William Orpen

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William Orpen, photograph by George Charles Beresford, 1903

Major Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen, KBE, RA, RHA (27 November 1878 – 29 September 1931) was an Irish portrait painter, who worked mainly in London. He was also a war artist.

Life and work[edit]

Born in Stillorgan, County Dublin, William Orpen was the youngest son of Arthur Herbert Orpen (1830-1926), a solicitor, and his wife, Anne St.George (1834-1912), eldest daughter of the Right Rev. Charles Caulfield (1804-1862), Bishop of Nassau.[1] He was a second cousin of Goddard Henry Orpen. William Orpen was a fine draughtsman and a popular painter of the well-to-do in the period leading up to World War I.

He was involved in the "Celtic revival" in Ireland and took part in the attempt there to find a visual counterpart to the birth of new national literary language (McConkey 2005). Although his studio was in London, he spent time in Ireland painting, he was a friend of Hugh Lane and influenced the Irish realist painters, like Sean Keating, who were beginning their careers at that time.

Orpen's wife was Grace Knewstub, whom he married in 1901 and with whom he had three daughters. The marriage was not happy, and the painter eventually ran off with one of his sitters, Madame Saint-George, a wealthy young married woman whom he painted around 1912.

Orpen was an official war painter of the First World War. In 1917 he travelled to the Western Front and produced drawings and paintings of privates, dead soldiers and German prisoners of war along with official portraits of generals and politicians. His large paintings of the Versailles Peace Conference, A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay and The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, captured the political wranglings and the vainglory of the gathered politicians and statesmen, whom Orpen came to loathe but relied upon for post-war commissions. Most of these works, 138 in all, he gave to the British government on the understanding that they should be framed in simple white frames and kept together as a single body of work. They are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London. For his war work, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1918 King's birthday honours list.[2] He was elected a Royal Academician (member of the Royal Academy of Arts) in 1919.[3]

He was deeply affected by the suffering he witnessed in the war and his To the Unknown British Soldier Killed in France first exhibited in 1923 showed a flag draped coffin flanked by a pair of ghostly and wretched soldiers clothed only in tattered blankets. Although widely admired by the public, this picture was attacked by the press and Orpen painted out the soldiers before the painting, which had originally been dedicated to Field Marshal Haig, was accepted by the Imperial War Museum in 1927.[4] Even in commissioned portraits, anguish of war survivors was often captured in the eyes of veterans such as Captain Wood of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, painted in 1919.

According to Bruce Arnold, writing in Irish Art a Concise History:

... while at times his portraits are rather shallow, he was capable of excellent and sympathetic work, particularly in family and group portraits."

As noted by his biographer, H. L. Wellington, in referring to the portrait of Lily Carstairs which formed part of the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1915,[5]

Orpen was fond of painting women sitters against a black background, lighting the figure from two sides, an arrangement which gave luminosity and a certain ethereal appearance to his unfaltering but matter of fact statement…[6]

Bruce Arnold noted Orpen's interest in self-portraiture: his self-portraits are often searching and dramatic. In his The Dead Ptarmigan - a self-portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland, he scowls from the frame while holding a dead ptarmigan at head height.

In a review of an Orpen exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London in 2005, Kenneth McConkey attributes this shallowness of Orpen's portraits to emotional exhaustion, resulting from his experience as a painter of war. He writes of Orpen's post-war activity:

Now the portraits were done with mechanical efficiency, and without pause for reflection, save when he scrutinised himself and found a face he could no longer understand. his face... grimaces, it squints, it scowls; in the 1920s it papers over the inner turmoil left by the long pathetic queues of gas-blinded tommies.

Orpen died aged 53 in London, and was buried at Putney Vale Cemetery. A stone tablet in the Island of Ireland Peace Park Memorial, Messines, Belgium, commemorates him.

On 9 May 2010, a painting of Orpen's mistress Yvonne Aubicque featured on BBC1's "Antiques Roadshow". The owner believed it to be a copy of an original in the Imperial War Museum. However, it turned out to be a "copy" painted by Orpen himself and estimated to be worth £250,000.[7]



  • The Outline of Art.
  • An Onlooker in France (1917–1919).
  • Stories of Old Ireland and Myself.'


  1. ^ Irish Architectural Archive - Richard Francis Caulfield Orpen
  2. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30730. pp. 6685–6686. 7 June 1918. Retrieved 14 December 2008.
  3. ^ "Sir William Orpen, R.A.". Royal Academy of Arts. Retrieved 14 December 2008. 
  4. ^ Gough, Paul (2010). A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War. Bristol: Sansom and Company. 
  5. ^ Royal Academy Pictures and Sculpture, 1915: Illustrating the Hundred and Forty-Seventh Exhibition of the Royal Academy, London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, Limited, 1915 
  6. ^ Wellington, H.L. (1940). "Orpen, Sir William Newenham Montague (1878 - 1931)". Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40 suppl. London: Oxford University Press. 
  7. ^ Adams, Stephen (8 May 2010). "The WWI 'copy' that's worth £250,000". Daily Telegraph. 
  8. ^ Monahan, Rosemary, Photographer of Mountains and Volcanoes: Dr. Tempest Anderson, 1846–1913, Northlight (Arizona State University Department of Art) (7, Forgotten Victorians: Problems in 19c Photography): 53–57 


  • Arnold, Bruce (1977). Irish Art, a concise history. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20148-X. 
  • Gough, Paul (2010). ‘A Terrible Beauty’: British Artists in the First World War. Sansom and Company. ISBN 1-906593-00-0. 
  • McConkey, Kenneth (15 January 2005). "Killing fields". The Guardian. p. 19. 
  • Upstone, Robert (2005). William Orpen: Politics, Sex and Death. London: Imperial War Museum. ISBN 1-904-897-215--. 
  • Upstone, Robert; Weight, Angela, eds. (2008). An Onlooker in France: A Critical Edition of the Artist's Memoirs'. London: Paul Holberton Publishing. ISBN 978-1-903470-67-1. 
  • Robert, Upstone (2009). William Orpen: Teaching the Body. London: Tate Britain. ISBN 978-1-85437-910-8. 

External links[edit]