William Orpen: Ireland’s War Artist
By Alyson Gray
The newspaper announcement was made on 30 January 1917. The Irish artist William Orpen had been appointed an official war artist and was to be sent to the battle lines on the Western front. Under a headline trumpeting it as a ‘Unique Honour’ for the ‘Irish Artist’, the Daily Mail announced:
Sir Douglas Haig has conferred a unique honour on a distinguished Irishman, Mr W. Orpen RIA, who has been appointed official artist with the Army in France. Mr Orpen joined the Army Service Corps some time ago. He lost some fine pictures in the RHA, which was destroyed during the rebellion.
Born into a prosperous Protestant family in 1878, Orpen showed great promise as an artist from an early age. The young Orpen entered the Dublin Metropolitan School when he was only 13 years old, going on to win many awards and gold medals for work which, for all his subsequent association with portraiture, mainly consisted of landscapes. In 1898 he transferred to the Slade School in London and it was there his skills really developed as a great artist and draughtsman. For Orpen, the move to London was career changing. His work flourished, his profile soared and the securing of many well-paid commissions facilitated a lifestyle that was lavish and publicly flamboyant – he even drove a Rolls Royce.
Between 1902 and just before the outbreak of the war Orpen spent his time travelling between Dublin and London as he had taken up a teaching post in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Throughout this period he had established himself as an influential teacher in Dublin and the most commercially successful artist in Britain. He thrived as a portrait artist in particular, with one of his most significant works being his famous painting Homage to Manet which shows a group of artists sitting in front of Manet’s Portrait of Eva Gonzalès. However, the war thrust Orpen into a period of critical self-analysis and, out of a sense of duty, he became involved in the war effort as a clerk in Kensington Barracks, ignoring pleas from fellow Irish artist, Seán Keating, to return to Ireland with him in 1916, when conscription was introduced in Britain. As the war progressed there was a need to overhaul Britain’s propaganda campaign and the idea of sending artists to the front was considered. Orpen, now bearing the rank of Major, was one of these artists and in January 1917 he was shipped off to Northern France.
He arrived in Boulogne in April with a strict brief from the War Office as to who and what he was to paint. However, Orpen was not the most obedient of officers and had frequent brushes with his own military superiors: on one occasion in 1917, for instance, he claimed that a young nurse he had painted while in hospital for blood poisoning in Amiens was a spy. The nurse, Yvonne Aubicq, had become a love interest of Orpen’s and so he painted her portrait many times, and submitted two of them to the War Office. However, as an official war artist the subject matter of his paintings needed to be confined to war, and to make them seem more relevant he fabricated an elaborate story and titled them ‘The Spy’. According to the Orpen invention, the ‘spy’ was set to be shot by a French firing squad and had requested to wear her own clothes for the execution. The soldiers agreed and she arrived in an army overcoat, naked underneath. Before they shot her she removed the coat, causing the soldiers to hesitate, distracted momentarily by her unparalleled beauty before shooting her anyway. It was all too obvious that the story was a fiction, a deceit on Orpen’s part, and it met with cool reception; Orpen was reprimanded and forbidden from returning to France. Return he did, however, after retitling the paintings as ‘The Refugee’ he made his way back to France in 1918.
Much later, recounting the Aubicq episode in his memoir, he wrote: ‘I had to go constantly to the war office, and I was talked to very severely, in fact, I was in black disgrace. My behaviour could not have been worse, according to Intelligence, or whatever they were then called at GHQ.’ Tensions with authority were a recurring feature of Orpen’s French experiences and they were undoubtedly caused by his routine failures to report back to his commanding officer with his work, not to mention his reluctance to adhere to instruction as to where he should go. Of course, Orpen’s defiant streak made for better artistic legacy: it produced different perspectives on the war. Paintings of shell-shocked soldiers or destroyed towns may not have been ideal for propaganda purposes but they arguably presented a more realistic picture of war. Orpen’s biographers are at pains to emphasise the realism and integrity of his work. Writing the year after his death, P.G. Konody and Sidney Dark, stated that Orpen’s realism was such that he was obsessed by the bitterness, futility and cruelty of life. Many decades later, in a less stark assessment, Bruce Arnold wrote of Orpen that he dealt only in fact and painted objects and people as he saw them.
