William Orpen’s war

William Orpen’s war


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William Orpen
World War 1 art


Was William Orpen a man out of step with modernism? Kenneth McConkey tackles this view in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War.

In the early spring of 1916, the removal men arrived at William Orpen’s ‘Oriel’ studio in South Kensington and packed up Nude Pattern: The Holy Well to take it to the forthcoming New English Art Club exhibition. A painting of penitents divesting at a sacred spring, imagined on the edge of Foul Sound between Inisheer and Inishmaan, it appears unproblematic although on top of the shrine, in place of a crucifix, stands an Aran Islander in traditional costume.1 While it might seem vaguely odd to exhibit a picture so completely Irish at a ‘New English’ show in the midst of the Great War, any regular London visitor to club exhibitions would not be surprised.2 Orpen had been a contributor to its exhibitions since 1899 and although he had latterly been sucked into the Royal Academy, he reserved his more challenging, experimental and ‘Irish’ works for the club.3 However, Nude Pattern was to be the last of these grand peasant pageants.

The New English opened within days of the suppression of the Easter Rising and closed as the Ulster and Munster Divisions were massing on the banks of the Somme. Orpen’s great picture, with its allusions to JM Synge and the solemn, comedic Connemara, if it had any relevance at all, was wrong-footed by history. Never, one might say, was text more tangential to context. A curiosity, even in London, it must have seemed oddly out-of-touch with reality as Casement was bundled from Banna Strand in a prison van to the Old Bailey and the Irish rebels were rounded up. And hanging near it in Suffolk Street that spring was CRW Nevinson’s modified modernist La Mitrailleuse, (Tate), a picture of ‘poilu’ machine-gunners that Sickert claimed was ‘the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting’.4

Orpen’s failings, his material success and apparent anti-modernism, became his nephew’s obsession. John Rothenstein, when he wrote his essay on his embarrassing uncle in 1952, portrayed a man of ‘little intellectual curiosity’ who adopted a ‘contemptuous attitude towards the life of the mind’.5 The mantra was taken up by others including Stephen Spender, and even in 1978, when the National Gallery of Ireland was staging its centenary re-assessment exhibition, the authoritative Dennis Farr could write off Orpen’s reputation in terms of ‘Board Room verisimilitude’.6

Yet while his value as a portrait painter was readily acknowledged, as the van pulled out of South Bolton Gardens, it was the end of an era. He had resisted Keating’s entreaties to return to Ireland and for the previous few months had consigned his Aran ‘motley’ to the dressing-up box, in favour of a khaki uniform. Second Lieutenant Orpen was now a clerk in the Army Service Corps at Kensington Barracks.7 He could keep the studio alive when not on duty, but he was wasting his time. Around him the scene-shifters were at work. The energetic Beaverbrook, was seeking to overhaul Britain’s propaganda machine. Lavery, Muirhead Bone and others, even Mrs St George and her posh friends, were saying that artists should be sent to record the war. Eventually the war bureaucrats would swing round to the view that the clerk in the Army Stores, upgraded to Major, should indeed be dispatched to Northern France and exactly a year after Nude Pattern, the ‘Western World’ was exchanged for the Western Front. He arrived in Boulogne on a troopship in April 1917, his stomach ‘twitching with nerves’, and set to work immediately .8

At first he obeyed the rules. He painted portraits at GHQ as well as the battlefields – the lunar landscapes of the Somme, the terrible human debris, the smashed villages of Albert, Péronne and Thiepval, where he was ominously pursued by the only survivor – a black cat seen clearly in The Main Street, Thiepval.9 Stumbling among the mounds of chalk in ‘No Man’s Land’, he looked up at the Butte de Warlencourt, which was ‘very beautiful’ in the afternoon sunlight, and peered down at a heap of bodies mercilessly sketched in Dead Germans in a Trench.10

