Irish Artists at War
Part Three

William Orpen (1879-1931)

Orpen at Versailles

The career of William Orpen, Irish artist, both before and during the Great War gave the British government little hint of what was truly going on behind his so-far acceptable works of art. In 1921, Orpen had written his own account of his time in France during the Great War. The War had been over for three years, all the men who survived had come home. Some struggled with post traumatic syndrome disorder, called “battle shock” or fatigue. Others tried on their new prosthetic arms or legs, or both. Others simply tried to get on with it, even when watching the merriment of the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties just beginning the great forgetting of the Great War. Orpen had put himself in the midst of the action, the Battle of Verdun, which included the equally horrible, Battle of the Somme, part of an almost year long misadventure over the fort at Verdun, wrapped around a months long battle at the Somme, which destroyed an entire generation of young English and Irish men. He described himself, correctly and modestly as An Onlooker in France, 1917-1919, adding a cautionary note: This book must not be considered as a serious work on life in France behind the lines, it is merely an attempt to record some certain little incidents that occurred in my own life there. Then he wrote,

I shall never forget my first sight of the Somme battlefields. It was snowing fast, but the ground was not covered, and there was this endless waste of mud, holes and water. Nothing but mud, water, crosses and broken Tanks; miles and miles of it, horrible and terrible, but with a noble dignity of its own, and, running through it, the great artery, the Albert-Bapaume Road, with its endless stream of men, guns, food lorries, mules and cars, all pressing along with apparently unceasing energy towards the front. Past all the little crosses where their comrades had fallen, nothing daunted, they pressed on towards the Hell that awaited them on the far side of Bapaume.

The book is chatty and casual, something that might be told by a good old boy, war stories honed and polished all to dine out on; but there are passages that indicate that the artist was stirred by the horrors he would witness:

Never shall I forget my first sight of the Somme in summer-time. I had left it mud, nothing but water, shell-holes and mud—the most gloomy, dreary abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, in the summer of 1917, no words could express the beauty of it. The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure—dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky a pure dark blue, and the whole air, up to a height of about forty feet, thick with white butterflies: your clothes were covered with butterflies. It was like an enchanted land; but in the place of fairies there were thousands of little white crosses, marked “Unknown British Soldier,” for the most part. (Later, all these bodies were taken up and nearly all were identified and re-buried in Army cemeteries.) Through the masses of white butterflies, blue dragon-flies darted about; high up the larks sang; higher still the aeroplanes droned. Everything shimmered in the heat.

Although Orpen wrote of the social comings and goings of the soldiers in the “dirty old town” of Amiens, and he provides an interesting picture of the officer class, there is very little written that was critical of the way in which the war was being conducted or of the endless battles that were being fought. The book is everywhere pervaded by ordinariness, as if Orpen were seeking to make sense of the conflict and its elusive goals. As an official artist, the artist was on the front to observe, from a safe distance, of course, but when he went home, he confronted the relative safety of the people of London during wartime and the incongruous complaints of the citizens about what they had to endure. He realized that the home front had no idea what the soldiers were actually enduring: “Then it was that the definite thought came to me: the fighting man, the Hero, will be forgotten; that the people of England who have not been “overseas” and seen them at work, would never realise what these men have been through—win or lose, they would never know.” Even though Orpen lived in a world were men called each other “old bean,” there were those who found his conduct irritating and “disgraceful” when he decided to educate the Londoners with an exhibition of his work in France. The censors were not pleased with the titles of his paintings, perhaps Dead Germans in a Trench, but Orpen had friends in high places and the exhibition was allowed to go on despite the fact that he was “in black disgrace.”

