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Sir William Orpen

This week in our art course on British art of the twentieth century we covered the First World War artists.

Earl Haig by Orpen

A war artist was severely constrained, he could not for example paint a dead British soldier and they were clearly regarded by High Command as part of the propaganda effort. It is interesting therefore that the two foremost portraitists of that era – John

Singer Sargent and William Orpen – did manage to combine some notable anti-war works with more conventional portraiture of the great and not so good.

William Orpen for example did portraits of Earl Haig, Marshal Foch and the Peace Conference at Versailles as well as some more disturbing pictures of British soldiers at war.

‘Gassed’ by Singer Sargent

Gassed by Singer Sargent depicts a line of bedraggled troops.

William Orpen was the son of an Irish solicitor. He displayed early aptitude for painting and under the patronage of Tate Director William Rothenstein his career prospered.

He charged 2000 guineas for a portrait and was earning £35,000 a year.

His studio in the Bromptons West Kensington is now the London home of Ken Howard.

Orpen was a womaniser and had lengthy affair with an American millionairess. It was said his promotion to major was due to her.

Certainly no war artist spent more time on the Front. He died aged 59. There was a retrospective in the 1980s but he is largely unknown these days.

Many of his works are to be found in the Imperial War Museum.

Ulster Cricifix by Howard

Again there is a connection with Ken Howard who was commissioned by that museum as war artist in Ireland during the Troubles.

I  sometimes wonder if like Van Gogh you are better off in the long term in terms of reputation to be unsold and unknown in your lifetime.


Conversely will the best businessman painter of our generation Damien Hirst fetch the same prices in 20 years time?

There may be private sales but his public prices are in decline.

About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts