In the 1910s and 1920s two distinct groups, even perhaps schools, began to dominate contemporary art in Dublin. The most avant-garde were broadly connected by their interest in Cubism and many had travelled, often via London art schools, to Paris to study with artists such as André Lhote and Albert Gleizes. It was a predominantly female group and mostly drawn from the upper-middle classes. On their return from Paris, Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone, May Guinness, Norah McGuinness and others became standard bearers for a radical avant-garde that transformed the awareness and acceptance of abstraction within Ireland.
The other main group was mostly (but not completely) composed of men, and drawn from a broader social range. They were gathered together as students of William Orpen, one of the leading figures in a glittering generation at the Slade School in London that included Augustus and Gwen John and Wyndham Lewis, who had returned to Dublin, the city of his birth, to teach at the Metropolitan School of Art.
Orpen lived in London where, having made his reputation swiftly with interiors and genre paintings, he was beginning to establish a highly successful portrait practice, but each summer he moved with his young family to Dublin, living at Howth and teaching in the city. He quickly established a circle of the most talented students, some of whom began to pose for him and became part of his social life at Howth. Seán Keating and Margaret Clarke became particularly close to Orpen, while others such as Leo Whelan were also part of this group, but the one who arguably followed his master most closely was the Ulster-born James Sinton Sleator.
Sleator was born in Portadown in 1885 and moved to Belfast when his father was appointed headmaster of Strandtown National School. His time at Belfast School of Art in the early years of the twentieth century, where he qualified as an art teacher, was still at a period when its main role was to produce graduates who were technically well equipped for positions in education or industrial design. The five or six years he spent there as a student was perhaps extended because he apparently also worked at the School's supply shop.
Sleator appears to have taken little part in the city's burgeoning artistic scene; around this time there were several organised exhibiting groups, but while he did join the Belfast Art Society Sleator never exhibited with them. He was apparently working as an art teacher when, in 1909, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Metropolitan School in Dublin, and perhaps carried on this work in Dublin.
Orpen had been teaching there since 1902, and had gradually become more absorbed into the society and politics of his homeland. Despite the idyllic paintings he made in the pre-war years of family summers on the cliffs at Howth, with friends and students in attendance, this was a tumultuous time and Orpen seems to have avoided political allegiances.
Orpen encouraged Sleator's talent and he became part of the close circle around his teacher, winning the gold and silver medals for still life amongst other prizes. When he left the Metropolitan School in 1914 Sleator moved to London to become Orpen's studio assistant. The glamorous circle around Orpen in London was far removed from Sleator's upbringing in Ulster and from his original work as an art teacher, but he seems to have adapted well. He even put this latter experience to good use when he met Winston Churchill through his work for Orpen and, for a short time, gave him painting lessons.
On Sleator's return to Dublin in 1915, the experience of working alongside Orpen clearly positioned Sleator as one of the city's leading portraitists. But this influence is perhaps most evident in the series of youthful self-portraits Sleator was to paint around this period. Originally working in a studio at Upper Sackville Street, subsequently renamed O'Connell Street, in a building destroyed in the Easter Week Rising, Sleator completed a number of dashing self-portraits in costume that recall Orpen's ongoing self-portrait series in which he adopted various, slightly caricatural or tongue-in-cheek identities and dressed himself appropriately.
In one of the most striking of his paintings, Sleator stares back at the viewer dressed as a late Regency gentleman, with a hand on a cane, while in another he adopts a more military appearance. Various scarves and hats appear in other self-portraits and in one late painting, he reveals a more domestic aspect to his life, seated at a table surrounded by beer bottles, some food and a packet of cigarettes.
For a short period, Sleator was busy in Dublin. He was a founder member of the Dublin Society of Painters, alongside Paul Henry (whose brother he later painted), and taught at the Metropolitan School of Art. He began to exhibit at the Royal Hibernian Academy, where his work was praised by The Studio, but Sleator left Dublin around 1921, presumably due to the political upheaval and violence in the city, and travelled in Italy and possibly also France. Around this period he seems to have moved between Belfast, where he painted a portrait of the novelist Forrest Reid and even held a rare solo exhibition in 1926, and London, where he still assisted Orpen.