Then, in the autumn, it was off to paint members of the Flying Corps at Estre Blanche, and from there to Paris for more portraits of generals. By the time he returned to his base at Cassel, fear and fatigue had taken hold and he had lice, swiftly reassessed as scabies, and later, as blood poisoning, when he failed to recover.11 In the Receiving-Room of the 42nd Stationary Hospital at Amiens, surrounded by gaping mouths, twitching limbs and deep psychological scars, the horror of it all began to fester. His mind was mangled as all around him youths lay screaming for death, and the first of his war allegories took shape in Adam and Eve at Péronne. At length his health improved, but there was the deplorable business of ‘the spy’ and his ridiculous claim that portraits of Yvonne, a young French nurse at Amiens, were actually those of a second ‘Mata Hari’.12 He was caned by the bureaucrats and returned to London at the end of March 1918. A month later his war paintings went on show at Agnew’s, to great éclat. Arnold Bennett described the 125 pictures as ‘William Orpen at his finest, with all his qualities, including his astonishing competence, in full play’.13 The work was a revelation.

But it was not over, Beaverbrook wanted him back at the Front, and in July, the little Irish Major returned. More portraits: General Rawlinson, Marshal Foch and Colonel Lee, the spy-hunter who had given him a hard time on the previous tour. All was now sweetness and light – except it wasn’t. At Douai by the roadside he saw the ‘mad woman’ – a Delphic figure who had been so badly abused by ‘the Boche’ that ‘she had lost her reason’.14 In palette and handling, echoes of the Irish pageants are unmistakable (Fig 4). As Wilfrid Owen wrote, ‘the poetry is in the pity’. In the eerie Changing Billets, Picardy and The Thinker on the Butte de Warlencourt, the work became more conceptual – blatant quotation from Rodin, permitting an infantryman’s moment of reflection. But what ‘Tommie’ was allowed to think?
Then suddenly there was the Armistice – a moment of canine frenzy rather than peace. The sky was rent with searchlights, for sure, but seething over the shattered surface of the globe were the mad microbes of humanity, devouring itself. There could be no greater Goya-esque statement of the universal sepsis than Armistice Night, Amiens and The Official Entry of the Kaiser.

Following this walpurgisnacht, he left the charnel-house and whistled down to Paris to witness the peace conference at the Quai d’Orsay with a commission for three further canvases – essentially group portraits of the war winners. Two of these were delivered, but as he struggled over the third his hatred of the hypocrisy of the carve-up boiled over and he could not go on – ‘‚Ķthe ‚Äúfrocks‚Äù [had] won the war. ‚ÄúI did this,‚Äù ‚ÄúI did that‚Äù they all screamed‚Ķ’ and the ‘silent soldier’ was forgotten’.15 The signatories were painted out and replaced by the coffin of the unknown soldier, draped in the Union Jack, and guarded by two stripped, emaciated ‘Tommies’ risen from the shell craters. At the Academy of 1923 this was the most popular picture, but its sentiment was all wrong for the bureaucrats.16 As is well-known, the picture was only accepted by the Imperial War Museum when the ‘Tommies’ were painted out.

And from this final debacle it was on to the ‘golden treadmill’ of portraiture, fuelled by practical jokes, childish cavorting, stories of old Ireland and drinking in excess – his Joycean exile stalked by nightmares that no modernist mantra could ever allay. The whole ‘machine aesthetic’ was, in any case, discredited by the war and even Nevinson had returned to more orthodox figuration by its end. If Orpen was no Modernist, it does not mean that he turned his back on modernity. Far from it. Modern life, the glitterati who paraded through the studio consumed him to the point where nervous energy only signifies desperation and the supremely sensitive registers of visual sensation – that superb capacity to see things in paint – loses its edge by overuse. And ironically, it was the Cubo-Futurist Nevinson, who eloquently defended Orpen’s reputation after his death:

‘Because he was successful he was automatically condemned by the ‘intelligensia’ ‚Ķ Because Orpen was never a victim of the latest art vogue, he was condemned by those who ‚Ķ have confused ‚Ķ the ‘latest’ with the best. Because Orpen was a realist, and painted things as he saw them, he was condemned by those who think abstraction the only solution, and incomprehensibility a superior expression. Because Orpen was an artist, and used paint as his greatest means of expressing himself and his thoughts, he was condemned by those who now consider a picture an object never to be looked at and enjoyed, but to be written about, puzzled over, confused or embarrassed by, or startled at; a mixture of musical conundrum ‚Ķ architectural constructions, significant forms and mathematical casuistries.’16

That Orpen needed this cogent defence in 1933, speaks for itself. Thirties’ modernism had no place for him, and the sacred source of the ritual transformation of young Ireland that he pictured with such sentiment in Nude Pattern, he would not witness.

