Roses are everywhere at Carrick Hill. Huge beds of garden roses surround the house, and inside the rose motif is continued in paintings, ceiling patterns, china designs, tapestries and in carvings in the Tudor oak furniture. Roderic O'Conor's Roses (Fleurs) usually hangs in the entrance hall of the house where it greets visitors with a profusion of colour and vibrancy, as if the blooms of the garden have permeated inside.
Roses (Fleurs) encourages the viewer to see how colour and lines can create an exuberant yet harmonious mood. The lilac-white tablecloth and the brilliant golden-pink light of the background, with a variety of bold greens and favourite reds of all shades, make this painting a joyous explosion of colour. The emphasis on red and green, said by Van Gogh to express '. . . the terrible passions of humanity', creates a dramatic effect, the colours vying with each other in intensity.
The impression of solidity created by the use of some deeper colours is offset by the luminous tones of the soft background and lighter tablecloth, which surround the stunning red and green in the centre of the painting. There is a constant interplay of light and dark tones.
In this use of strong opposing colours, O'Conor moved away from the Pont-Aven synthetists' practice of using colours adjacent on the colour wheel.
However, the influence of French synthetism, which stressed repeated patterns of a consistent shape within a work, is shown in the simple, impressive forms of roses and leaves, arranged in a cylindrical vase. The pattern is repeated in the whirls of paint on the rounded tablecloth. There is no detail in the flowers, only an indication of shape and form.
The roses reach upward from the vase, their strong vigorous movements suggesting they are seeking sun and rain as the source of their energy and growth.
Roses (Fleurs), although probably painted after O'Conor's time at Pont-Aven, shows his characteristic use of strongly-drawn lines, indicating how long-lasting this influence was in. his work. In this case the stripes on the vase give depth and a tactile sculptural effect, without distracting attention from the sensual shapes of the roses.
As in many of his works, O'Conor leaves an empty space in the foreground, perhaps to suggest this is a 'slice of life', merely one part of a larger scene with a world of its own outside this painting.
The paintwork is dense and impasted, built up layer by layer, with some areas standing out in relief.
In painting this picture, was O'Conor recalling the scents and colours of the roses of his native Ireland, where they grow in such splendid profusion? Maybe he was expressing a nostalgic recollection of old friends and times gone by, as evoked by his fellow countryman Thomas Moore in 'The Scent of Roses', a song which would have been familiar to the painter:
Long, long be my heart with such memories fill'd!
Like the vase, in which roses have once been distill'd.
You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will,
But the scent of the roses will hang round it still.
Or was he recalling the exuberance of his heady days with the Pont-Aven group? Whatever the impulse, Roses (Fleurs) captures perfectly the brilliance of these glorious blooms, redolent of the fragrant warmth of a summer day.
Roderic Anthony O'Conor-the very name conjures up the royal Irish lineage from which he was descended.
It is intriguing that work by a descendant of the last two high-kings of Ireland, and whose mentor was the French painter Gauguin, should be part of the Hayward Bequest of British paintings in their English Tudor-style mansion in South Australia! At the time of O'Conor's birth in County Roscommon, Ireland, in 1860, his native land was still a reluctant part of the United Kingdom.
Although Ireland was the country of his birth, and where he received his classical education, it was in France that O'Conor flourished, finding both a vocation and a spiritual home.
Unlike most other artists of his generation, O'Conor had independent means, and Jonathon Benington records that he '. . . was under no pressure to make a living from his art; he parted with his pictures reluctantly, seldom exhibited more than 10 paintings in a year, and very rarely let anyone see his numerous works which had accumulated in his studio'.
His private income enabled him to be not only a friend but also a patron to other artists of the Pont-Aven school, providing them with the financial support of a generous purchaser, thus enabling him to collect works by Bernard, Gauguin, Filiger, Serusier and Slewinski.
