Lady Idina Wallace beautiful, wealthy, well-connected and sexually liberated challenged the way women were represented. Her life has been documented in expressive detail and one of these documents, Sir William Orpen's stunning portrait of her, will take centre stage at Sotheby's
in London on 19 November 2013 when it comes under the hammer in an auction of British & Irish Art. Estimated at £800,000-1,200,000, the painting was commissioned not by Lady Idina's husband at the time, but by Sir James Harriet Dunn, a married millionaire industrialist and financier who was smitten by Idina. He paid the then exorbitant sum of £750 for the flamboyant, charismatic and technically flawless Orpen to pick up his brushes to produce a work which ranks amongst the artist's finest achievements in portraiture.
The resulting picture demonstrates Orpen's virtuosity at the height of his career. Central to his oeuvre was Orpen's love of women and this portrait is a celebration of womanhood - Idina's beauty, intelligence, spirit and individuality has been captured on canvas by an artist who resembled a modern-day Van Dyck.
Simon Toll, Sothebys British & Irish Art Specialist, said: Orpens painting of Lady Idina is the most important full-length portrait by the artist to come to auction in over ten years. Idina was a remarkable woman and Orpen was a gifted painter who managed to convey her beguiling spirit.
Idina Wallace was painted in 1915, one of a series of large full-length portraits of female sitters, a compositional device set in motion by Orpen's over-life size portrait of his lover Mrs St. George the previous year. The strong verticality of these pictures suited the artist's depictions of lithe, slender women in flowing silk gowns and simple, dark backgrounds.
The face that looks out from Orpen's portrait belonged to a woman who scandalised her generation. With her shingled blond hair and sleek black gown contrasted with the lustre of pearls, Lady Idina is the epitome of pre-war glamour. Her life story reads with the page-turning momentum of a good novel. Idina was a woman who raised eyebrows in society. Her father, the 8th Earl de la Warr, compromised her reputation at a young age when he ran away with a cancan dancer, earning the moniker, 'Naughty Gilbert'. The taboo of divorce made Idina conscious of being an outsider and led to her being watched closely by mothers of eligible bachelors at all the parties she was still invited to. Her first husband, the greatest love of her life, was David Euan Wallace, a Captain in the Life Guards and one of the most sought-after bachelors of his generation. He and Idina married in 1913, but his appetite for her female friends brought the union to an end, when Idina left him before he could leave her.
Idina married briefly for a second time, but it was her third marriage that caused the most scandal. Her husband was Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, and together they became part of the hedonistic elite of British East Africa, known as 'The Happy Valley Set'. The Errolls' farmhouse above the Rift Valley in Kenya was the setting for wild all-night parties during which all manner of stimulants fuelled the debauchery. After this African 'honeymoon', the Errolls divorced in 1930 and Idina married for the fourth time later that year. Her fifth marriage to a dashing pilot lasted until 1945. One of the last things she did before her death in 1955 was put her daughter Diana in touch with Sir James Dunn, the man who had commissioned Orpen's portrait forty years earlier. He gifted the painting to her family, who held the work until 1993, when it was purchased privately.
The glamour personified in Orpen's depiction of Idina is an expression of the sitter's fashion sense, for which she was famous. Casting off her satin opera-cloak with its fur hood, Idina exposes her long ivory-skinned arms. Orpen was astute enough to recognise that it was inadvisable to exhibit the painting at the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition as this would have compromised the reputations of artist, patron and sitter.
Photographed for Vogue by Cecil Beaton and immortalised as "the Bolter" in three novels by Nancy Mitford, Lady Idina Wallace's irrepressible character and elegance was never in doubt, qualities that would have been appreciated by Orpen.
'Orpen was a flirt, and more. Idina looked across at him, chin upward, defiant... Ninety years on, electricity still fizzes from the portrait.' (Frances Osborne, author of The Bolter, published by Virago, 2008, p.53). Idina was the subject of a number one bestselling biography by her great-granddaughter, Frances Osborne.