William Orpen reappraised

Painter John Nutt reappraises the forgotten and routinely maligned William Orpen.

Largely for historical and religious reasons, the Irish have been persistently marginalised in British society. Orpen was the youngest of five children of a prosperous Irish Protestant solicitor. He was born in 1878 in Oriel House, Grove Avenue, Stilorgan near Dublin, where he enjoyed a comfortable middle class Irish childhood. He became a stateless dissident in spite of his wealth and knighthood and he is arguably the most significant artist that Britain produced at the start of the 20th century. Recently there has been some revival of interest in his work. Re-visiting WW1 in 2014 it seems appropriate to look hard at Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen, KBE, RA, RHA.

Orpen came back to public attention when a painting of Yvonne Aubicq, entitled The Refugee, was discovered by Rupert Maas on BBC Antiques Roadshow. This portrait of Orpen’s war mistress was a copy of the original painting entitled The Spy in the Imperial War Museum. A Roadshow spin-off recording the copy’s discovery is available on YouTube. The original painting caused the artist considerable difficulty. He tried to get it past the official British army censor, Lt Col Lee, by inventing a story to justify a private painting completed whilst engaged as a war artist. He told a tale about a fictional female spy who was to be executed and who removed her greatcoat to expose her naked body in front of the firing squad, all nonsense. Unfortunately this was 1919, and as Mata Hari and Edith Cavell had just been executed, this poor judgement was distinctly awkward for Orpen. Facing a court martial, it was the intervention of his friend Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook (who had just established the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in 1918) that saved his career. It is thought that the recently discovered painting is a copy painted for Lord Beaverbrook.

One hundred years on we have difficulty with all of Orpen’s oeuvre. Its slick, tense and formal representation appears superficial – it was produced at the same time as Duchamp’s readymades. The effortless skill belies the psychological depth of which Orpen was capable. In June 1916 Charles Masterman, Head of the War Propaganda Bureau, set up the war artists’ scheme at Wellington House. The printmaker Muirhead Bone was very anxious to avoid conscription and was sent to the Western Front as the first official war artist. Orpen was the fourth artist to be enlisted in 1917. He was given the honorary rank of major, and provided with an official car, a driver and an annual salary of £500. He could never have been conscripted as he was only five feet two. He set out with an intention to record what he saw and adhered with single-minded industry to the army remit, suspending judgement and recording truthfully what was in front of him.

What distinguished Orpen from other war artists was his overall excellence and his work ethic: Augustus John did practically no work while Nevinson suffered emotional issues. Masterman insisted that the artists should have a free rein and Nevinson didn’t know what was expected of him. Masterman also believed that they should make  documents as well as propaganda. His intention was that the avant-garde would storm the moral high ground, but Orpen wasn’t exactly avant garde. This is a measure of a century of cultural decline. Who could be sent today: Carla Black, Jeremy Deller or Martin Creed? There is nothing of the moral outrage, spite or anger of Dix,  Beckman or Grosz in his war paintings, only a resigned acceptance which developed into total disillusionment. In contrast, Paul Nash declared that, as a war artist, “Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter message and may it burn their lousy souls”.

Orpen also produced many official army staff portraits and after the war he became a successful and wealthy society painter, portraying British post-war aristocracy. Following his early death at the age of 52 in 1931 his reputation faded and was completely demolished by the personal attack of his wife’s nephew Sir John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate, who disliked him intensely. “I have seldom known any man, and never a man of superior talents, with so little intellectual curiosity and so feeble an intellectual grasp, or with so contemptuous an attitude towards the life of the mind as Orpen”, he wrote in Modern English Painters. Rothenstein’s father William had offered his services to the war artists’ committee but because of his German connections he was initially turned down.

Orpen was limited, in Rothenstein’s view, by not having had a public school education. His war diary, An Onlooker in France, is difficult to read and rarely describes his real feelings, except for an identification with the ‘poor bloody infantry’. Recording his disillusion at the end of the book the mask slips when he expresses anger with ‘frocks’ (politicians) for the lack of sympathy they displayed for the millions of dead at the Versailles Peace Conference. Rothenstein complained that when he was a boy he often had to ask Orpen to repeat himself. He was difficult to make sense of, he spoke so rapidly. His childlike character meant that he never turned down the opportunity to participate in a children’s game. It is said that on one occasion when leaving the Hibernian Academy in Dublin with a group of worthies he set off at a run at the head of a group of children joining in their game of kicking a can down the street. At the age of twelve when he was sent to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, going on to the Slade at seventeen so, encouraged by his mother, he had worked continuously as an artist from childhood. His lack of literacy according to Rothenstein emerged in gauche imagery, in the form of an Irish naivety that wasn’t understood or appreciated. The Harvest, The Western Wedding, The Holy Well and Sowing New Seed are examples of paintings that exhibit weird narratives which are in reality satires upon Irish allegories.

