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'The Young Duke', 1888, by William Quiller Orchardson (1832-1910)


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About the artwork

'The Young Duke' is an imaginary scene where a duke is being toasted at his coming of age feast. The clothes and décor are set in around 1710 in France and are according to Orchardson's wife taken from the artist's own collection of props, tapestries and furniture and the setting was his studio. The silver nef on the table (the ship-shaped item used for collecting alms for the church which sanctified the feast) was based on a smaller one lent by Henry Gilbey and Arthur Gilbey posed for the part of the Duke. Orchardson has taken great care to include detailed elements. He was particularly praised at the time for his bowl of roses in the foreground. Although this particular painting has a given subject, the narrative of the painting does not seem to be very important. As with some of Orchardson's later works, there is a strong concern with the decorative and the rendering of light, colour and atmosphere seem to take precedence, rather like in the semi-abstract 'arrangement' paintings of his admirer Whistler.

There is a slight moralist undertone in 'The Young Duke' that would have appealed to the Victorians. The decadent interior and gluttonous feasting is contrasted by the slightly drunken appearance of the feasters and the vacant expression of the duke. Yet the overall impression is pleasing to the eye. It is the way that he has painted the details - the roses, the tapestries, the highlights on the silverware, that keep the viewer looking beyond their appreciation of the story.

There are several studies for the painting in the sketch books at the Royal Academy, and one of these has "The king sleeps" inscribed on it, suggesting that Orchardson's title of 'The Young Duke' was a last minute alteration, another indication that the artist was most occupied with the painting of the interior, period detail and tonal and colour harmonies, rather than the narrative.

When 'The Young Duke' was first exhibited at the Royal Academy the hanging committee Samuel Luke Fildes (1844 - 1927) and Marcus Stone (1840 - 1921) gave it the central position in Gallery III - the 'Big Room', displacing the favourite of the time Frederic Lord Leighton (1830 - 1896). When Orchardson queried his painting being hung in the best place in the exhibition, Fildes and Stone scolded him for having painted such a fine picture.

William Quiller Orchardson was born in Edinburgh on 27 March 1832. His father Abram Orchardson was a tailor of Highland descent and his mother Elizabeth Quiller was Austrian. He showed a talent for drawing at an early age and his parents enrolled him at the Trustees' Academy classes in Edinburgh in 1845 (now the Royal Scottish Academy), where he studied for ten years.

In 1852 Robert Scott Lauder (1803 - 1869) was appointed Head Master and Director of the Antique, Life, and Colour classes and his influence was immense upon Orchardson as he changed the emphasis in teaching from drawing to that of paint and colour. This is evident in Orchardson's freer use of paint, the brightening of his colour palette and balancing of tone, as opposed to the natural earth shades and chiaroscuro that he had been painting in the vein of his Scottish predecessor David Wilkie (1785 - 1841).

In 1862 Orchardson moved to London and quickly made a huge impact on the London art scene and the Royal Academy. Orchardson's subject matter changed from Scottish scenes of historical everyday life, to literary themes from writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He became famous for his portraits and period or contemporary set-pieces and shied away from landscape painting in favour of working from his studio.

Orchardson almost always chose his own subjects and became increasingly preoccupied with depicting moments of psychological drama. He combined this with luxurious settings, seeming to alternate between historical and contemporary scenes in the 1880s and 1890s. His compositions are spacious and elegant with careful placing of figure and furniture. This was much in contrast to the crowded compositions that many of his English contemporaries were creating. Orchardson's wife wrote that he was extremely concerned with historical accuracy and he would spend months researching a subject, - usually at the Victoria and Albert Museum - before painting it. She also read aloud books of the time period he was working on as he painted.

He developed his own unique style with a very thin application of paint in warm earthy shades on to a dry white ground that gives an overall yellow tone and slight scratchy finish to his paintings; qualities which he was sometimes criticised for. He worked very carefully but with a quick application of the paint. The French critic Ernest Cheshau compared Orchardson's colour to 'the back of an old tapestry'.

Orchardson's subjects were undemanding and their anecdotal elements were popular. He became more successful than any of his Scottish predecessors both in Britain and in France. He was nominated for the Royal Academy presidency in 1896 and became a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur and later knighted. He was even commissioned to paint the Queen. His work was admired by the Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834 - 1917). The American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) even took it upon himself to raise Orchardson's profile in England. Unlike some of his contemporaries Orchardson rarely took commissions but sold his works well at the Royal Academy shows mainly to middle class men who had made their money through industry. It is the anecdotal quality of Orchardson's subject matter that has diminished his reputation in the twentieth century. His profile has never been what it was during his lifetime.

'The Young Duke' was bought by Lever from Eugene Cremetti (or Thomas McLean) in 1916.

You can also see Orchardson's acclaimed 'St. Helena 1816: Napoleon dictating to Count Las Cases the Account of his Campaigns', 1892, in the Napoleon Room at the Lady Lever Art Gallery