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orpen, sir

Sir Robert Staples, 12th Baronet

Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples, 12th Baronet (1853-1943) was the third son of Sir Nathaniel Staples, 11th Baronet of Lissan House near Cookstown in Co. Tyrone. He was one of the great characters of the early twentieth century and one of Ulster's best known artists. Known as the "barefoot baronet", he refused to wear shoes as he believed that leather soles would block out the natural electricity exuded by the earth and thus impair the health. Rubber soles he considered “absolute suicide”. He would travel to Belfast solely to walk on the tramlines as he believed this extra boost of electricity would be especially beneficial.

Aside from his eccentricity he was, however, a talented artist. He was born in Dundee in 1853 and he began the study of architecture at the Catholic University of Leuven at the age of 12 followed by spells in Dresden, Paris and London where he trained as an artist. His first picture was accepted by the Royal Academy when he was only 22 years old and he exhibited there throughout his life. His most famous painting is The Ideal Cricket Match which now hangs in the Pavilion at Lords Cricket Ground and shows an imaginary match founding the Ashes tournament between Australia and England. Other famous works include Cardinal Manning’s Last Reception (at the Archiepiscopal Palace of the Archbishop of Westminster), The Last Shot at Queen's Club (now in the AELTCC) and Gladstone Introducing the Home Rule Bill (now hanging in the House of Lords).

He finally settled at Lissan in 1912 after the death of his elder brother James Head Staples who had been looking after the estate whilst Sir John Staples, their eldest brother, was in an asylum. He came for an extended visit but fell in love with “this golden place” as he called it and remained there for the rest of his life, sketching and painting his children, grandchildren and local people. He never left home without a sketchbook and the house was once stuffed with sketch books filled with all manner of watercolours and sketches of everything and everyone of interest he met on his travels.

During the early 1900’s he had lived in London and was at the very centre of the Café Royal set who met on Piccadilly in London and included such artists and patrons of the Arts as Sir William Orpen, Lily Langtry, Sophie Guilbert and King Edward VII. He was also involved in the establishment of the Grosvenor Gallery. This gallery was founded by Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche Fitzroy as an alternative exhibition space to the Royal Academy and it soon became one of the most important galleries in England, launching the works of Whistler and Burne-Jones. It was at the very centre of the Aesthetic Movement and was again patronised by Edward VII.

All of this meant that Sir Robert was at the very heart of fashionable fin de siecle London just prior to the Great War and he was friendly with the most important people in London Society during this period. This is reflected in his paintings which include portraits of virtually every important politician, actor, churchman, artist and monarch in England.

All of Sir Robert’s diaries survive and were, until last year, stored at Lissan House. They present a fascinating picture of Edwardian England from the very heart of high society and will no doubt found a great transcription project in the future and many of the gossipy stories about the upper echelons of Edwardian society therein are unique.

Lissan once contained a huge collection of Sir Robert’s paintings. Many of these were sold in a studio auction at Phillip’s in London in 1991 which was organised by his granddaughter and last of the Staples family to reside at Lissan, Hazel Radclyffe Dolling to fund restoration work and today the Lissan collection is composed mainly of family portraits. His paintings are now highly regarded, but when Sir Robert was alive, they were underappreciated as a result of which, by the time of his death in 1943, his family were financially very strained.

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