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Life and sole of the party, the artist known as barefoot baronet

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 03/12/2015

Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples painted this watercolour in 1930
Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples painted this watercolour in 1930
Eccentric artist: Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples
Oscar Wilde

A family sits huddled around the dinner table in the depths of winter in a Christmas scene from a bygone era in Northern Ireland.

The sketch, dated 1930, is by Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples.

An eccentric artist, Sir Robert was 12th baronet of Lissan and Faughanvale, and painted famous names of the day such as Oscar Wilde and Sir Edward Carson.

He would often capture his family's Christmas gatherings in his diary entries.

The image has been released by the Public Record Office Northern Ireland (PRONI) as its document of the month.

Sir Robert's papers are among a collection of estate and family documents held by PRONI.

They include a collection of personal diaries from 1872 to 1941, which chronicle events and give an insight to his personality.

Sir Robert is often known as the barefoot baronet because of his habit of walking outside without shoes for 30 minutes a day.

By profession he was an artist, and he is best remembered for his portraiture.

Among those who sat for him were Wilde, Carson, Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry.

The family seat was Lissan House, where some of Sir Robert's paintings and engravings still hang and photographs of him decorate the tables.

Dr Neil Watt, property manager of Lissan House and Demesne, said Sir Robert spent many happy Christmases there.

"This informal sketch of yuletide festivities really captures the sense of fun and informality always felt at Lissan, even today," he added. "Sir Robert loved Christmas here, and many of his most accomplished paintings show the family and the house in winter.

"We have just started decorating the house for Christmas, using his sketches as inspiration - just one way in which his presence is still felt in the old house."

Lorraine Bourke from PRONI, who selected the document, said it was a snapshot of family life.

"Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples is known as an artist who was an honest chronicler of human life," she added.

"He painted people and events as they actually looked.

"His diaries and papers, which are held in PRONI, show him to be intelligent, witty and possessed of a great sense of fun.

"I love this sketch of his family and friends for the way that it captures the personalities of those gathered around their Christmas dinner."

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