Orpen would work with the War Office up until the Peace Conference in 1919. He saw the war from all sides, from the perspective of the foot soldiers doing the fighting on the western front, to the men – statesmen and generals – looking to make the peace when the guns fell silent. His first assignment in 1917 was at the Somme, where the battle had been raging since July the previous year. Later, in his memoir, An Onlooker in France 1917 – 1919, published after the war in 1921, Orpen recalled the powerful impression the Somme made on him. He wrote:
‘I shall never forget my first sight of the Somme battlefields. It was snowing fast, but the ground was not covered, and there was this endless waste of mud, holes and water. Nothing but mud water, crosses and broken tanks; miles and miles of it, horrible and terrible, but with a noble dignity of its own, and running through it, the great artery, the Albert-Baupaume road, with its endless stream of men, guns, food lorries, mules and cars, all pressing along with apparently unceasing energy towards the front.’
Orpen added that an officer had remarked that anyone who was there could paint the Somme just from memory but ‘not one could paint the smell’. But he got on with it, painting many official portraits of officers in their dugouts as well as sketches and paintings that conveyed the despair and horror of war – the shell-shocked soldiers, the destroyed towns and prisoners. As he experienced more of the trenches and awfulness of what faced the men on the front line, Orpen grew increasingly disillusioned with the politicians who, from the remove of their offices, had committed the men to this fate. In their account of Orpen’s war experiences, his biographers P.G. Konody and Sidney Dark remarked on how the war had bitten into his soul. In his own memoir, Orpen offered the following account of meeting men returning from the trenches, numbed by what they had experienced:
‘After lunch I sat with the Brigadier and watched the men coming out of the trenches. Some sick; some with trench feet, some on stretchers, some walking; worn, sad and dirty – all stumbling along with the glare. The General spoke to each as they passed. I noticed that their faces had no change in expression, their eyes were wide open, the pupils very small, and their mouths always sagged a bit. They seemed like men in a dream, hardly realising where they were or what they were doing. They showed no sign of pleasure of leaving hell for a bit. It was as if they had gone through so much that nothing mattered.’
Orpen’s disillusionment with the war was compounded when working at the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris. He was commissioned to deliver three paintings, the most significant and controversial of which was titled To the Unknown British Soldier in France. The painting was originally to include a group of soldiers and statesmen in the Hall of Peace in Versailles but Orpen, unhappy with how it was turning out, removed their faces to leave just a coffin draped with the Union Jack, to better represent all the soldiers who had died. To this, he added two emaciated soldiers chained either side to the coffin with cherubs above. This reflected Orpen’s real feelings about how the war had been fought and resolved. It was as if the men who had done the fighting and dying had been abandoned in the high politics of the war’s resolution: ‘...after the people I had seen, known and painted during the war; and these, as the days went by, seemed to be gradually becoming more and more forgotten. It seemed impossible, but it was true. The fighting man, alive, and those who had fought and died – all the people who made the Peace Conference possible, were being forgotten, the ‘frocks’ reigned supreme.’ Although To the Unknown British Soldier in France initially went on display and proved quite popular, the Imperial War Museum deemed it inappropriate and refused to display it in their official war exhibition. Orpen removed the soldiers and cherubs from the painting five years later and gave it to the Imperial War Museum, but faint outlines of the soldiers can still be seen on the canvas, making them appear, appropriately perhaps, like ghosts. His other two works from this period; A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay and The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919, show a classic Orpen style of a group portrait. However, these paintings have been seen as a subtle satire, with the grandeur of the surroundings dwarfing the importance of the statesmen depicted.
As it was for so many others, the war proved a transformative experience for Orpen. It was, as he put it in a letter to his wife Grace, ‘…like a sudden growing up’. His life post-war was never the same: he became an alcoholic, grew distant from his wife and family, and mostly painted only to support the lavish lifestyle he took up in Paris with his mistress. Despite his personal problems he was still successful and continued to exhibit widely. Knighted in 1918, he was, as Sir William Orpen, elected a member of the prestigious Royal Academy in 1921. He died in 1931, aged 52, after a period of alcohol-induced illness. It appears that in the immediate aftermath of his death he was not remembered as many thought he should have been. Friends and biographers P.G. Konody and Sidney Dark wrote about how he felt none of the obituaries really reflected the Orpen they thought they knew. And in Orpen’s obituary published in The Times on 1 October 1931 titled ‘Orpen’s Limitations and Powers’ described his paintings as anecdotal, arguing he illustrated or dramatised his emotions without expressing them. However, what is evident from his war collection is the extent to which he was able to capture the humanity of the soldier and horrors of war. He could sympathise with his subjects and this is reflected in his work. His contribution to the teaching of Irish art has always been recognised and rightly so as he helped to nurture and influence what become some of Ireland’s most important painters of the 20th century. But his work in capturing the war and some of the early 20th century’s most important figures cements William Orpen’s legacy as one of Ireland’s most important and successful artists.
Alyson Gray is a researcher with Century Ireland.
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