Osborne, Walter Frederick (1859–1903), painter, was born 17 June 1859 on Cornish Terrace, Castlewood Avenue, Rathmines, Co. Dublin, second child and younger son among two sons and one daughter of William Osborne (qv), a fashionable animal painter, and Anne Jane Osborne (née Woods; d. 1910), from O'Brien's Bridge, Co. Clare. After early education (1870–75) at the Rathmines School of the Rev. Charles William Benson (qv), he studied art at the RHA schools (1876–81), and also attended classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. He won numerous prizes, including the £20 Albert prize, the top award in the RHA schools, in 1880, for ‘A glade in the Phoenix Park’; the same picture also won the £50 scholarship in the Taylor art competition of the RDS (1881), the largest award then available to art students in Ireland. The following year he again won the £50 Taylor scholarship for ‘The tempting bait’ (1882), a genre interior depicting a boy and his terrier, painted in earthy tones, with a feel for textures in the incidental still life.
Antwerp and Brittany Heeding the recommendation of the Taylor judges that he continue his studies at an overseas art school, Osborne entered the Antwerp royal academy of fine arts (1881–3). There, under his principal teacher, Charles Verlat (1824–90), he was immersed in the French and Flemish realist traditions. During a year in Brittany (1883–4), where he worked in Dinan, Pont-Aven, and Quimperlé, he associated with several young British artists who were soon to become leading members of the Newlyn school, and was influenced by the French naturalist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–84), whose creed insisted on exact representation of nature as seen out of doors, painted on the spot in an even grey light that changed little while the artist worked. Typical of his early work are ‘Beneath St Jacques, Antwerp’ (1882), which exhibits the tight handling and meticulous detail instilled by Verlat (every cobble, brick, and tile of the courtyard scene is separately handled), and ‘Apple gathering, Quimperlé’ (1883) (NGI), in which the muted blues and greens of his Lepagist palette are inflected by the white caps of two girls in traditional Breton costume. Throughout his career Osborne's oeuvre included formal, carefully prepared and finished studio pieces such as these, as well as informal sketches and studies, drawn from life as preparatory work or for their own sake, and handled with much greater freedom, looseness, and spontaneity. An early example of the latter is ‘Moderke Verhoft’ (c.1882) (NGI), a small oil-on-panel study of an old Flemish woman peeling potatoes.
English plein air period For eight years Osborne based himself in his parents’ home at 5 Castlewood Avenue, Rathmines, while spending lengthy periods on rural painting expeditions in England, executing village and country scenes (1884–91). Usually accompanied by fellow artists, such as the Drogheda-born Nathaniel Hill (1860–1930) and the Englishman Edward Stott, he lived frugally, lodging in village inns or as a paying guest in farmhouses. Generally he would winter in Dublin, ‘after sheer cold drove him to shelter like some creature of the fields’ (Sheehy (1983), 22), in the words of his friend Stephen Gwynn (qv), whose portrait he painted (1885). After working at first in Worcestershire, Lincolnshire, and on the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts, from 1887 he gravitated to Hampshire, Berkshire, and Oxfordshire, especially in the country to the north and south of the Berkshire downs. In the early 1890s he returned to seaside locations, on the channel coast near Hastings and Rye.
Throughout this period, Osborne worked in the English naturalist plein air style, concentrating on rustic genre scenes, and occasional pure landscapes. While generally painting in muted tones and even light, and frequently practising the square-brush technique associated with Bastien-Lepage, he departed (as did many English plein-airistes) from strict Lepagist principle by choosing not to work exclusively in front of his outdoors subject, but rather, producing finished works in the studio built up from preparatory sketches made from life. Throughout his career he indulged an abiding obsession with depicting children and animals; even when not his dominant subjects, they usually appear as incidental elements. Another persistent characteristic is the careful attention to composition, even his informal sketches being built on solid geometric structures.
