Major Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen NEAC RA KBE RHA (27 November 1878 – 29 September 1931) was an Irish artist who worked mainly in London. Orpen was a fine draughtsman and a popular, commercially successful, painter of portraits for the well-to-do in Edwardian society, though many of his most striking paintings are self-portraits.
During World War I, he was the most prolific of the official war artists sent by Britain to the Western Front. There he produced drawings and paintings of ordinary soldiers, dead men, and German prisoners of war, as well as portraits of generals and politicians. Most of these works, 138 in all, he donated to the British government; they are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. His connections to the senior ranks of the British Army allowed him to stay in France longer than any of the other official war artists, and although he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1918 King's birthday honours list, and also elected a member of the New English Art Club and Royal Academy of Arts, his determination to serve as a war artist cost him both his health and his social standing in Britain.
After his early death a number of critics, including other artists, were loudly dismissive of his work, and for many years his paintings were rarely exhibited, a situation that only began to change in the 1980s.
Born in Stillorgan, County Dublin, William Orpen was the fourth and youngest son of Arthur Herbert Orpen (1830–1926), a solicitor, and his wife, Anne Caulfield (1834–1912), the eldest daughter of the Right Rev. Charles Caulfield (1804–1862), the Bishop of Nassau. Both his parents were amateur painters, and his eldest brother, Richard Caulfield Orpen, became a notable architect. His nieces were Bea Orpen and Kathleen Delap. The historian Goddard Henry Orpen was his second cousin.
Orpen was a naturally talented painter, and six weeks before his thirteenth birthday was enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. During his six years at the college, he won every major prize there, plus the British Isles gold medal for life drawing, before leaving to study at the Slade School of Art between 1897 and 1899. At the Slade, he mastered oil painting and began to experiment with different painting techniques and effects. Orpen would include mirrors in his pictures to create images within images, add false frames and collages around his subjects, and often make pictorial references to works by other artists in his own paintings. His two-metre-wide painting The Play Scene from Hamlet won the Slade composition prize in 1899. His teachers at the Slade included Henry Tonks, Philip Wilson Steer and Frederick Brown, all of whom were members of the New English Art Club; they ensured he exhibited there in 1899, and that he became a member in 1900. Orpen's The Mirror, shown at the NEAC in 1900, references both Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait of 1434 and also elements of seventeenth-century Dutch interiors, such as muted tones and deep shadows.
Whilst at the Slade, he became engaged to Emily Scobel, a model and the subject of The Mirror. She ended their relationship in 1901, and Orpen married Grace Knewstub, the sister-in-law of Sir William Rothenstein. Orpen and Knewstub had three daughters together, but the marriage was not a happy one; by 1908, Orpen had begun a long-running affair with Mrs Evelyn Saint-George, a well-connected American millionaire based in London, with whom he also had a child.
After he left the Slade, from 1903 to 1907, Orpen ran a private teaching studio, the Chelsea Art School, with his fellow Slade graduate Augustus John. Between 1902 and 1915, Orpen divided his time between London and Dublin. He taught at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and his teaching influenced a generation of young Irish artists. His pupils included Seán Keating, Grace Gifford, Patrick Tuohy, Leo Whelan and Margaret Clarke. From 1908 onwards, Orpen exhibited works in the Royal Academy on a regular basis. Between 1908 and 1912, Orpen and his family spent the summer on the coast at Howth, north of Dublin, where he began painting in the open air and developed a distinctive plein air style that featured figures composed of touches of colour without a drawn outline. The most notable of these works was Midday on the Beach, shown at the NEAC in 1910.
John Singer Sargent promoted Orpen's work and he soon built a lucrative reputation, in both London and Dublin, for painting society portraits. Group portraits of a type known as conversation pieces were also hugely popular and Orpen painted several, most notably The Cafe Royal in London (1912), and Homage to Manet (1909), which showed Walter Sickert and several other artists and critics seated in front of Edouard Manet's Portrait of Eva Gonzalies. By the start of World War I, Orpen was the most famous and most commercially successful artist working in Britain.
