Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

William Orpen and his Experiences on the Somme

The narrative of William Orpen’s life is a strange one. How did this son of a Dublin solicitor, born in a comfortable family house in Blackrock, taught art at the Metropolitan Art School in Dublin where he was sensationally successful, and then at the Slade school in Dublin, come to be, among other things, one of the greatest war artists ever?

He did an inconceivable thing: he painted the First World War. He captured its agony, its anguish and its huge death-toll. He painted into the shattered landscapes of Flanders the even more shattered lives of soldiers and civilians. His is the art of blood and sacrifice. His vision also contains a mockery of the generals and politicians, many of whom made a mess of things, most of all in the dreadful Treaty of Versailles, which Orpen also attended and painted. He recorded all of this in An Onlooker in France 1917-1919.

The book is a great work of art itself but hard to come by. It was published shortly after the end of the First World War, in 1921, and its illustrations, though plentiful, were in black and white. A new edition, accompanied by colour illustrations of his works throughout, has been published in London and is a welcome reminder of his great talent and his compassion.

Orpen approached the First World War in a light-hearted way. At its outbreak he was already an established figure in London with a growing practice as a portrait painter. He also had a teaching job in Dublin, which took him to the city of his birth twice a year. He was in love with an American heiress, Mrs St George, who helped to refine his talent and enlarge his ambition. His studio assistant was Sean Keating. When compulsory conscription --- the Lord Derby Scheme --- was introduced, at the end of 1915 (Ireland was excluded), Keating decided to go home, and urged Orpen to do the same. Orpen, however, felt that he owed a debt to England, and stayed on to help in whatever way he could.

The War Artists' Scheme was ideal for him, and he threw himself into it with enthusiasm, and with that light-hearted, even light-headed abandon, which saw 'Painting the War' as exotic. A gilded view of ‘the Western Front’ was already being given to the British public by the war machine, and by the propagandist press; inspired by this, Orpen set forth.

The Front transformed his understanding. The experiences on the Somme were quite shattering. Orpen found himself in the presence of death and decay. A broken and destroyed world lay at his feet. The landscapes were a mixture of Hieronymous Bosch and Jacques Callot. The cadavers in the trenches, the waste of machinery and weapons, the skeletal foot rising out of the mud with a boot on it, and all this seen in winter, and then in the brilliant sunlight of the summer of 1917, transformed his life.

He developed a way of dealing with the vast scale of human tragedy. It was to treat with flippant irreverence those around him; and the more senior they were, the less he minded giving offence. The paintings of his first year in France are simple and direct statements of what he found. He sat out in the open, and set down, on canvas after canvas, the upturned earth, the fresh growth of green grass and weed, the shattered trees, the broken evidence of the passing of terrible warfare. The colour in these works is brilliant. The sunlight glows. The skies are blue, flecked with scudding cloud, the ground baked yellow, with patchy green where the grass is growing again.

Later a darker vision came upon him. The simplicity vanished into a more complex, more frightening series of pictures. There were the women who came as camp-followers of the army, the drunkenness, the insanity, the disease and the wretchedness visited upon hundreds of square miles of France and Flanders; Orpen sought to evoke these things, in a growing mood of pity and rage. His palette is more sombre, the colours and tones reflective of despair.

An Onlooker in France 1917-1919 is a book filled with secrets, for which one needs a means of unlocking them. The key lies in the paintings and drawings, as it once did in those who experienced the War. I was lucky enough to meet some of them when working on my Orpen biography. The paintings explain the reality, but words are important, too; words give life a gloss. In Orpen’s case the gloss is essentially flippant. This was in keeping with the times. But it was also in keeping with Orpen's extrovert nature. He protected his feelings with jokes, verbal shorthand, and a crisp, off-hand manner. The full story of the artist's curious path through the territory of war, that territory of orders, authority, rank, hierarchy, stubbornness, stupidity, rather than the poignant landscape of battle, will probably never be told, although it is hinted at, in Orpen's own book.

While the new book is memorable for its brilliant colour plates of Orpen’s work, the scholarly side of it, by Robert Upstone, the Curator of Modern British Art at the Tate Britain, lurches a bit between generalised speculation and some pertinent new discoveries in correspondence, including a re-examination of Orpen’s ill-health in the later stages of the First World War. Upstone was responsible for the badly-titled exhibition, William Orpen: Politics, Sex and Death. This was shown at the Imperial War Museum and then at the National Gallery in Dublin in 2004-2005. As an introduction to the present book he has written a long ‘scholarly’ essay about Orpen. It fails to refer to an important earlier edition of An Onlooker in France, fully-illustrated with new photographs. This was published by Paul Hannon in Dublin in 1996 and contained new research material about Orpen at the Front, when he brought the Marchionness of Cholmondeley, whose brother, Sir Philip Sassoon, was Field Marshal Earl Haig’s private secretary, up to the Front Lines in his Rolls Royce. This should have been acknowledged and its content included as should the significant, first-hand recollections contained in the RTE Documentary about Orpen, made by Joe Mulholland in 1979 with an important Sean Keating interview. This published and available material was ignored; instead Upstone indulges in a recollection of Mary McAleese visiting the Somme battlefield – he spells her name differently in two consecutive lines of the book – and tries to invoke a rather lame Irish First World War association based on the Good Friday Agreement! Such nonsense notwithstanding, the book is a memorable and beautiful reminder of the outstanding abilities of this truly great Irish artist.

William Orpen: An Onlooker in France, is published at £30 sterling by the London Art Publisher, Paul Holberton.