Orpen is widely regarded as part of a precocious generation, a ‘modern English painter’ by Rothenstein’s definition or ‘one of the great British artists’ of the early 20th century, according to the catalogue of the 2005 exhibition.17 Even today, it seems, his nationality is up for grabs. For sure, he pitched his tent in London and at that crucial moment in 1916 when Nude Pattern was being manhandled into the wagon, refused to go back. But there was a greater Moloch to confront in the mindless folly of the Western Front – and from it the bitter truth of shattered lives would craft, from weird and frightening allegories, a fateful message that rivals Goya.

‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’ Imperial War Museum, London, July 2014-March 2015.

Kenneth McConkey is Emeritus Professor of Art History at Northumbria University.

Acknowledgments: The author and the Editor would like to thank Alan and Mary Hobart for their kind assistance.

1 Anne Korff, ‘The Artist’s Eye’, in Anne Korff,
JW O’Connell and John Waddell, introd., The Book of Aran, 1994 (Tir Eolas, Newtonlynch, Galway), p. 275. As is well-known, Seán Keating, who modelled for the Aran Islander, considered the idea of Irish country-folk removing their clothes at a shrine, highly unlikely.
2 It was, after all, not really a club, and in its thirtieth year, it could not claim to be completely ‘New’, nor was it ever exclusively ‘English’; see Kenneth McConkey, The New English, A History of the New English Art Club, 2006, (Royal Academy Publications).
3 Orpen was instantly awarded Associate membership of the Royal Academy in 1910 and thereafter treated it as the venue of choice for recent portraits.
4 Meirion and Susie Harries, The War Artists, 1983 (Michael Joseph), p. 3.
5 John Rothenstein, Modern English
Painters, Sickert to Smith, 1952 (Eyre and Spottiswoode), p. 221.
6 Stephen Spender, ‘English Artists vs English Painting’, Art News, vol 52, 1953, pp. 15-16; Dennis Farr, English Art 1880-1940, 1978 (OUP), p. 193; quoted in Kenneth McConkey, ‘William Orpen: his contemporaries, critics and biographers’, in Orpen and the Edwardian Era, 1987 (exhib cat., Pyms Gallery, London), pp. 12-13. Farr’s dismissal came just three years before Bruce Arnold’s Orpen, Mirror to an Age, 1981 (Jonathan Cape), the biography upon which much recent Orpen scholarship depends.
7 Orpen had joined up in December 1915. For a general account of the political, social and cultural context of the period, see Keith Jeffrey, Ireland and the Great War, 2000 (CUP).
8 William Orpen, An Onlooker in France, 1921 (Williams and Northgate), p. 12. Orpen’s account of his war experience was enduringly popular with further editions in 1923 and 1924 and two modern reprints in 1996 (Dublin, Parkgate Books) and 2008 (Paul Holberton Publishing). The second of these contains a useful introduction by Robert Upstone.
9 Orpen, 1921, pp. 36-7.
10 In the much-reproduced oil version (IWM:
ART 2955), Orpen reduced the number of bodies to two.
11 Arnold, 1981, p 337.
12 Orpen, 1921, pp. 71-3.
13 Arnold Bennett, ‘William Orpen at the Front’,
in War, Paintings and Drawings executed on
the Western Front by William Orpen ARA, 1918
(exhib cat., Thos Agnew and Sons, London), p. 6.
14 Orpen 1921, p. 91.
15 Orpen, 1921, p. 101.
16 CRW Nevinson, ‘Sir William Orpen’, in WR Inge, Introd., The Post-Victorians, 1933 (Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd), pp. 461-2.
17 Robert Upstone, William Orpen, Politics, Sex and Death, 2005 (exhib cat., Imperial War Museum/Philip Wilson Publishers), p. 7.

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