William Orpen: Artist of Life and The Battlefield

He loved paint, he loved the gleam of it…

William Orpen thought of himself as Irish, but often repeated that he owed everything to England, his adopted home. In his day he was the most admired and respected of artists, and one of the wealthiest, making huge sums as a society portraitist: earning, in 1930, the year before he died, £90,000 which, in today’s values is a staggering £5.5m. His only rival in those far off days was his fellow Slade student, Augustus John.

His output was staggering too — with many hundreds of canvases produced in a relatively short period — and he undoubtedly became the leader of what we might call the ‘English Art Movement’ of the first third of the 20th century, with a handful of his paintings now considered some of the greatest and most original works of art of that period. Not unsurprisingly his work has inspired many renowned artists of the second half of the 20th century, not least Lucien Freud, David Hockney, and, in this century, Eve Parnell.

He was also one of the finest war artists the British Isles has ever produced, who was described by the Daily Graphic in the 1920s as the “ …Samuel Pepys of the Western Front.

And it’s that period of his life I would like to comment on here.

To quote Bruce Arnold, a fine biographer of Orpen:

“ The war artists’ scheme, under which Orpen was sent to France in the spring of 1917, was only begun in the summer of the previous year. It came under the Propaganda Department at Wellington House, set up by the government within a month of war breaking out. The employment of artists to create a record of the war and to provide works for propaganda purposes, is said to have been instigated by Lady Cunard, through [novelist] Arnold Bennett, adviser to the government on propaganda, and Sir Philip Sassoon [cousin of poet Siegfried Sassoon], Haig’s private secretary…”

Scottish artist Muirhead Bone was appointed, by the Propaganda Department, as the first official war artist on July 12th 1916, with a salary of £500 a year, plus expenses. His contract stated that he worked for the government full time and could not do any private work, and that all work created by Bone became government property. His rank was that of a Lieutenant attached to Intelligence at G.H.Q, which meant, as Bruce Arnold informs us, that, “…the rank of Lieutenant left the artist completely at the mercy of any busybody with one more pip or crown.”. This could only be overcome by a ‘private wangle’, and Orpen, who’d been invited to become an ‘unofficial’ war artist, knew a lot of people in high places — he’d painted their portraits — and could wangle, through a third party, better than most.

With the arrival of Lloyd George as Prime Minister the Propaganda Department became the Department of Information, under the control of John Buchan, novelist and spy, and Orpen’s position as a war artist was made official, although, being Irish, did cause a few problems in the wake of the Irish Rebellion of 1916. But a bit more wangling soon sorted things out and Orpen, now a major with his own aide, car and driver, eventually headed for France and the front, hot on the heels of Bone, Eric Kennington — now best known for his relief sculptures — and Francis Dodd, another portraitist and landscape painter.

Orpen arrived during the Easter weekend of 1917, booked in at G.H.Q, then headed for Amiens, where he made his first sketch, of a leaning Madonna and Child “… hanging from the ruined belfry of Albert Cathedral.”

After that first sketch Orpen seemed to be everywhere, sketching German prisoners (it was the height of an Allied offensive), British soldiers relaxing and smoking, with, nevertheless, rather rigid postures that brilliantly suggests an outer and inner fatigue that Orpen was always able to achieve. When not absorbing life at the front, he’d be having dinner with Field Marshall Douglas Haig, and making arrangements to paint his portrait, as he would Major General H.M. Trenchard, Commander of the Royal Flying Corps. Of Haig Orpen wrote:

“ Sir Douglas was a strong man, a true Northener, well inside himself — no pose. It seemed it would be impossible to upset him, impossible to make him show any strong feelings, and yet one felt he understood, knew all, and felt for all his men, and that he truly loved them…”

And Orpen’s portrait of Haig does show such a man: a fellow human being with an almost impossible job to do, but a job that must be carried out. It is not a portrait of an uncaring ‘donkey’ of a general, but a man of principal and honesty, who shaves and eats breakfast, and wants to get the bloody job done and not sacrifice the lives of his beloved men recklessly in a reckless ridden situation.

In many ways Orpen’s experience during the First World War became more intense, more emotional, more expressive, with each passing day, most exemplified in his canvas The Mad Woman of Douai, which is an extraordinary tableau — very much influenced by Ford Madox Brown’s Work — of war, death, love, peace and resurrection. It is a masterpiece of ‘English’ art: of light and colour and life shining through, creating, for the viewer, an immediate sense of ourselves and others, as others as ourselves. What is seen in that painting is what we hear in Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony, or A Lark Ascending, or what we feel when we read the late poetry of Edward Thomas, who was killed during a German bombardment in 1917:

That I could not return

All that you gave

And could not ever burn

With the love you have,

Till sometimes it did seem

Better it were

Never to see you more

Than linger here

With only gratitude

Instead of love –

A pine in solitude

Cradling a dove.

As in Thomas’ poem there is a gut wrenching feeling of never reaching, of ever achieving that which is always there, just ahead of you, waiting to be taken, absorbed. Orpen always shows us the hope of life, of what might be reached for, that, which, even in death, is a step toward life — that is the light shining through his work, through his unexplainable, beautiful technique that is more than painting, but a transference of one reality to another.

That Orpen could achieve such work again and again is testament to his commitment and drive — not unlike that of T.E. Lawrence — but, as Orpen would have said, not unlike the commitment of the average infantry soldier (as can be seen in the above picture), and flyer that was the tableau of the Western Front of 1917.

By the end of the war Orpen was in poor health, mentally and physically — having suffered severe blood poisoning — that was bringing him close to a mental breakdown.

William Orpen personifies the poet within the painter: the visionary getting the job done.

Read: Augustus John — Welsh Artist of Brilliance

Read: 1917 — A Film by Sam Mendes

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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