Rothenstein’s assertion that he had “little intellectual curiosity” and that he was a poorly equipped Irishman incapable of engaging intellectually with the momentous tragedy of the Western Front is unfair. Few who witnessed WW1 at first hand had any intelligent grasp of what they experienced, least of all the Army staff officers whose lack of training, imagination and flexibility have since become a paradigm in English culture for intellectual inadequacy. It took the privileged public school scholarship of a Rupert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon to chronicle the tragedy of the war, but Orpen succeeded in recording it dispassionately in images. Poor working class infantry had all left school at 12, so Orpen’s education may have been deficient but it was standard. His nephew also informs us that he was visually handicapped, that he had protanopia, a red deficiency which affects 1% of the male population. Some authorities assert that Orpen tried to compensate for this as his career progressed. Rather than paint what he saw, as other colour-blind artists have done, he exaggerated colours, and this may have been a necessary compensation as displayed in the colourful effects he used in some of his later portraits. His portraits of Dame Madge Kendal, Mrs Thomas Howarth and Mrs Charles Hughes are examples of a lurid and acrid palette. Rothenstein cites four elements as evidence of his failure as an artist (i) an Anglo-Irish family (ii) an exceptionally happy childhood (iii) a lack of formal education and (iv) attendance at art school whilst still a child. He asserts quite wrongly that while Orpen regarded Irish politicians with affection he never expressed admiration for any English public figures apart from Lord Derby. His main friends were Irishmen, gallery owner Hugh Lane and novelist George Moore, and that he was also quite incapable of reading anything serious. Rothenstein also repeats that he resented growing up because it led to disillusion with the world. This makes no allowance for the alienating experience of WW1.

When not painting staff officers’ portraits, Orpen was recording devastated landscapes. Zonnebeke (opposite) is one of the greatest paintings to emerge from the trenches, and it proves that he could create a heart-breaking image when required – but, necessarily, portrayal of the general staff took precedence. Rothenstein maintains that Orpen was in the top ten draughtsmen that Britain has produced but both his imagination and his originality were second class. If Orpen could do anything he could draw as accurately as any renaissance master. Proof of this great ability as a draughtsman is demonstrated in On the Irish Shore (1910), a drawing containing all the elements of his character; the whimsical Irishness, the superb skills and the characterisation. One has only to compare his war portraits with those of his contemporaries, Sir John Lavery or Augustus John, to see that Orpen’s are more astute and concise in realisation. Grudgingly, Rothenstein admits to Orpen’s prodigious industrial-scale output, his meticulous craftsmanship and his capacity for a punishing work schedule.

According to Rothenstein, Orpen was fortunate to attend the Slade at its zenith alongside Wyndham Lewis, Ambrose McEvoy, Augustus John and Edna Waugh (Lady Edna Clarke-Hall). Once there, he regularly drew into the early hours. He was taught by Wilson Steer, Henry Tonks and Fred Brown and it was here that according to Rothenstein he produced his only masterpiece “full of whimsy and eclecticism”, The Play Scene from Hamlet. This painting is a contrived student work, a confused old master rehash, yet according to Rothenstein it marks the summit of his career because of its numerous references to other great artists. By contrast, The Mirror (1900) is an honest painting. It is the portrait of a lover Emily Scobel, a Slade student whom Orpen was briefly engaged to but who had refused to marry him (she said he was too ambitious) and whom he abandoned for marriage to Grace Knewstub in 1901. Orpen laboured at the Slade with a draughtsman’s dedication that is inconceivable by today’s standards. George Lambert wrote: “Orpen draws with just the same accuracy a turnip, a horse, or a complicated arrangement of figures… He is a very methodical, business-like Irishman, despising the word ‘art’, and having no use for the word ‘genius’.” Rothenstein argued that his career declined after leaving the Slade. Orpen was content to make straightforward representations of the human figure and the face his main concern, and any intellectual preoccupations he treated as so much pretence.