At the start of WW1, a number of Irish people living in England returned to Ireland to avoid conscription, but Orpen committed himself to supporting the British war effort. Orpen was commissioned into the Army Service Corps and reported for clerical duty at London's Kensington Barracks in March 1916. He continued painting portraits, most notably one of a despondent Winston Churchill, but soon started using both his own contacts, and those of Evelyn Saint-George, to secure a war artist posting. In April 1917 Orpen travelled to the Somme and based himself in Amiens. Each day Orpen would be driven to locations such as Thiepval, Beaumont-Hamel or Ovillers-la-Boisselle to sketch Allied troops or German prisoners and record the devastation left by the Battle of the Somme amid the frozen and desolate landscape. In May 1917, he painted portraits of both Haig and Sir Hugh Trenchard, the commander of the Royal Flying Corps, and both of these images were widely reproduced in British newspapers and magazines.
After the war, Orpen returned to painting society portraits and enjoyed great commercial success. He was never short of portrait commissions to work on and throughout the 1920s often earned £35,000 per year and could easily charge 2,000 guineas for a picture. Throughout the 1920s, he exhibited at the Royal Academy each year and maintained homes and studios in both London and Paris.
Orpen created many self-portraits during his lifetime. He often portrayed himself in the act of painting and often created multiple images of himself. Whilst at the Slade he painted a double portrait of himself and Augustus John in the Nell Gwynne Tavern in London. In 1913, Orpen painted himself with a golden version of his painting Sowing New Seed as a background. Self-portrait as Chardin, from 1908, shows Orpen as the painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin at an easel painting the same image. A year earlier he had painted a head-and-shoulders self-portrait after Chardin's 1776 work Self-Portrait with Pince-nez.
Orpen became seriously ill in May 1931 and after suffering periods of memory loss, died aged 52 in London on 29 September 1931. He was buried at Putney Vale Cemetery. A stone tablet in the Island of Ireland Peace Park Memorial at Messines, Belgium, commemorates him.
A memorial exhibition of Orpen's work was held in New York in 1932 and the Royal Academy also held a memorial exhibition in 1933, part of which travelled to the Birmingham City Art Gallery. Orpen's former friend Augustus John vilified him after his death, and an account in Wyndham Lewis's 1937 autobiography of an encounter between the two in Cassel during the war further tarnished Orpen's reputation. In 1952 the then Director of the Tate Gallery, John Rothenstein, who was related to Orpen by marriage, published Modern English Painters which, despite its title, included a chapter on Orpen that comprehensively criticised every aspect of his work and personality. This had a huge influence, and for many years Orpen was largely forgotten. Other than the collection of his war paintings in the 'Orpen Gallery' of the Imperial War Museum, only two of Orpen's works were regularly on display in Britain, The Mirror in the Tate and A Women in Leeds City Art Gallery. A major retrospective of his work was held at the National Gallery of Ireland in 1978, but was not shown in Britain. Bruce Arnold's 1981 biography revived interest in Orpen among scholars, and in 2005 a major retrospective which also included his peacetime work was held at the Imperial War Museum, and led to a reappraisal of his place in British and Irish culture.
1900: Member, New English Art Club
1904: Elected associate of Royal Hibernian Academy
1908: Elected member of Royal Hibernian Academy
1908: Member, National Portrait Society
1919: Elected associate of the Royal Academy
1921: Elected member of the Royal Academy
1921: President, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers
This is an edited version of William Orpen's detailed Wikipedia biography that can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Orpen
You can also view over 200 of William Orpen's artworks on his ArtUK website page: https://artuk.org/discover/artists/orpen-william-18781931
Featured image: 'The Selecting Jury of the New English Art Club' (1909) William Orpen (1878–1931) NPG 2556 © National Portrait Gallery, London
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