Turtle Bunbury

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Major William Orpen mopped his muddy brow and clenched his paintbrush. The 29-year-old artist from Dublin was feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Earlier on that hot July day in 1917 he had pitched his easel amid the trenches of Ypres and commenced work on a painting. His subject, as he later explained in a letter to his father, was ‘the remains of a Boche [German] and an Englishman – just skulls, bones, clothes, rifles, water bottles etc.’

However, after a couple of hours, he began to feel ‘sort of strange.’

‘I did not know if I was lonely or afraid — so I put down my palette and went a few yards back and sat down — when suddenly a huge puff of wind came and blew over my heavy easel, canvas and all, tearing the canvas to bits on the stump of a shelled tree. This did not make me feel any better and it was as much as I could do to sit down and start on a fresh canvas’. [ia]

William Newenham Montague Orpen is widely regarded as the greatest war artist of the Great War and amongst the most talented men ever to project the brutality of conflict onto canvas. During his time on the Western Front, he produced an extraordinary collection of works that continue to stir feelings of compassion and horror amongst those who behold them. His work would earn him a knighthood while his paintings were honoured with a much publicized exhibition after the war

The Orpens were a Protestant family whose forebears had settled in Kenmare, County Kerry in the late 17th century, but later moved to Dublin.[i] Sir William Orpen was born in the wet autumn of 1878 and grew up on Grove Avenue, Stillorgan, then an affluent, bustling village in south Dublin.

Orpen’s artistic genius was apparent from an early age. In 1891, the 13-year-old was accepted at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he excelled in figurative drawing and painting. By the age of 18, he was at London’s Slade School, where he became one of ‘The Three Musketeers’ alongside the artists Augustus John and Albert Rutherston.

In 1900, the 22-year-old Orpen was briefly engaged to Emily Scobel, the Slade School model and aspiring architect featured in his painting ‘The Mirror’. Later that same year, he fell head over heels in love with Grace Knewstub, whose father had been studio assistant to Ford Madox. When Orpen’s father refused to warm to Grace, the artist lamented, ‘I suppose it is the lot of all men to fall in love... but not always with the right person.’
Whether his father approved or not, Orpen married Grace in 1901. They had three daughters, but the marriage was ultimately an unhappy one. Orpen was away for long periods of time, sometimes on assignment with canvas and brush, sometimes carousing with Rutherston and John.

In 1906, Orpen met Mrs Evelyn St George, the leggy, fun-loving American wife of one of his distant cousins. He subsequently painted three paintings of her father, George F Baker, the president of the National Bank of America, known to his contemporaries as "The Sphinx of Wall Street".The chemistry between Orpen and Evelyn was powerful, fuelled by a mutual delight in mischief, merriment and creativity. By 1908, their friendship had became romantic. She was his counsellor, his muse and the procurer of many useful commissions.

As Evelyn was a slender six feet tall and Orpen measured just over five feet, some dubbed them “Jack and the Beanstalk”. They tried to keep their affair discreet, often meeting at Screebe Lodge, Evelyn’s Connemara hideway near Maam Cross. In 1912, Evelyn bore Orpen’s fourth daughter, Vivien.

Orpen was teaching at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin when the Great War broke out. One of the reasons why he subsequently enlisted in the British Army was because George Baker had by now learned of his affair with Evelyn from one of her daughters. On Baker’s command, the romance was henceforth terminated.

In April 1917, the War Propaganda Bureau promoted Orpen to Major and sent him to the Western Front as an official British war artist. He would later publish his experiences of the frontline in ‘An Onlooker in France’, an illustrated war diary which he described as ‘merely an attempt to record some certain little incidents that occurred in my own life there.’ In the preface, he also noted his ‘sincere thanks for the wonderful opportunity that was given me to look on and see the fighting man, and to learn to revere and worship him’. The book makes no reference to one of his earliest adventures on the frontline when he smuggled the beautiful Sybil Sassoon out to the Somme battlefield by hiding her on the floor of his Rolls-Royce; women were not allowed into the war zone.

Assigned to paint portraits of all the top brass, he began with Field Marshall Haig, who suggested he would be better employed concentrating his brush on the ordinary soldiers at the front. The next few months were to considerably dampen Orpen’s sense of humour when he became embroiled in the ghastly battle of Passchendaele erupted. By early November, over half a million British and German soldiers lay dead.

Orpen was shocked by the endless bodies and limbs strewn across battlefields, of the lunar landscapes created by the incessant bombing, of zombie-eyed faces ravaged by poisonous gas. The canvas was an outlet for his torment and certainly he used his genius to tremendous advantage, creating some of the most gripping, poignant and disturbing depictions of war ever painted.

Not long after his canvas was ripped by the tree stump in Ypres, he met Yvonne Aubicq, a young French woman with whom he had a ten-year-long romance. When they parted, he gifted her his Rolls-Royce along with Grover-Williams, his chauffeur. Yvonne then married Grover-Williams, who became a Grand Prix racing driver but was later captured and executed by the Nazis. [v]

At the end of the war, 138 of Orpen’s wartime works made their way back to the Imperial War Museum in London, where many remain on display to this day.

Orpen was knighted in 1918 for his work as a war artist and Grace became Lady Orpen. The following year, the Imperial War Museum commissioned him to go to Versailles and produce three paintings of the Paris Peace Conference . The third of his Versailles paintings was originally supposed to depict forty of the ‘politicians and generals and admirals who had won the war’. However, Orpen found himself unable to paint this work and instead produced his epic work, ‘To the Unknown British Soldier Killed in France’. Explaining his motive to the London Evening Standard, he said: ‘And then, you know, 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 …. So I painted all the statesmen and commanders out.’ The public voted it ‘Picture of the Year’ at the Royal Academy’s 1923 summer exhibition.[iii] Unfortunately the Imperial War Museum was less accommodating and they refused to accept the work until Orpen had reluctantly painted out the two wraith-like soldiers.

Orpen continued to be one of the most sought-after society portrait artists in London throughout the 1920s. Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson and Count John McCormack all sat for him, although he is probably better known for his exquisite portraits of beauties like Vera Hone and Lady Evelyn Herbert.

Like so many others, Orpen never got over his wartime experience. Haunted by the memory of those who died, he became increasingly morose and began drinking heavily. Failure of both liver and heart brought about his death, aged 52, in September 1931. He was survived by Lady Orpen, their three daughters Christine, Diana and Mary, and also by his daughter Vivien.


[ia] Orpen met a French artist who had a similar experience when he visited the same trench the following day. Orpen took this as reassuring news; his reaction had not been unnatural.

[i] They lived in Oriel House on Grove Avenue, Stillorgan, County Dublin. Sir William's brother Richard Orpen (1863-1939) was a prominent architect.

[ii] The spotlight came back on Orpen’s wartime experiences following a remarkable discovery by the National Library of Ireland in 2010, when staff engaged in a systematic review of over 3,500 boxes of unsorted and generally very dull legal documents they had held in storage for many decades past. Amongst these were several hundred boxes that had been were handed into the National Library by a legal firm called Orpen & Sweeney. One of the founders of this company was AH Orpen, William’s father. And in one of those boxes an archivist chanced to discover ten letters written by Orpen to his father, dated between 1901 and 1917. The find represented a terrific source for Orpen’s innumerable admirers worldwide, as well as a considerable incentive for those archivists entrusted with exploring the remainder of the National Library’s legal collection.

[iii] Keith Jeffery, ‘Ireland and the Great War’, p. 85-91.

[v] Yvonne became a major patron of Crufts and was a celebrated breeder and judge of Highland terriers.