Rendered incoherent by the war he was ultimately a tragic figure of huge skill and talent who could not express what he could not verbalise. This tragedy according to Rothenstein resulted in tasteless and incoherent images such as The Thinker on the Butte at Warlancourt, derived from Rodin, Adam and Eve at Peronne, Harvest, Bombing Night and To the Unknown Soldier in France. In short, Orpen’s tragedy was cognitive dissonance, a disconnect between the expression of the life of feeling and an over-obsession with observed sentimentality, an Irishman who worked as an Englishman with no deep roots. He was manually skilled rather than having a developed mind. He had no settled opinions or convictions and he lacked the means to form judgements with a enquiring and disciplined mind. Rothenstein had nothing but scorn for lesser intelligences and intellectuals and, horror, “he could not read Ruskin”! He argues that Orpen was brought up on the Irish question but was incapable of defining it and he always spoke in epigrams. This personal attack degenerates into farce when he says that Orpen, like avant-garde painting of the early 20th century had “rejected intellectual curiosity”. He sneers at Picasso for saying that he did not know what he was going to put on the canvas before he started work, and at modernists for preferring primitives, children, the insane and having contempt for the Italian Renaissance (this man was director of the Tate?). This demonstrates a complete ignorance of what is now considered a normal creative process.

A hundred years on WW1 still arouses passion as the recent spat between the Education Secretary and history teachers has demonstrated, and there are few UK families who didn’t experience real grief. Whatever one’s beliefs, WW1 demonstrated a complete failure in the education and training of an entire generation. Ford Madox Ford, the grandson of Ford Madox Brown (who wrote pamphlets for Masterson’s War Propaganda Bureau e.g. When blood is their argument), is a primary source for understanding this cultural fragmentation through his novels The Good Soldier and Parade’s End. Rothenstein priggishly insists that since the whole of British society was involved in the war it was very unfair of Orpen to identify solely with the poor troops. Yet there is evidence that Orpen felt guilty that he occupied a privileged and protected role outside the conflict.

Orpen’s visual honesty is unquestionable. One of his better portraits is that of Field-Marshall Lord Haig, whom we find difficult to view objectively. Whilst repeatedly professing in his memoirs his admiration for Haig, Orpen painted a slight, weak-eyed and limited character, a depiction of Haig which is superior to that of John Singer Sargent’s. Contrarily, he wrote expressing his great admiration for the ‘chief’. Sean Keating, President of the Hibernian Academy said:  “This mental clarity and hatred of evasion led, as time went on, to the extraordinary breadth, simplicity and conciseness of his later work; the method sinks entirely into the background, and what the picture says is as forcible and laconic, as emphatic and as authoritative, as the shot of a pistol.”

It isn’t useful to think of Orpen as an Irish lickspittle, servile to over-privileged staff officers. It seems probable that Orpen wrote his war memoirs in a way that connotes respect for the class system he had to contend with, and it is probable that he was acutely sensitive to the contempt with which the Irish male was viewed by the English establishment. His memoirs hint that his English war service involved playing the role of the quaint Irish jokester. After the war he wrote: “Could anyone forecast the tragedy that has happened to so many of these men since? That great Field-Marshal Lord Haig, the man who knows, works for them still and asks – but who answers? Great God it makes one think, remember, think and wonder, what impossibly thankless people human beings are. It is sad but very, very true.”

