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William Orpen: Sex, Politics and Death


At the height of his success society portrait painter Sir William Orpen was earning £750,00 a year in today’s money.  A procession of Rolls-Royce motor cars carried politicians and social luminaries to his London studio and beautiful women clamoured for his attention.  Following his death, the Royal Academy organised a memorial exhibition of his best known work in 1933 and soon after its closure Orpen fell from sight and critical attention. Defamed by his surviving rivals and former friends, the energetic proliferation of new art movements helped to accelerate Orpen’s disappearance.

Seventy years later  the Imperial War Museum’s resurrection of William Orpen in Sex , Politics and Death is something of a triumph of rediscovery and reinterpretation.  Orpen’s prolific output ranged from publicly acclaimed and sometimes controversial  paintings to his private cartoons and drawings which illustrated his letters. The exhibition shows Orpen , not conventionally as a  leading figure in London’s clique of society painters but also as outsider, innovator, cynic, lover and observer. Deeply disturbed by the war and events in Ireland, Orpen’s cartoons and writing reflected a struggle to remain disengaged from politics and violent events in which another part of him urged to participate.  Sex , Politics and Death reveals Orpen’s several dimensions, not in a chronology but as separated facets , so that his canvasses are grouped together by subject: Self, Society, Women, Ireland and the War.


 At just over five feet , Orpen’s leprechaun stature and looks caused him to return again and again to the problem of his own appearance. His self portraits are strong but also self deprecating with revealing details of his destructive alcoholism and precocious vanity. In various settings as womaniser, intellectual wit, jockey, crack-shot and landed bonviveur he leers out from his canvasses with a curled upper lip and impudent eye, mocking the viewer – or perhaps himself?  In his self portrait Ready to Start however, Orpen, having left London and his circle of admirers, poses alone in his hotel room in France . Gone is his insouciance and despite the slightly ridiculous helmet and fleece, the set of his eyes and mouth speak of a more anxious young man .


 Orpen’s work is full of references and innuendo, some of it excruciatingly arch. With the temperament of a keeper’s terrier he seemed to gain friends and lose them in prodigious succession. Nevertheless he flourished best in a coterie of London artists and women who acted in various capacities as models, mistresses, benefactors in addition to his long suffering wife Grace. His talent was to reinvent them in his work, sometimes as the subject of his exuberant portraits but also more casually as part of a restaurant clientele or theatre group. In this context he depicted his contemporaries Augustus John, Nicholson, Grace Orpen, the golden haired Yvonne and even the bonnet of his Rolls Royce. He knew his milieu and in this appreciative and intimate environment,  his span of well aimed and uncomfortably prescient observation related to his personal life and friends.


 He reached France as a war artist in 1917, largely on his own initiative.  It must be assumed that his patrons in the army staff anticipated that Orpen’s mastery of the group dynamic could usefully be applied to recording officers and men organising themselves for war. But mobilisation removed Orpen from the salons of cosy and appreciative London, setting him in a bleak and traumatised landscape among less familiar classes and professions.


 Orpen was horrified and angry at what he saw in the trenches. His work records generals, staff offices, the torn up landscape, French civilians and the soldiers at the front line. The portraits are dramatic and well observed, a forlorn Churchill about to resign from the Admirality, a vigorous and bright eyed Haig, , a tired Foch and Major Lee busy in his hut at Beaumarie –sur –Mer. But Orpen’s visual intuition failed him at the front lines. He was by his own account a visitor, without a practical relationship to war or any experience of participation. Rage, bitterness and the proximity of death overcame him, the intensity of what he saw around him outstripped his stock of visual language. The in house references deployed with such effect in his London and Irish repertoire seemed inadequate to describe the realities of war. In many of his sketches Orpen fell back on his developed technical expertise, producing drawings which were extremely competent but lacking the conviction of later artists whose knowledge of war was gained by participation.  Nevertheless Orpen had many parts and this excellent exhibition has value for Edwardian art aficionados as well as for historians of war and of the social elite in London and Dublin.

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