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Geese having flown

Late in 2023, I had the good fortune to visit the National Gallery of Ireland to see the Sir John Lavery retrospective ‘On Location’, and most excellent it was too.

I had earmarked a particular painting by another artist that I was keen to see during my visit. I understood that it was a popular painting and could be found hanging in the National Gallery. Often seen online, this painting is simply known as ‘Goose Girl’. It is of a bucolic scene with bluebells, trees and a bonneted woman dressed in orange herding a gaggle of geese. It was painted in a post-impressionist style and in complementary colours that had tremendous aesthetic appeal.

I searched the gallery from wing to wing, wandering lonely as a cloud, until reluctantly I had to concede defeat; I simply could not find it. The geese, along with the girl had evidently flown.

Seeking out one of the gallery attendants, I detected the first inklings of shoe shuffling awkwardness. “Um, I think it’s…, no hang on I’ll ask” followed by a second gallery attendant who informed me that the painting is not on display. No explanation.

“Is it on loan?” I enquired.

The attendant’s lips formed the arc of a bridge and gave what I regarded as tantamount to a shrug, said… “don’t think so, just not on display anymore”.

Disappointed, but curious, I determined to investigate this further at another time.

Some months later when I was browsing the internet, I came across one of the most curious headlines I’ve read concerning the arts. It was an article published in the Independent on the 2nd of November 1996 that said, “Famous work of art exposed as a fake.” The work referred to was by Cheshire born artist Stanley Royle, and the painting, you’ve probably guessed, was the elusive Goose Girl painted sometime around 1920.

Fake? That seemed a somewhat salacious accusation. Surely the adjective ‘fake’ implies or accuses an artist of wilful and deliberate counterfeit production, and or an attempt to ‘pass off’ a creative work as that by another’s hand? Whilst I was aware that the combination of geese and girls have been a popular motif for artists over many centuries, I could not imagine another painting as sublime as Royle’s orange gowned Goose Girl. How could this be a copy, of what, and if so, why?

I had to re-examine the definition of ‘fake’ for fear I had been using the term incorrectly for the previous 60 years, but I need not have worried. I had been quite correct in my application of the term. Fake; (adjective) not genuine; imitation or counterfeit, (noun) a thing that is not genuine; a forgery or sham.

Now, I’ll be honest, I was not overly familiar with Stanley Royle’s oeuvre, but I’ve since discovered that he enjoyed considerable success as a painter. He was not an ‘obscure British Artist’ as sardonically described by the Irish Times in 2012, but a well-respected artist of considerable merit and achievement.

Royle was accepted into the Royal Academy of Arts, was elected to the board of the Royal Society of British Artists, and later elected an associate member of The Royal West of England Academy. In 1951 the Paris Salon awarded him the Silver Medal and in 1955 he was awarded the coveted Gold Medal. In 2005, forty-four years after his death, his work, Sheffield from Wincobank Wood, was included in the Tate Britain's exhibition ‘A Picture of Britain’.

Now this really is a cursory summary; there is considerably more, but as an artist myself, I think that’s a pretty good haul.

So why the censorious and contentious headline?

Having lived in Ireland for 25 years, I’ve noticed on occasion, a rather curious habit, call it a ‘subtextual propensity’ for claiming ‘things and people’ as Irish, even though there are no, or at least very tenuous connections. Perhaps this is partly due to the country’s history of English oppression and subjugation, its broader tragic history, or the vast export of Irish diaspora. Whatever the reason, from an impartial perspective, I do think the blending and blurring of lines is understandable.

However, to attribute an English artist’s painting to that of an Irish artist, where no evidence existed that could reasonably justify its misattribution, certainly raises an eyebrow or two, especially when the attribution was assigned by the ‘expert curators’ at the National Gallery of Ireland.

I’ve discovered that the Goose Girl was acquired by the National Gallery in 1970, allegedly for a rather paltry £50.00 purchase price, and was immediately yet erroneously attributed to the Irish Post Impressionist painter William Leech.

For obvious aesthetic reasons, it became one of the nation's favourite paintings, and print reproductions of it now hang in thousands of Irish homes. In fact, gallery reproductions of the Goose Girl became one of the National Gallerie’s bestsellers. Indeed, just last week I saw a framed reproduction print available on eBay that still states William Leech as being the original artist.