The 1924 portrait of Reid is unusually far from Orpen, its looser brushwork and sketched-in background revealing a more informal aspect to the Ulster painter. Sleator's paintings of the Rt. Hon. Henry Bruce Armstrong and particularly Mrs MacNamara, which was painted around 1918, with the sitter wearing fur against a silvery backdrop, have more of the Edwardian glamour associated with Orpen, while his 1923 Still Life has the rich drapery and luxurious objects that recall the homes of his London sitters, rather than a Belfast interior of the time.
Sleator's still life paintings, at their best, have a strong sense of texture and dramatic lighting that also recalls Orpen, and he often seems to have responded just as well to more prosaic domestic objects as he did to the more luxurious and attractive.
The rarity of Sleator's landscapes, which are only occasionally seen and seem in some cases to have been painted in his native Armagh, demonstrates the degree to which he seems to have been more comfortable with studio-based work.
By 1927 he had decided to settle again in London, working with Orpen as well as maintaining his own portrait practice. His three portraits of Orpen are all intimate and incisive, while a more elaborate and possibly posthumous portrait of Orpen sitting at an easel in his South Kensington studio, painted in 1931, the year of the older artist's death, reiterates the closeness between the two, and in its use of mirrors, high tones and a patterned floor there is much of Orpen's influence revealed.
Although he exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and included his portrait of Orpen in the Coronation Exhibition of Prominent Living Artists, with his studio located at Edwardes Square, Sleator maintained his connections with Ireland and was included in various exhibitions of Irish art. The air raids in London drove him back to Dublin in 1941, where he found accommodation at the Royal Academy Premises in Ely Place, acting as secretary for them.
By the time of Sleator's return to Dublin, art in Ireland had transformed enormously from the tumultuous period when he had last lived there for any length of time. The influence of Orpen in the city had perhaps been based in part on his personality and reputation and the early 1920s had seen the rise of Cubism and abstraction in Ireland, as well as the creation of a more deliberately Irish visual identity and mythology in the work of Paul Henry and Jack B. Yeats, as well as in that of younger painters as different as Seán Keating and Mainie Jellett. Yeats' dealer, Victor Waddington, was to introduce a new generation of artists to Dublin in the mid-1940s, including Gerard Dillon, Daniel O'Neill and Nevill Johnson.
Yet Sleator's success in this period demonstrates the continued significance of portraiture and the reputation he had maintained in Dublin. S. B. Kennedy notes that 'in these years the list of his sitters reads like a Who's Who of Irish society and is indicative of his social and artistic standing'. He exhibited at the annual Oireachtas art exhibitions, as well as at the Royal Hibernian Academy, of which he became President in 1945 on the death at the age of 80 of Dermod OBrien. In total Sleator exhibited 76 works at the Academy, a striking number that demonstrates his commitment to the organisation despite having lived away from Dublin for much of his career.
But Sleator was also clearly respected by less traditional artists and exhibiting groups. He sat on the first committee of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art and he painted the painter Caroline Scally and the sculptor Laurence Campbell as well as Jack B. Yeats.
Sleator is well represented in Irish public collections, particularly at Armagh County Museum. Yet, arguably he is not as well known as his work deserves, despite the renown in which Orpen is held. S. B. Kennedy suggests that he 'was overwhelmed by the force of Orpen's example and personality and never developed his full potential as an artist' yet, along with others in that group of students at the Metropolitan School in the 1910s, Sleator remains a notable part of the story of Irish art in the early twentieth century. The esteem with which he was generally held in Dublin is demonstrated by the fact that in 1951, a year after his death, the Waddington Gallery, generally associated with more progressive Irish painters at this time, held a substantial memorial exhibition of his work.
Dickon Hall, art historian and Art UK Content Commissioner, Northern Ireland
This article was supported by Arts Council Northern Ireland