Historian Gordon Lucy shines a light on the life and works of Irish portrait painter and war artist William Orpen
In 1918 Sir William Orpen had been knighted in the King’s birthday honours list for his work as an official war artist. In 1919 the Imperial War Museum commissioned him to produce three paintings depicting the Paris Peace Conference.
Born into a wealthy Dublin legal family in 1878, Orpen showed great promise as an artist from an early age. He entered the Dublin Metropolitan School at the age of 13, winning many awards and gold medals.
In 1898 he moved to the Slade School in London where he honed and perfected his skills. By 1914 he had secured a brilliant reputation, especially as a portrait painter.
His success allowed him to enjoy a lavish lifestyle and drive a Rolls Royce, which at the outbreak of the Great War he lent to the Red Cross.
In 1916, with the imminent introduction of conscription in Britain, many Irishmen living in England returned to Ireland. Among them was Orpen’s studio assistant and former pupil, Seán Keating.
Keating, an ardent nationalist, urged Orpen to return to Ireland with him.
‘I said to him before I went: “Come back with me to Ireland. This war may never end. All we know of civilisation is done for. It is the beginning of the end. I am going to Aran. There is endless painting to be done. Leave all this. You don’t believe in it.” But he said: “No. Everything I have I owe to England. I am unknown in Ireland. It was the English who gave me appreciation and money. This is their war, and I have enlisted. I won’t fight but I’ll do what I can.”’
In March 1916 Orpen secured a commission in the Army Service Corps and went off to paint. Assigned to paint Sir Douglas Haig, Haig suggested that he would be better employed concentrating on the ordinary soldiers at the front.
Although like all official war artists he was prohibited from going to the front line, he took Haig at his word (as best he could) and went off to produce drawings and paintings of ordinary soldiers, dead men and German PoWs. He produced many memorable canvasses such as ‘The Thinker on the Butte de Walencourt’, ‘Dead Germans in a Trench’, ‘The Schwaben Redoubt’ and ‘Zonnebeke’. After the war, 138 of these wartime works were exhibited at the Imperial War Museum.
Turning to his Peace Conference commission, the first of his three paintings was entitled ‘A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay’. A group portrait, it depicts preliminary discussions of the ‘Council of Ten’ sitting around a table in the French Foreign Ministry at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, where the conference formally opened on 18 January 1919. The politicians and diplomats are completely overshadowed by the grandeur of their surroundings.
This overshadowing of the politicians and diplomats by their surroundings is even more pronounced in ‘The Signing of the Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June 1919’, his second painting. The painting depicts the German delegation signing the Treaty of Versailles which brought the Great War to a formal conclusion.
The setting is of course even more opulent than the French Foreign Ministry. A more opulent setting would be difficult to imagine. The diplomats and politicians are completely dwarfed by the scale of their surroundings and this was Orpen’s intention, prompting Sir John Lavery to observe that ‘no British painter has ridiculed people in power so effectively as Orpen’. However reproductions of the painting are often cropped, thereby diminishing the impact.
Orpen’s treatment of ‘the great and the good’ was even more dramatic in his third painting. Orpen was supposed to depict approximately 40 of ‘the politicians and generals and admirals who had won the war’ in the Hall of Peace at Versailles. Having completed about 30 portraits, he decided to paint over them and convert it into ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’.
Orpen explained why in an interview with the Evening Standard: ‘… I couldn’t go on. It all seemed so unimportant somehow, beside the reality as I had seen it, and felt it, when I was working with the armies. In spite of all these eminent men, I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France for ever…’
The revised painting depicted a coffin holding the remains of an unknown soldier, lying in state, draped with a Union Flag, beneath a chandelier. Behind the coffin there was an arched opening and, in the distance, a second arched opening, from which light is visible and the faint outline of a cross. The setting for all this is the Hall of Peace at the Palace of Versailles, with the Hall of Mirrors behind leading to the Hall of War.
In Orpen’s first version of ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’, the coffin was flanked by two wraith-like British soldiers clad only in puttees and tattered blankets. Above, two cherubs held a floral garland.
This version was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1923. By and large the critics hated it, the public voted it ‘Picture of the Year’ and the Imperial War Museum refused to accept it because the work did not meet the terms of the commission.
In 1928 Orpen painted out the soldiers and the cherubs and their flowers, and then donated the revised painting to the Imperial War Museum in 1928 as a tribute to Earl Haig (who had just died). Orpen genuinely admired Haig, especially for his work with the Haig Fund and the British Legion, describing him as ‘one of the best friends I ever had.’
In the light of his reasons for painting out the politicians, generals and admirals in the first place, to some extent it may seem a strange decision.
Orpen was haunted by the memory of the endless bodies and limbs strewn across the Ypres Salient and of those who had died.
He sought solace in heavy drinking which brought about his premature death at the age of 52 in September 1931.