June 10, 2024

William Orpen

Times and needs change and thus over the last century various paintings have been sold from Highclere either to pay taxes or to support lifestyles post World War One. Every so often we hear of one such painting coming back onto the market and, if we can, we buy it back. Thus a few years ago Geordie discovered that a painting of the 5th Earl’s daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, was being auctioned. Due to Covid challenges it had not sold and we were able to step in to buy it.

It is such a striking portrait of a lovely girl, (the topmost photo) painted in about 1915 therefore  during the First World War, by a most remarkable artist, William Orpen (1878-1931).

Orpen was born in Dublin, Ireland, growing up in a large rambling house with parents who both drew although his father was a solicitor. Following art school in Dublin he moved to London to study at the Slade and in the years before the First World War became a successful and much-admired portrait painter. His marriage and love life were equally colourful and by 1914 he was the most famous artist in London.

Apart from society portraits, he also painted several group portraits – conversation pieces were very popular – most notably the Cafe Royal in London and scenes from Dublin beaches, moments of family happiness caught on sandy beaches with sea winds and summer light.

When the First World War broke out Orpen stayed in London to support the British war effort and in March 1916 was commissioned into the Army Service Corps. That year he also painted a very despondent Winston Churchill. Through a friend both of his and the Carnarvons, the Quartermaster General of the British Army General Sir John Cowans, Orpen got himself promoted and sent out to France with indefinite permission to remain at the Front.

Orpen arrived at the Somme shortly after the German forces had pulled back to the Hindenburg Line. Every day he would set off to sketch the scenes of ravaged lands and broken lives whether they were German prisoners or Allied troops. In 1917, he also painted portraits of both General Lord Haig and Sir Hugh Trenchard the commander of the Royal Flying Corps, images which were widely reproduced to bolster morale in all the newspapers. In 1918, he was knighted for his efforts.

As the war continued, Orpen became evermore mentally exhausted and his works became increasingly theatrical and more allegorical. An exhibition of his work in May 1918 entitled WAR was the talk of London and attracted over 9000 visitors. He later donated all the works which had been on display to the British government on the understanding that they should remain in their white frames and be kept together as a single body of work.

The Imperial War Museum then commissioned Orpen to stay in France and paint three large group portraits of the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles. Throughout 1919 he painted individual portraits of the delegates and these formed the basis of his two large paintings, one set in the Quai d’Orsay and the other in the Hall of Mirrors. In the latter the architecture overwhelms the gathered politicians and statesmen whose political squabbles diminished them in Orpen’s eyes: the peace they were trying to put in place is metaphorically distorted in the mirrors and the world leaders occupy little more than a quarter of the composition.

Orpen composed the work with Haig and Marshal Foch at the centre with the other delegates around them. He also included two additional figures, a Grenadier Guards sergeant and the young fighter pilot Arthur Rhys Davids whom Orpen had painted just before he died.

Nine months later Orpen painted over all the figures and replaced them with a coffin covered by the Union Jack and flanked by two ghostly and wretched soldiers clothed in rags, with two cherubs above them supporting garlands of flowers.


Orpen was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1921. An exhibition of his work drew on his 1921 memoir, An Onlooker in France, in which he wrote of the horrors he had experienced on the Somme and explored a selection his aftermath paintings as expressions of his struggle to comprehend the profound human trauma of the war.

In later life, Orpen returned to painting society portraits but the war, ill health and increasing dependence on alcohol took its toll and he died aged 52 in 1931.