After the successful exhibition, Orpen returned to France, continuing his reportage, sketches of the soldiers and portraits of the generals and the officers, which pepper the book. He was still near Amiens, in the region of the Somme, when the endless battle and the War ended, leaving the artists empty and puzzled:

Yet, on this day, looked forward to for years, I must admit that, studying people, I found something wrong—perhaps, like all great moments expected, something is sure to fall short of expectations. Peace was too great a thing to think about, the longing for it was too real, too intense. For four years the fighting men had thought of nothing except that great moment of achievement: now it had come, the great thing had ceased, the war was won and over. The fighting man—that marvellous thing that I had worshipped all the time I had been in France—had ceased actively to exist. I realised then, almost as much as I do now, that he was lost, forgotten. “Greater love hath no man”—they had given up their all for the sake of the people at home, gone through Hell, misery and terror of sudden death. Could one doubt that those at home would not reward them? Alas, yes! and the doubt has come true. It made me very depressed. The one thing these wonderful super-men gave me to think that evening was: “What shall we do? Will they do as they promised for us? I gave up all my life and work at home and came out here to kill and be killed. Here I am stranded—I cannot kill anyone any more, and nobody wants to kill me. What am I to do? Surely they will give me some job: I have done my bit, they can’t just let me starve.” “When you come back home again”—yes, that crossed their minds and mine for them. 

Orpen himself was sidelined with blood poisoning, and when he recovered, he was called to Versailles where he had a commission to paint the occasion of the signing of the Treaty that would guarantee that there would be another war. On the strength of his controversial but appreciated exhibition of his war work in 1917, the Imperial War Museum gave Orpen a major commission: three large group portraits to fittingly commemorate the solemn occasion, the kind of old fashioned thinking deemed appropriate even after such a modern war. Clearly, Orpen had been changed by what he had seen during the War and his sympathies lay with the ordinary British solider, the Irish farmer abroad, the rank and file, the Americans newly arrived. He observed the Treaty Conference dubiously, writing of the “frocks” or the diplomats who mingled with the high ranking officers all of whom seemed to be detached from the people who actually fought the war.  “I admit,” he wrote, “that all these little “frocks” seemed to me very small personalities, in comparison with the fighting men I had come in contact with during the war.” Later on Orpen commented, The fighting man, alive, and those who fought and died—all the people who made the Peace Conference possible, were being forgotten, the “frocks” reigned supreme. One was almost forced to think that the “frocks” won the war. “I did this,” “I did that,” they all screamed, but the silent soldier man never said a word, yet he must have thought a lot.” With a flourish, the Treaty was signed and he wrote, The “frocks” had signed the Peace! The Army was forgotten. Some dead and forgotten, others maimed and forgotten, others alive and well—but equally forgotten.

William_Orpen_–_The_Signing_of_Peace_in_the_Hall_of_Mirrors,_Versailles_1919,_Ausschnitt

As the Conference ended, the book comes to an abrupt end, and a long line of sketches of soldiers in their duties, their native habitat, the battlefield, were interspersed with more portraits of the frocks and the officers and the leaders of the emerging nations, created by the war, such as, The Emir Feisul. There was one important plate that hinted of things to come, a nearly naked soldier clutching his gun, Blown Up. Mad. Orpen did his job with the large canvases skillfully, handling the group portraits as a good Dutch painter might, but he dwarfed the participants who quake under the magnificent timeless architecture that seems to mock their feeble efforts. Even the choice of sites, Versailles, a palace so ancient and so historic, so utterly unmodern, was chosen by the French who wanted revanche on the Germans, who, decades ago, had forced them to their own palace, the place of King Louis, the Sun King, to sign the Preliminary Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors. The Treaty was deliberately humiliatingly prelude for the Treaty of Frankfurt am Main also in 1871, ending the brief war, but adding on stunning reparations. And now the situation was reversed for the Germans. The Germans were back, but this time as the defeated. They would be made to suffer at the hands of the Allies.

William_Orpen_-_The_Signing_of_Peace_in_the_Hall_of_Mirrors,_Versailles

Sir William Orpen. The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919 (1919)

In these distinguished and dull works of art, Orpen seemed disinterested in French revenge. He had come to know the participants rather well when they had sat for him to have their official portraits painted, but his heart belonged to the common soldier. In 2014, Catherine Marshall and Fintan O’Toole wrote for The Irish Times, referring to the diplomats who were redrawn the post-war world: “The very order they are putting in place is distorted in the mirrors that reflect them. In a technique drawn from Orpen’s great hero, Rembrandt, he uses the towering architecture to suggest the vanity and insignificance of the world leaders, who occupy little more than a quarter of the composition.”

