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

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became a stateless dissident in spite of his wealth

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.

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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, src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> 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 google_ad_height = 90; 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

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 google_ad_width = 970; 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

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showed the defects of his entire career google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; “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
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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 google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; 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 src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> 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 google_ad_width = 970; as a somewhat superficial, facile artist
who achieved great popularity
in his day. It is only

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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 google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; 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

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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 google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; 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

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