He was the quintessential cultured gentleman, with paintings, books, music, and drawings filling his studio and his life. His absorbing interest in this multiplicity of artistic activities dissipated his energies and led him to an uneasy feeling that he never fully explored his creative potential in his paintings.
Clive Bell, who knew him well, said that the great event in O'Conor's life was his close friendship with Gauguin. In joining Gauguin at Pont-Aven in 1891, O'Conor was consciously seeking out links and associations in an area of France that had a longstanding, proud Celtic tradition. O'Conor and Gauguin both claimed royal descent, it was a bond between them.
The Pont-Aven school at that time (1890s) also included, among others, Emile Bernard, Paul Serusier, Maurice Denis, Jacob Meyer de Haan, Armand Seguin, Charles Laval, Jan Verkade, Charles Filiger, Maxime Maufra, and Louis Roy.
While several of these artists went on to develop their own (new) visions, Gauguin, the main driving force in the movement, '. . . taught and inspired the others to abandon academic restraints and to explore the theories of a new style, termed "Synthetism", characterized by flat forms, harmonious colours, rhythmic patterns'.
O'Conor's friendship and links with the Pont-Aven artists gradually diminished in the early 1900s, when he began to spend more time in Paris with British writers, painters, and intellectuals including Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Somerset Maugham, and Matthew Smith. His change of location also saw a change of subject matter for O'Conor; he turned away from the landscapes and seascapes of his Pont-Aven days to concentrate more on nudes and still lifes. It is possible that Roses (Fleurs) may date from this later period.
Matthew Smith, who met O'Conor in 1919, always regarded the meeting as a great turning point in his life. It was from O'Conor that Smith learned a great deal about the radiance of light in landscapes, which he was to develop further in his vibrant pictures of Cornwall and France. In Landscape Near Cagnes, c 1935, which is also part of the Hayward Bequest of British paintings at Carrick Hill, the influence of O'Conor is shown in the bright, verdant greens contrasting so vividly against the dark sky. And in the other work by Smith at Carrick Hill, Nude with Pearl Necklace, c 1930, the strong colours and thickly-applied paint invite comparisons with Roses (Fleurs).
Although he was a member of the Pont-A ven school, O'Conor was, until recently, regarded as a secondary figure in exhibitions devoted to Gauguin and the group. This may have been because he was the only representative of the English-speaking world in the group. Or perhaps O'Conor's Irish sentimentality was at the root of his tendency to soften lines, to create the emotions of tenderness which mark his work as different from, and weaker, when compared with the overpowering vitality of Gauguin's work.
O'Conor, with Seguin, was to have accompanied Gauguin on his second journey to Tahiti, but this did not eventuate. We shall never know whether O'Conor might have found in Tahiti the catalyst to allow him to develop his undoubted potential as a painter.
Clive Bell described him as " . . highly intelligent and well educated. . . a tragic figure. . . though he kept his tragedy to himself. Conscious of gifts. . . perhaps great gifts. . . he was conscious too that he lacked the power of expression'.
Somerset Maugham is said to have based the painter Clutton in Of human bondage on O'Conor, giving a portrait of a character constantly dissatisfied with his work, apprehensive of criticism, and disinclined to compete with his fellow artists.
O'Conor's works became better known when, in 1956, a substantial number was acquired by the London dealers, Roland, Browse and Delbanco from the atelier sale in Paris, following the death of his wife. Because of O'Conor's private nature and his reluctance to either exhibit or sell his paintings, the vast body of his work is undated and untitled, produced only for himself and friends.
Roses (Fleurs), on its reverse, bears a Roland, Browse and ODelbanco label, making it probable that this painting was part of the 1956 atelier sale.
With their great love of flowers and flower paintings, Ursula and Edward Hayward would have seen Roses (Fleurs) as an appropriate addition to their collection of paintings on a floral theme by others including Spencer, Thornton, Fantin-Latour and Redoute.
Roses (Fleurs), the work of a gifted cultivated Irishman, who chose to live and work in France, helps to bridge the gap between the British and French works in the Hayward collection.