Apparently, confusion over the picture's origins had been fuelled by little more than the fact that it once hung in Leech’s studio, and that the letters WL had been handwritten on the reverse, presumably as an identifier of ownership or of its provenance. It was certainly common enough practice for artists to hang the works of others in their homes and studios. The French impressionists were particularly fond of sharing paintings with each other.

To validate this statement, there is a magnificent painting by Irish artist William Orpen that shows his wife reclining on a sofa pulling her stockings on. Behind and above her on the wall is a painting by Monet. It was common practice.

You might consider it odd then, that the National Gallery felt this was evidence enough to justify the attribution of Goose Girl to one of their most popular painters, William Leech.

Doubts about the National Galley’s attribution of the painting were first raised during the 1980s by art historian and dealer Dominic Milmo-Penny and English author and art critic Bruce Arnold.

In 1996, during a major William Leech retrospective at the National Gallery, apparently the Goose Girl heralded her ‘obvious’ presence as being borne of another’s hand. The geese must have been very vocal! Amidst the 120 paintings on show by Leech, the language and rhythm of Royles brush strokes, the perspective, subject and style must have seemed vociferous. To me it’s as incongruent as discovering ‘The Scream’ by Edward Munch amongst an exhibition of Picasso’s.

I’m mindful of the quote “in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is King”. That is not to say the curators at the National Gallery were blind, but cognitive dissonance it seems, clouded the judgement of many a learned eye. Sadly, I did not visit the William Leech  exhibition, but having now become familiar with his works (we have a framed print of his in our home), I can see how discordant the Goose Girl must have appeared.

Apparently, the National Gallery were so proud of their William Leech acquisition that The Goose Girl was even adopted as the official logo, although I can find no examples of said in use. With this level of investment, it is easy to understand why they were so resistant to accepting their error. Ultimately it required a County Laois solicitor and prominent art collector, Tony Duncan, to end speculation and provide irrefutable evidence that the painting was indeed one of Stanley Royle’s.

Today, little evidence remains of the Goose Girl having ever taken up residence in the National Gallery. The reproduction prints have vanished, presumably withdrawn for good, shop souvenirs and merchandise have all but disappeared, and just an odd notecard amongst a pack of other painters’ remains. What was once considered the nations favourite painting is now a metaphoric blank wall.

I actually don’t know where the original painting is, but it was certainly not on display when I visited in 2023. It truly should be on display. It is a glorious piece of art.

However, I must express my gratitude. The mystery and adventures of Stanley Royle’s Goose Girl has itself has inspired and motivated me to paint my own personal homage in the form of a contemporary painting. I present it to you here;

‘The Reader’ is at once a whispered reflection, although gone are the geese, and in their stead, a brood of chickens accompanies the woman who is herself distracted from the natural world.

Lost in reverie, our subject is absorbed by the written word rather than the nuanced colours of nature unfolding around her. I could just as easily have furnished her with a smart phone to read, but there is an old romantic flame within me still. As a direct tilt of my painter’s hat to Stanley Royle, I have also adorned her in orange weave, a direct complementary colour to the blues and lilacs of the flora at her feet.

So why chickens rather than geese? Well, if you’ve read through this article, and consider the

reductive and depreciative nature of society and contemporary life, you might draw your own conclusions. Either way, with subtle meaning or without, I hope ‘The Reader’ shares a quiet moment of peaceful contemplation with you.

I conclude with a somewhat apposite quotation lifted from Grimms’ Fairy Tales (the Goose Girl) by the Brothers Grimm:

“The old King then called his son and proved to him that he had the wrong bride, for she was really only a waiting woman, and that the true bride was here at hand, she who had been the Goose Girl all along.”

Lee Tiller - Artist


PS, if anyone at the National Gallery is reading this, I’ll be happy to buy her from you for the £50.00 originally paid…

The Reader is currently available to purchase. It's an 80cm x 60cm canvas and painted in oils.

Contact Lee anytime if you are interested in purchasing a painting or an exclusive signed print.

Tel: 00353 (0)87 612 3301

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