Children feature prominently in ‘The poachers’ (1885) – typical of the plein air school for its peasant subject realistically but sentimentally treated – and in ‘The lock gates’ (c.1888). Another anecdotal genre subject, ‘The ferry’ (1890), won a bronze medal at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). Osborne executed numerous works depicting agricultural labour, such as herding, ploughing, and harvesting, and a series of small, vivid, oil-on-board studies on the theme of a sheepfold. The masterpiece of his English period is ‘An October morning’ (alternatively titled ‘October by the sea’) (1885), an astutely observed depiction of the beach and pier at Walberswick, Suffolk, with children and incidental seaside still life. Of particular interest in this work, and a departure from plein-air convention, is the pointillist technique of paint application on a section of the canvas: dots of pure colour set on the muddy beige of the beach. Exhibited widely, the painting was purchased after Osborne's death by a group of British painters, and presented to the city of London as a memorial to the artist; it is now in the Barbican collection. Osborne also departed from plein-airisme by occasional experimentation with lighting effects. A remarkable example is ‘Punch and Judy on the sands’ (alternatively titled ‘A view of Hastings’) (1891) (NGI), in which the chief interest is not the anecdotal element to which the title alludes, relegated to the bottom right corner of the picture space, but the dramatic play of sunlight on the buildings of the background.
During his winters in Ireland, he painted in and around Dublin city. One of his most familiar images, ‘Near St Patrick's Close, an old Dublin street’ (1887) (NGI), effectively evokes the atmosphere of a smoky, wintry city street. The work incorporates a compositional device frequently employed by Osborne in his studio paintings, of cutting a figure in half (in this instance, the boy in the foreground playing a tin whistle), thereby achieving an impression of spontaneity. Both this work, and ‘Cherry ripe’ (alternatively titled ‘Street scene at sunset’) (1889) (Ulster Museum), are built around a compositional layout characteristic of Osborne's townscapes: a street bounded by tall houses receding straight into the picture space, and filled with scattered figure groups. He achieves the same effect in ‘Hastings railway station’, in which the station platform performs the compositional function of the receding street, being flanked on one side by the station arcade, and on the other by the carriages of a waiting train. An accomplished example of Osborne's informal studies of this period is ‘Landscape with crows’ (c.1888) (DCGHL), exhibiting great skill with colour and tone in the handling of space, thus capturing a pastoral landscape with the barest essentials.
Irish period In the early 1890s family responsibilities induced Osborne to cease making his excursions to England, and to work entirely in Ireland. On the death in childbirth in 1893 of his sister Violet (who had married William Stockley (qv), and moved with him to Canada), her infant daughter Violet joined the Osborne household in Rathmines. His brother Charles living away as a clergyman in England, Osborne assumed the primary emotional and financial responsibilities over an ageing father, a mother going blind, and a small child. From 1895 he had a studio at 7 St Stephen's Green. He painted in Dublin streets and parks, finding a rich lode for urban genre scenes in the old market area around Christ Church and St Patrick's cathedrals. ‘Life in the streets, musicians’ (alternatively titled ‘Fishmarket, Patrick Street, Dublin’ (1893) (DCGHL) incorporates an interesting combination of techniques in the application of paint within a formal studio piece: a subtle building up of colours and tones in the background, and a heavy encrustation of colour on the fish stall in the foreground. ‘Life in the streets, hard times’ (1892) (Tate gallery, London), a pastel drawing, was purchased by the prestigious Chantrey Bequest for the British nation. One of Osborne's greatest achievements, ‘In a Dublin park: light and shade’ (1895) (NGI), is at once a five-figured genre scene, an allegory on the stages of life from infancy to old age, and a masterful painterly handling of the effects of light on form.
During summers from the late 1890s Osborne rented cottages at Malahide or Portmarnock, and painted the villages, fields, farms, and coasts of north Co. Dublin. Though he made several trips to Galway city and Connemara, his temper was better suited to the gentler land and seascapes of eastern Ireland than to the dramatic scenery of the west. His most successful west-of-Ireland paintings are informal genre scenes, such as the striking oil sketches of the Galway fish market (1892) – the figures merely suggested by blobs and splashes of colour – and of a Galway horse fair (1893), an economic composition with a bare foreground, and a frieze of men and horses painted near the top of the picture plane.
