2018-05-30-2019-01-23 --- 2019-01-23 01:29:29--18
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LOT :32
Walter Frederick Osborne RHA ROI (1859-1903)
Counting the Flock (c.1885/86)
Oil on board, 33 x 40cm (13 x 15¾'')
Estimate EUR : €100,000.00 - €150,000.00
Auction Date : 30-05-2018


Walter Frederick Osborne RHA ROI (1859-1903)
Counting the Flock (c.1885/86)
Oil on board, 33 x 40cm (13 x 15¾'')

Provenance: Given by the artist to Sarah Purser; by descent; Irish Sale, Christies, 19th May 2000, Lot 212 (mis-titled); Irish Sale, Christies, London, 15th May 2003, Lot 37 (mis-titled) where purchased by the current owner.

Exhibited: Probably exhibited Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy, 1886, No.161, £20; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Autumn Exhibition 1886, No.219, £15.

Literature: Thomas Bodkin, Four Irish Landscape Painters, Dublin and London 1920, Appendix XI, p.119; Jeanne Sheehy, Walter Osborne, Ballycotton, 1974 , Catalogue No.138, page 120.

A shepherd stands watching over his flock of sheep, at the edge of a flat landscape which stretches into the distance, beneath a magnificent sky of rolling clouds. The man wears a tall felt hat and a white coat. His hand rests a stick on the ground, and there is another staff crooked under his left arm. A faithful black dog with a collar sits upright at his heels, watching over the flock of black-faced sheep and waiting for his masters orders. The sheep are calm, some facing the shepherd or resting on the grass, while the majority of them are grazing. Being the son of animal painter William Osborne, the younger Osborne had a real understanding of animals and he observes the dog and sheep skilfully. The shepherds coat being the same off-white as the sheep, he is nearly one with his flock, creating a tranquil mood to the picture.

He is standing in the left foreground, viewed from behind, inviting the viewer to look into the landscape. To the left, a shepherds or farm workers hut with wheels can be seen in the middle distance. A flight of seagulls rises into the air, suggesting some agricultural activity behind. The grassy plain stretches back to the horizon, where to the left there may be low buildings and to the right low hills. Yet, in contrast to the calm of the pastoral scene, much of the composition is dominated by the lively sky above. Like his fellow Irish landscapist, Nathaniel Hone, Osborne was fascinated by cloudscapes and changing skies. Here, clouds appear beyond the horizon and roll towards us, their upper parts white, their lower edges a pale pinkish-grey, with areas of a cheerful duck-egg blue sky above them, creating a summery mood.

In the foreground, Osborne employs more subdued tones: light moss greens and browns, duns and off-whites, but a sprinkling of red flowers, perhaps poppies, provide joyous points of colour.

Counting the Flock may be set in Hampshire or Berkshire, where Osborne was working c.1886. After he had studied in Dublin and Antwerp, and painted in Brittany, Osborne felt the need to live abroad further, and he spent much of the period 1884 to c.1891 in England, enjoying staying in small towns and villages with fellow painters, valuing an independence from his family and painting rural subjects and landscapes in the open air. He produced some of his finest works during this period.

Osborne was fascinated by the flatness of the landscape and the rolling downs and attracted to landscapes with domestic or farm animals. He painted a number of scenes of shepherds with sheep, men ploughing with horses, a boy guarding pigs, girls feeding chickens and so on. Here, during the mid-eighties, he made several small studies on panels and larger pictures of sheep, for example the sunny Sheepfold Shepherd and his Sheep, 1887 and The Return of the Flock, 1885.

The subject of shepherds with sheep was frequently depicted by 19th century artists. Counting the Flock belongs to the noble tradition of rustic naturalism, in which artists such as Jean-Francois Millet, Charles Jacque, Julien Dupré, Anton Mauve and George Clausen painted scenes of peasant figures with their flocks of sheep, goats or herds of cattle. In some French pictures, the guardian of the sheep is a shepherdess, but in Osbornes he is a man. As in several works by the artists friend Joseph M. Kavanagh, he is viewed from behind. He is standing still, watching over, or counting, his flock, looking into the landscape, or lost in thought. He is treated in an unsentimental, naturalistic manner. Indeed, with his hat and white coat, he is quite a modern figure, like a traveller about to embark upon a journey, a character in a play by Beckett a kind of everyman.


Counting the Flock3 is probably the painting of the same name which Osborne exhibited twice in 1886: at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin and at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpools Autumn Exhibition.


Julian Campbell, April 2018
(I am grateful to Niamh MacNally, National Gallery of Ireland, for assistance in my research).



1) Jeanne Sheehy, Walter Osborne, Ballycotton, 1974, p.28.
2) The Sheepfold, c.1885, exhibited Walter Osborne, NGI 1983, No.22, catalogue by Jeanne Sheehy, illustrated p.74; and A Shepherd and His Flock, 1887, Sheehy, 1974, Catalogue No.152.

3) Counting the Flock has often been mis-titled as The Return of the Flock. However, the latter picture (Sheehy, 1974,, shows a boy driving sheep through a village street.




Hammer Price : €165,000.00
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