1878 – Birth of Sir William Orpen, painter, in Stillorgan, Co. Dublin.

Major Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen, KBE, RA, RHA (27 November 1878 – 29 September 1931) was an Irish portrait painter. He studied art at the Metropolitan School and at the Slade School in London where, at the time, great emphasis was put on the study of old masters. Orpen was a highly sought after society portraitist in his day.

Life and work:

Born in Stillorgan, County Dublin, William Newenham Montague Orpen was a fine draughtsman and a popular painter of the well-to-do in the period leading up to World War I.

He was also involved in the Celtic revival in his native Ireland and he took part in the attempt there to find a visual counterpart to the birth of new national literary language (McConkey 2005). Although his studio was in London, he spent time in Ireland painting, he was a friend of Hugh Lane and influenced the Irish realist painters, like Sean Keating, who were begin-ning their careers at that time.

Orpen’s wife was Grace Knewstub, whom he married in 1901 and with whom he had three daughters. The marriage was not happy, and the painter eventually ran off with one of his sitters, Madame Saint-George, a wealthy young married woman whom he painted around 1912.

Like Sir John Lavery, William Orpen was made an official war painter of the First World War and in 1917 he travelled to the Western Front. He produced drawings and paintings of privates, dead soldiers and German prisoners of war along with official portraits of generals and politicians. His large paintings of the Peace Conference at Versailles captured the political wrangling and vainglory of the gathered politicians and statesman whom Orpen came to loathe but increasingly relied upon for his post-war portrait commissions. Most of these works, 138 in all, he gave for free to the British government on the understanding that they were framed in simple white frames and kept together as a single body of work. They are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London. For his war work, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1918 King’s birthday honours list. He was elected a Royal Academician (member of the Royal Academy of Arts) in 1919.

He was deeply affected by the suffering he witnessed in the war and his ‘To the Unknown British Soldier Killed in France first exhibited in 1923 showed a flag draped coffin flanked by a pair of ghostly and wretched soldiers clothed only in tattered blankets. Although widely admired by the public, this picture was attacked by the press and Orpen painted out the soldiers before the painting, which had originally been dedicated to Field Marshall Haig, was accepted by the Imperial War Museum in 1927.

According to Bruce Arnold, writing in Irish Art a Concise History: … while at times his portraits are rather shallow, he was capable of excellent and sympathetic work, particularly in family and group portraits.”

The same author notes Orpen’s interest in self-portraits and his self-portraits are often searching and dramatic. In his The Dead Ptarmigan -a self-portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland he scowls from the frame while holding a dead ptarmigan at head height.

In a review of an Orpen exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London in 2005, Kenneth McConkey attributes this shallowness of Orpen’s portraits to an emotional exhaustion, a result of what he witnessed as a painter of war. He writes of Orpen’s post-war activity:

Now the portraits were done with mechanical efficiency, and without pause for reflection, save when he scrutinised himself and found a face he could no longer understand. his face… grimaces, it squints, it scowls; in the 1920s it papers over the inner turmoil left by the long pathetic queues of gas-blinded tommies.

William Orpen died, aged 53, in London, and was buried at Putney Vale Cemetery. A stone tablet in the Island of Ireland Peace Park Memorial, Mesen, Belgium, remembers him.

On 9 May 2010, a painting of Orpen’s mistress Yvonne Aubicque featured on BBC1’s “Antiques Roadshow”. The owner believed it to be a copy of an original in the Imperial War Museum – however it turned out to be a “copy” painted by Orpen himself and estimated to be worth £250,000.

Writings:

The Outline of Art.
An Onlooker in France (1917-1919).
Stories of Old Ireland and Myself.’

NPG x12619,Sir William Orpen,by George Charles Beresford

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