Portraiture Heretofore, Osborne had confined portraiture to informal paintings of family and friends. During the 1890s, in seeking to allay his newly assumed financial burdens with more lucrative sources of income, he established himself as Ireland's most fashionable portraitist. He specialised in painting Dublin society women, idly posed and sumptuously dressed, and in combined mother-and-child portraits. It has been said that, much as his father had been hired to paint portraits of gentlemen's horses and hounds, so Walter was hired to paint their wives and progeny. In ‘Mrs Andrew Jameson and her daughter Violet’ (1896), the mother sits severely at the piano while the daughter stands stiffly alongside playing the violin; the picture was caricatured in Punch as ‘The torture chamber’ (indeed, the child's shoes were nailed to the studio floor, that she might better keep the same pose from one sitting to the next). His most celebrated commissioned portrait was ‘Mrs Noel Guinness and her daughter Margaret’ (1898), remarkable for the lady's casual pose reclined on a settee, and the luscious handling of her cascading satin dress. Reproduced in a widely circulated RA souvenir catalogue, and awarded a bronze medal at the Paris universal exposition (1900), the work determined Osborne's reputation as a portraitist, leading to a profitable burgeoning of commissions.
Osborne painted formal portraits of public men, from such fields as academia, law, medicine, and the church, many of which were presentation pieces. Perhaps his foremost achievement in the portrait genre, however, is the informal treatment of his friend and fellow painter J. B. S. MacIlwaine (qv), seated in his garden with his dog (1892) (NGI). More a genre study in lighting effects than portraiture, the work is remarkable for the free brushwork, and for the softening of the strong, triangular composition by the fragmentation of the forms by sunlight filtering through trees.
Impressionist influences Osborne travelled with Walter Armstrong (qv), art critic and director of the NGI, to France and Spain (1895), and to Holland (1896). His attraction to Spanish art, especially that of Velázquez (on whom Armstrong was expert), deeply influenced his late style. His fine semiformal portrait of Armstrong (1896) (NGI), standing with smoking cigar and turning casually to face the viewer, owes much to the Spanish master. Osborne in his final period has been incorrectly designated an impressionist painter. Rather, under the influence of both Velázquez and French impressionism – the latter largely assimilated indirectly through the example of Nathaniel Hone (qv) and the school of English impressionists – he developed a more painterly approach, grafting certain impressionist techniques and concerns on to his own method and style. Thus he utilised bolder, more vigorous brushstrokes, and a brighter palette, juxtaposing clearly defined patches of tone and colour. He relied less on literary and anecdotal subjects, and indulged more adventurously a long-standing interest in light. He differed from impressionism in several critical respects: he mixed his colours on the palette, he included darker tones theoretically banished by impressionism, and he remained a more meticulous draughtsman than most impressionists, underlying his painterly surfaces with careful drawing. Above all, he continued to finish many of his pictures in the studio, thereby violating one of impressionism's cardinal (if often unobserved) rules, of completing a picture in a single sitting before the motif. After rapidly sketching in the open air, he worked the resultant images into formal studio compositions, thus contriving a personal compromise among the dictates of his academic training, plein-airisme, and impressionism.
A favourite theme was to capture the effect of dappled light playing on forms through a canopy of trees, as in ‘Tea in the garden’ (1902) (DCGHL). In ‘The lustre jug’ (1901) (NGI) the light through a window is rendered in vivid touches of iridescent colour, employing a variety of hues in both the lit and shaded areas. In another interior, ‘The children's party’ (c.1900), the light glows warmly from Chinese lanterns in a darkened room. Two of his finest interiors (both in the NGI) are watercolours: ‘The doll's school’ (1900) and ‘The house builders’ (1902), the latter depicting two girls at a table making houses of playing cards. Noteworthy among his late informal exteriors are Dublin streetscapes with few figures or none (‘The Four Courts, Dublin’ (c.1901) (NGI) being an example); village streetscapes at night done in Rush and Lusk, light spilling from open doors and windows; and some seascapes reduced to near abstraction.
