Virago Secret Santa

Today is international Virago Secret Santa Day. Yesterday evening, members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group living in New Zealand and Australia started opening their packages. Today, the Christmas cheer spreads west across the globe. Last month, I sent a package off to Oxfordshire, and this morning I opened a package from my Secret Santa in Columbus, Ohio. The cornucopia of books includes two hardcovers of novels by Dorothy Canfield (The Bent Twig and Her Son's Wife), a Virago Modern Classic (Mary Lavin's The House on Clewe Street), and a beautiful Persephone Book from London (Edith Henrietta Fowler's The Young Pretenders). I am overwhelmed by my Secret Santa's generosity. Christmas has begun the best way possible—with books.

In the photograph above, you can see the lovely cover of the The House on Clewe Street (1945), with the characteristic Virago Modern Classics green. In the old days (the 1980s), Virago chose wonderful artworks for the covers of its books, and I find the painting on this cover especially appealing. The painting is William Orpen's The Mirror, painted in 1900, when the artist was a student at the Slade School in London. At the Slade, Orpen made a careful study of the Old Masters, and incorporated their influence (and some more recent influences) into his student work. Below are Orpen's The Mirror (now in the Tate, London), along with two paintings that directly influenced it.

William Orpen, The Mirror (1900)

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother (1871)

A close-up of the mirror in Orpen's painting reveals not only the artist at his easel, but also a chandelier much like the one in Van Eyck's painting. In Orpen's canvas, the model is Emily Scobel, a model employed by the Slade School, to whom Orpen was engaged. Interesting that Orpen should paint his fiancée into a canvas that makes reference to a famous wedding portrait and a famous portrait of a mother. Emily is in the position occupied both by Whistler's mother and by the pregnant woman in Van Eyck's painting; the folds of Emily's gray dress echo the folds of the green dress in the Van Eyck.

While he was engaged to Emily Scobel, Orpen met and fell in love with another woman, Grace Knewstub, whom he married. Orpen went on to become famous for his paintings of the Wester Front during World War I, which now hang in the Imperial War Museum, but he continued to paint portraits of "pretty girls." Emily Scobel, for example, can be seen in a different light in Orpen's The English Nude (1900), a canvas that the artist never sold and kept inhis private collection during his lifetime.

For more on Orpen, see "Painters I Should Have Known About: William Orpen" (part 4 of 4, with links to earlier parts).

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