It’s Orpen Understood that War Time Painters Efforts are Seldom Recognised

william-orpen-early-morningEarly Morning (1922)  90cm x85cm, London.

Major Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen was born on 27 November 1878, in Stillorgan, Co.Dublin, Ireland. He was the fourth son of Arthur Herbert Orpen  and his wife, Anne Caulfield (daughter of the Right Rev. Charles Caulfield; Bishop of Nassau). Both of his parents were amateur painters, and his eldest brother, Richard Caulfield Orpen, became a notable architect.

Growing up at the family home Oriel, at the age of 13, the young and talented Orpen attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. It was here that he won every major prize as well as the British Isles Gold Medal for Life Drawing; before leaving to study at the Slade School of Art (1897-1899). It was here that he mastered an oil painting technique which included mirrors in his pictures to create images within images; adding false frames and collages around his subjects; making pictorial references to works by other artists in his own paintings.

Orpen married Grace Knewstub and they had three daughters together; but the marriage was not a happy one and, by 1908, Orpen had begun a long running affair with Mrs Evelyn Saint-George, a well-connected American millionairess based in London, and with whom he also had a child.

  • By the start of WW1, Orpen was the most commercially successful artist working in Britain.
  • In December 1915 he was commissioned into the Army Service Corps painting portraits, including that of Winston Churchill, and other war artist postings.
  • In late1917, Orpen spent two weeks in hospital with blood poisoning and it was here that he met a young volunteer Red Cross worker from Lille named Yvonne Aubicq.

In May 1918, 125 of Orpen’s war paintings and drawings were displayed at Agnew’s Galleries in Old Bond Street in London. The exhibition was a great success with 9,000 paying visitors attending its four week exhibition.

  • In 1928 Orpen stood for election as President of the Royal Academy but lost to Sir William Llewellyn.
  • Orpen died aged 53 in London, on 29 September 1931, and was buried at Putney Vale Cemetery.
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