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

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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. google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; 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

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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

turned down.

Orpen was limited, in Rothenstein’s view, by not having had a public

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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 google_ad_width = 970; 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

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that wasn’t understood or appreciated. The Harvest, google_ad_height = 90; 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

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 google_ad_height = 90; 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 /* xin2 */ 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

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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), google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; 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

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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


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

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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

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