Sir William Quiller Orchardson

The First Cloud


Not on display

Sir William Quiller Orchardson 1832–1910
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 832 × 1213 mm
Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894


This is the last of three pictures by Orchardson that focus on the theme of the unhappy marriage. The first two in the series, Mariage de Convenance (1883, Glasgow Museums) and Mariage à la Mode - After! (1886, Aberdeen Art Gallery) depict the disadvantages of marrying for wealth rather than for love. The elderly husband is soon abandoned by his bored young wife. In The First Cloud, the marriage is still based on an exchange of her beauty for his wealth, but the age gap is less noticeable. However, without love, the relationship lacks any firm foundation, and this first rift between the couple is merely the cloud before the storm. The picture was first exhibited at the Royal Academy with these lines from Tennyson:

'It is the little rift within the lute
That by-and-by will make the music mute.'

The setting, as with so many of Orchardson's costume dramas, is an elegant Victorian drawing room. The wife retires from the room through a pillared arch, her graceful form silhouetted against the dark opening in the curtains. Although she turns her back to us (and to her husband) her face is vaguely reflected in a mirror in the dark room beyond. This figure was modeled by a Mrs Hope, one of a family of very beautiful sisters. For the husband Orchardson used a close friend, the artist Tom Graham. He stands by the mantelpiece, looking extremely disgruntled, and possibly rather drunk, his hands thrust in his pockets. The psychological rift that has grown between the couple is emphasized physically by the empty expanse of parquet flooring that separates them. The colours are typically muted: cool creams, pastel pinks and blues, alongside Orchardson's favorite colour combination of yellow and brown, which the French critic Ernest Chesneau described as 'harmonious as the wrong side of a tapestry.' (Wood 1999, p.257)

This is a smaller version of the painting, now in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887 and was caricatured in Punch: The Academy Guy'd (7 May 1887, p.226). The husband, dressed as a painter, addresses the departing back of his model:

Yes, you can go; I've done with you, my dear.
Here comes the model for the following year,
(To himself) Luck in odd numbers - Anno Jubilee -
This is Divorce Court Series Number Three.

Further reading:
William R. Hardie, Sir William Quiller Orchardson R.A., Edinburgh 1972, [pp.49-50], reproduced [p.6].
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, p.257.

Frances Fowle
31 October 2000

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Display caption

This is the last of three paintings by William Orchardson on the subject of an unhappy marriage. The empty space of the parquet floor emphasises the psychological tension between the couple. It suggests that their dispute might lead to more serious problems. When it was first exhibited these lines from a Tennyson’s poem Merlin and Vivien were published in the catalogue: ‘It is the little rift within the lute, That by and by will make the music mute’.

Gallery label, November 2016

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