boatload of zeitgeisty metaphors and symbols. In the hierarchy of genres, history painting accordingly ranked tops while the petit genre, aspects of everyday life, classed somewhere in the middle and still-lifes found themselves at the bottom of the list, at least until the end of the 19th century. But the Dutch masters already had expressed their way of life, partialities and sensitivities as so-called genre art that was admired and emulated across Europe and during the 18th century Hogarth and others added a distinct moral finger-wagging that became characteristic for the Victorian petit genre that wasn’t petit at all. In fact, the painted sententious and morally uplifting middle-class narrative became immensely popular and rivalled the mythological nudes of Academic Art and patriotic blood and thunder scenes of heroics on the battlefields of Victoria’s Little Wars. The demand for story-telling artworks grew considerably towards the end of the century and climaxed in the so-called “problem pictures”, a form of genre painting that usually depicted an every-day scene in a way that left the viewer with several possible guesses about the outcome. The Victorians loved it and some pieces were even publicly debated with newspapers publishing their sleuthing readers’ opinions about the story so cleverly depicted by Egg, Herkomer or Yeames, all forgotten today like the whole genre. Some hybrid forms of history, genre, costume and problem paintings existed and a master of these was the equally forgotten Sir William Quiller Orchardson, a true child of his own time and full of pictorial narratives.

Problem picture in Regency guise: Sir William Quiller Orchardson's "Hard Hit" (1879) *

did never excel. Neither in a flamboyant artist lifestyle, son of parsimonious Scots that he was, nor in risqué sujets, colours or even groundbreaking approaches on art. He was a very decent draughtsman whose only great diligence lay in crafting elaborate preliminary sketches of his paintings and otherwise of wonderful mediocrity, bland in museum’s and archive’s browns and tans. In a sharp contrast to the brilliant, bright and opaque colours of the Pre-Raphaelites, the horror vacui displayed in their crowded arrangements and their often highly detailed backdrops, Orchardson’s approach on a setting was sketchy, with the drama evolving in the empty spaces between his dramatis personae, often nebulously light and cloudy as a Watteau and no wonder the French liked him as much as the British while Whistler himself appreciated once the dissolution of lines in his somewhat vague backgrounds. And with all unassuming mediocrity, Orchardson had a subtle hand in depicting characters and characteristics, domestic drama, more often than not his contribution to the “problem picture” genre, and an eye for perfectly arranged decay and the beauty of the bygone, winking with a whiff of irony when he depicted the spectre of yesteryear, Napoleon. Soppy, when the mood took him, Orchardson catered for the always present Victorian sentimentality with pieces such as “The Farmer’s Daughter”, showing the probably most un-rustic country miss of 19th century art or the technically brilliant, tear-jerkingly heart-warming “Master Baby”, was a notable portraitist as well, but his great strength as a remarkable storyteller of inconsequential picturesque anecdotes remains almost unchallenged. And was duly forgotten, when art demanded stories no longer and Orchardson’s paintings, by and large, represented was art was not supposed to be.

Worlds separate Cpt Maitland and his officers on the British ship of the line's 45' wide quarterdeck from Napoleon after his final surrender. Sir William Quiller Orchardson: "Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon" (1880)

* "A fashionable youth has been rooked by a trio of scoundrels, and, full of resentment which his good breeding will not allow him openly to show, is about to take his departure. His hand is on the door-handle, and as he turns it he is almost moved to tell the precious rascals who have relieved him of his fortune a few home truths. But he will not do so. The unhappy youngster probably reflects that he was unequally matched against heavy odds - callous old age, calculating middle age, and the precocious vanity of youth - and that it would be to waste words to bandy them with these scoundrels. It is a dramatic work and admirably told." (James Stanley Little, The Life and Work of William Q. Orchardson, 1897)

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