[Sir] William Orpen (1878-1931)


Life
[William Newenham Montague Orpen]; Irish painter, b. Stillorgan, Co. Dublin; diminutive and considered ‘the only ugly child of five’ by his parents (acc. to an accidentally overheard conversation); precociously gifted; ed. Metropolitan Art School, Dublin, from age of 13, and later Slade [London], where he was associated with Augustus John and Albert Rutherson; m. Grace Knewstub in 1901, with whom three children, but conducted long affair with Mrs Evelyn St George from 1908, and with whom a dg. Vivien (b.1912);
 
Orpen enjoyed large success as society portrait-painter; elected ARA, 1910; appt. official war artist, 1917-18; painted Field Marshall Haig, after-battle scenes and ultimately “The Signing of the Peace”, the official painting of the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919; also a much-revised “The Unknown Warrior”; knighted (KBE), 1918;
 
obliged to admit that he had represented a mistress as ‘a French spy’ in a late-wartime painting, having first given a false account to his immediate superior; elected RA, 1919; commissioned by Hugh Lane to complete the series of “Irish Personalities” begun by John B. Yeats, many of which are in the National Gallery of Ireland [Municipal?]; his “Holy Well” and other pictures held in National Gallery of Ireland;
 
wrote autobiographical volumes, An Onlooker in France, 1917-1919 (1921), and Stories of Old Ireland and Myself (1924); retrospective exhibitions in 1933 and 2005, the latter in Dublin and London with pictures from Imperial War Museum added; several hundred letters, many illustrated, written to Mrs St George were donated by Vivien to the National Gallery in the 1970s; his “Portrait of Rose, Fourth Marchioiness of Headfort” sold at Sotheby’s for $577,250 on 8 Nov. 1012. . ODNB BREF DIB

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Works
An Onlooker in France, pref. Bruce Arnold [rep. of 1st edn. 1921] (Dublin: Parkgate Books 1996), 223pp. [ltd. edn. 550; copyright Kit Orpen Casey], self-port. and numerous ills.

Celebrated works incl. “The Dead Ptarmigan” (a self-portrait); also a much-revised “The Unknown Warrior”; “The Holy Well”, &c.; also “Early Morning” (1922), a sensuous portrait of a mistress nude, cross-legged on a bed, and drinking chocolate in a downward view, served as the poster-image for the 2005 Retrospective in Dublin. Also portraits of Michael Davitt (1905) and Nathaniel Hone [Lane Gift; Muncipal Gallery, Dublin].

See also The Mind of Man: Poems by John Gawsworth [pseud. of Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong, 1912-70] (London: Grant Richards 1940), 30 [2]pp., ill. [ill. p.[4] by Sir William Orpen]

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Criticism
S. Dark & P. G. Konody, Sir William Orpen: Artist and Man (1932), 64 pls.; Bruce Arnold, Orpen: Mirror to An Age (1981). See also Aidan Dunne, on ‘Politics, Sex & Death’ [Orpen Retrospective at National Gallery of Ireland], in The Irish Times ( 28 May 2005), Weekend [infra].

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Commentary
Seán O’Faolain, The Irish (1947): O’Faolain attributes to Orpen him he view that the Norman’s excluded the Irish from their law in ‘a fatal error of statesmanship’ because they regarded them as ‘uncouth and barbarous, as the Tudors were to do after them’; Orpen is thereupon quoted: ‘and, indeed, in the person of King John, was not morally equipped, either to rule his (Irish) barons with justice or to restrain them from harsh treatment of his Irish subject.’ (p.59).

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Aidan Dunne, on ‘Politics, Sex & Death’, the Orpen Retrospective at National Gallery of Ireland, in The Irish Times ( 28 May 2005) [Weekend]. ‘The received view of William Orpen is likely to be that he was an Irish-born artist, a gifted draughtsman, who found success as one of the most fashionable portrait painters in Edwardian London. Habitual visitors to the National Gallery of Ireland may also be familiar with works such as his striking but distinctly unflattering self-portrait “The Dead Ptarmigan”, and his singular Irish allegory “The Holy Well”, an ambitious though thoroughly idiosyncratic symbolist concoction. […] As the self-caricatures in his letters to Mrs. St George and elsewhere, and many paintings, including “The Dead Ptarmigan”, demonstrate, his humour was often self-deprecating and he tended to exaggerate negative aspects of his appearance, notably his short stature, beak like nose and obtruding lower lip. […] Why was he, as one of the most successful and sought after artists of the time, so unhappy? It is true that, by the time of his death, he had in some respects fallen out of fashion. He was intellectually and stylistically ill-equipped to make the transition to modernism, something that is starkly apparent in his stilted Irish allegories, including “The Holy Well”. But there was more undoubtedly involved than that. Upstone suggests, convincingly, that his traumatic experiences of a war artist were decisive and unsettling for him.’ (See full text.)

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References
Brian de Breffny, Ireland: A Cultural Encyclopaedia (London: Thames & Hudson 1983); RHA, 1908; RA, 1921; ‘Versailles, 1919’ reprinted here (pl XIII).

A. N. Jeffares & Anthony Kamm, eds., An Irish Childhood, An Anthology (Collins 1987), selects ‘Life Class’.

Hyland Books (Cat. 214) lists S. Dark & P. G. Konody, Sir William Orpen, Artist and Man (1932), 64 pls.

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Notes
William O’Brien, portrait by Orpen (Municipal Gall.); see F. S. L. Lyons, John Dillon (1968); also self-portrait (see Anne Crookshank, ed., Irish Portraits Exhibition [Catalogue] (Ulster Museum 1965).

Auction prices (1): Christie’s Irish Art Sale (London, May 15th 2003), having first been displayed in Belfast, Dublin and New York in late April, included Orpen’s “Gardenia St. George on a Donkey” (1910), with top estimate of £1.7, and “The Spanish Coast from Tangiers”. Paintings from Michael Smurfit’s collection were on sale by auction at Sotheby’s on the following day (as infra).

Auction prices (2): “Mrs St. George”, a portrait by Orpen, hung in the K Club as property of Michael Smurfit until May 2003, when it was sold, with a reserve of €740,000, in May 2003. Gardenia St. George”, a young girl on a donkey, was the top-selling lot at Christie’s auction in August 2003, going for £107,250 [E1.037]. (See The Irish Times, 17 Aug. 2003.)

Auction prices (3): Orpen's painting “Mrs Hone in a Striped Dress” failed to sell for the reserve of £5,000-7,000 in 1983 but fetched £60,000 in 1993 (Irish Times, 15 Aug. 2009.)

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