The painting he was commissioned to produce recording the Peace Conference had a difficult conception. His honesty caused public outrage with the changes he made to what became an anti-war gesture, Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors (1919), above. This War Museum commission entailed removing all the ‘frocks’ which he had spent nine months portraying and replacing them with naked flayed infantrymen in the excruciating style of his gauche Irish imagery. He then removed these in response to public protest to leave the Union Jack-draped coffin and entitled it To the Unknown Soldier in France, opposite. The artist sent this picture to the Royal Academy in 1923 where it created an uproar. The idea for the ‘unknown soldier’ wasn’t his, it was that of war chaplain David Railton, who had noticed a grave marked by a rough cross, which bore the pencil inscription ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. The War Museum commission had specified a group of statesmen and they refused to accept the final image. Orpen lost his huge fee of £3,000. It is for this anti-establishment gesture he is remembered. Fulfilling his duty throughout the war but sickened, burnt out and nauseated by the experience, he couldn’t portray the hypocrisy of the Peace Conference, that demanded severe reparation from Germany and arguably laid the foundations for WW2. The genesis of this painting according to Rothenstein showed the defects of his entire career “writ large”. This criticism is ridiculous as it is one of his few paintings which evolved and changed with mature reflection upon his experiences. He said at the time: “You must believe that I painted it in all seriousness and in all humility. I have satirised nobody, nor did I intend to set any problem. All the meaning is in the title of the painting.” The Literary Digest of June 9th, 1923 also reported this: “Who needs to be told nowadays about the keenness of Orpen’s eye, or about the skill and sureness of his hand? We know all about these, but we do not know what is in Orpen’s mind. This wonderful painting should help us to find out what Orpen thinks about the war. It is a cri de coeur.”

Now, when our greatest source of anxiety is global terrorism, Orpen can be viewed as having rendered a service. What Rothenstein regards as his character flaws may have been his strengths. The integrity and capacity to tell the truth to an age that is saturated with visual fiction and Photoshopped manipulation may be his real legacy. There is beauty in his paintings of mine craters, abandoned trenches littered with corpses and skulls and the glaring white chalk of the Somme battlefields. He is sometimes referred to as the most Spanish of Irish painters because of his affinity with Velazquez and Goya whom he studied in the Prado in 1904. He also made self-conscious attempts to explain himself to himself through self-portraits just as Rembrandt had done, adopting different disguises and roles. These self-portraits have received academic attention from commentators such as Lucy Cotter and are viewed as first attempts to define a modernist identity. Five images sufficient to speak for him are Miss Muriel Gore, Portrait of Mrs Oscar Lewisohn, W.G. Bennett, Lily Carstairs and Zonnebeke.

Rothenstein asserts that his many affairs, his issues with ill health contracted on the Western Front and alcohol and his early death, destroyed his family, particularly his wife Grace, whom he abandoned but never divorced. Rothenstein’s opprobrium was motivated by his parents’ antipathy to Orpen. This persists; even today he is dismissed in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a somewhat superficial, facile artist who achieved great popularity in his day. It is only recently that Orpen’s paintings have begun to regain their true status. A portrait of Lady Idina Sackville (who was immortalised as the bolter in two novels by Nancy Mitford) was sold by Sotheby’s for a million pounds in 2013.

Orpen’s dual nationality has been analysed by the revisionist Irish historian R F Foster who argued in 2005 that his bohemianism was the result of real tensions born of his inability to come to terms with his Irish-English heritage. Foster counters practically all of Rothenstein’s criticism with research based on Orpen’s own correspondence and his daughter Kit’s insistence that he always saw himself as Irish. Whilst he was from the protestant colonialist strand of Irish history he had a natural revulsion to the unfair treatment of the exploited Catholic majority. The passage in Orpen’s book Stones of old Ireland and Myself, which Rothenstein quotes to prove he wasn’t aware of what the Irish question was, says that there were thousands of Irish questions and he mentions dozens of the pertinent Irish political issues of his youth. He read widely on many levels and although he despised Yeats as pretentious he particularly loved John Millington Synge. This indicates how Irish he actually was. He introduced Hugh Lane to Manet and his Homage to Manet is a painting of someone reading about painting to a group of painters, one of whom is painting. His friendship with the novelist George Moore supported the idealistic notion of modern art as a gospel of liberation for the old Ireland. The allegorical paintings which are artistic failures, such as The Well or Sowing New Seed, are calculated parodies of Irish devotional religious imagery. The bitter Anglo-Irish war and Easter uprising utterly estranged him from Ireland. He was working in France during this period and he could not comment as he was preoccupied with WW1 horrors. He was damaged by the emergence of the new Ireland just as he was damaged by the war. Ireland was going through its own trauma of an emerging republic even at the time Orpen was painting his last portraits. Although nothing is simple with Sir William Orpen’s painting, it does give us a deep insight into the early 20th century British class system, from how the aristocracy saw themselves to the hell of the trenches. A clearer understanding of his art can be obtained from Old Ireland and Himself – William Orpen and the Conflicts of Irish Identity by Roy Foster, than from any of the spite that Rothenstein penned.

 John Nutt

The Jackdaw, 2014