Affiliations Throughout his career Osborne was attentive to the commercial aspects of his craft, exhibiting prolifically in both Dublin and London, and to a lesser degree in provincial Irish and English locations (especially Liverpool and Birmingham). From 1877, when he was 18, until his death he exhibited annually at the RHA, never missing a year, and averaging six pictures annually. Elected an RHA associate in 1883, he became RHA in 1886, and was active on committees and deputations. In London he exhibited annually at the RA (1886–1903), forty-six works in total, of which over one-half were portraits. Besides such official associations, he joined the progressive New English Art Club in its second year (1887), but thereafter engaged with it erratically, his membership lapsing after 1890 when control of the club passed from the plein air group to the English impressionists. As his own evolving style became compatible with the latter school, in 1899 he resumed exhibiting with the club. From 1884 he exhibited in London with the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours, of which he became a member (1891–1901). A regular and studious visitor to London galleries and exhibitions, he made copious notes and sketches in catalogues, many of which survive.
Briefly a member of the Dublin Sketching Club (1884–5), at their special loan exhibition of 1884 he first became acquainted with the works of Whistler, a formative experience. A founding member of the Dublin Art Club (1886), on its merger with the Instrumental Music Club to become the Dublin Arts Club (1892) he became honorary secretary of the art section, and was active until the club's demise (1895). Exhibiting with the club annually, often showing the maximum twelve pictures, he thus played a major role in introducing to Dublin the influence of British and European plein-airisme.
Osborne taught at the RHA schools from the early 1890s until his death; a sympathetic instructor, he was venerated by his students, who included William Leech (qv) and Estella Solomons (qv). He served on the executive committees of the first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland (1895) and of the ‘Modern paintings’ exhibition, Dublin (1899), and from 1892 was a judge in the Taylor art competitions. In 1900 he declined a knighthood. Appointed to the honorary committee of the 1902 RHA winter exhibition, the first organised by Hugh Lane (qv), he controversially resigned along with Walter Strickland (qv) owing to disagreements with Lane over certain of the attributions.
Tall and robust, Osborne was an avid cyclist. A keen and highly skilled cricketer, he was reputed to have been a left-hand bowler of professional standard. While taking great care over his clothes when in town and invariably dapper in appearance, he dressed casually when in the country. Esteemed for his agreeable personality and sweetness of temper, he enjoyed a wide acquaintance, chiefly among fellow artists, writers, and art connoisseurs, but also embracing people of rank and fashion. While friendly with individuals in literary and political movements, he had no interest in politics, owing largely to an absolute indifference to anything outside painting. Though he never married, his name was linked to several women, especially Grace Orpen, sister of William Orpen (qv); his intention to propose marriage at a picnic he gave after her holiday to Norway was thwarted when she returned engaged to a fellow traveller (1896).
Death and legacy Cycling about town inadequately dressed in wretched Eastertide weather, Osborne fell seriously ill and died within several days of double pneumonia on 24 April 1903. He was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Harold's Cross. Thought during his latter years to be Ireland's leading living artist, and developing a growing reputation abroad, he has been judged by posterity as Ireland's foremost resident late-nineteenth-century painter. The RHA held a large memorial exhibition of over 270 works (winter 1903–4), and Hugh Lane included fourteen Osbornes in his 1904 exhibition of Irish painters in the London Guildhall. A major retrospective exhibition, of some 100 key paintings, watercolours, and sketches, selected and catalogued by Jeanne Sheehy (qv) (whose 1974 biography revived critical interest in Osborne after a period of neglect), was held at the NGI (1983) and the Ulster Museum (1984). Both the DCGHL and NGI have strong collections of his work, the latter including many drawings, some in annotated sketchbooks.