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Sir William Orpen. A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay (1919)

Although with hindsight, we might view them differently, the first two paintings of the commission were commendable and uncontroversial at the time. The third work was supposed to be yet another standard issue group portrait, but something happened on the way to its completion. Twenty figures were originally planned, indeed some are still visible in pentimento, but the painting, as it was finished, was not about the Conference at all, but about the people who were not invited: the soldiers. Titled To the Unknown British Soldier (1921,), the painting is strange, haunted by ghost like specters.  Flanking the coffin of the unknown, covered by a British flag, draped with the British flag in the midst of one of the conference rooms at Versailles, the Hall of France, were the two descendants of his earlier sketch, Blown Up. Mad. Cherubs fly above, a deliberate mockery of the sacrifice of Jesus emerging from the Tomb. All that is left of the original version of this work is a black and white photograph. Unhappy, the Imperial War Museum refused to receive the shocking painting, which was not at all what the Museum expected: a “suitable and permanent memento.”

Blown Up Mad, 1917, William Orpen

Sir William Orpen. Blown Up. Mad (1917)

When this painting was exhibited in 1923, it caused a scandal, as might be expected, but only in official quarters, which was not mollified by the Renaissance references. The public, perhaps a bit wiser, voted it Picture of the Year. The Daily Herald praised it as ‘a magnificent allegorical tribute to the men who really won the war,’ Few in power knew that the clothes of soldiers were often blown off by explosions and those who survived would never be the same again. You had to be in the front lines to know this truth. The government had constructed its official version and Orpen’s nightmare vision of the insanity of war was not what was permitted.

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Sir William Orpen. To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921) (original version)

As Orpen said,  “The only tangible result..is the ragged unemployed soldier and the Dead,” and he explained his painting as, “You know I couldn’t go on. It all seemed so unimportant somehow. In spite of all these eminent men, I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France forever. So I rubbed out all the statesmen and commanders and painted the picture as you see it – the Unknown Soldier guarded by his comrades.” The Imperial War Museum refused to pay for this painting, but in 1928 Orpen eventually painted out the cherubs and the naked soldiers, leaving the stark coffin as testament of the great loss the nation had suffered. In the far distance, a single archway filled with light beckons the Unknown soldier to eternity. The coffin lies in state, strangely British, assertive in its Union Jack attire in the midst of such French splendor. In the far distance, an arched doorway or window emits light, as if eternity were beckoning, or as if hope was trying to shine. The light lines up with and carves a path for the draped coffin to show it the way home. Everywhere else is gilt and over-elaborate marble walls and a green and white marble checkered floor. The decorated setting–pure French–is relieved by the blackness, the darkness of death. The soldier lying in state is unknown, one of the many who could not be identified, a sight familiar to Orpen who had seen these rows of graves at Thibault.

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Sir William Orpen. To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921)

When Orpen painted over the offending sections, the soldiers and the cherubs, he was already on the road to oblivion. He died in 1931 and would be labeled as a second rate portrait painter and forgotten until the 21st century when his reputation would be revived. Orpen had to donate the third painting to the Imperial War Museum in the memory of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig or the Earl Haig, “one of the best friends I ever had.” The Field Marshal had asked of the artist during the War, “Why waste your time painting me? Go and paint the men. They’re the fellows who are saving the world, and they’re getting killed everyday.”

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Sir Edwin Lutyens. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (1928-1932)

According to an historical account, given by Timothy Bowman of the University of Luton, the site of the Somme as an addendum battle for Verdun was selected arbitrarily: it was here that the French and British lines of trenches intersected. Mixed and mingled, the British Tommies and the Irish regiments charged towards the German line along a twenty mile front. July 1st of 1916 was early days in the War and the British confidently assumed that the Germans would be decimated by the pounding of the 1,537 pieces of artillery. “Tomorrow you’ll just light your pipes and cigarettes, slope arms and walk across. It’ll be like a Sunday stroll. There’ll be no opposition,” one officer promised. But as would so often happen, the Germans survived the bombing and were quite ready to fend off the multiple and repeated charges. One of the Royal Irish Fusiliers recounted, “I have a most vivid recollection of seeing a tremendous burst of clay and earth go shooting up into the air—yes, and even parts of human bodies and that when the smoke cleared away there was nothing left. I shall never forget that horrifying spectacle as long as I live.” Those body parts would be the Unknowns. The soldiers who lived, however briefly, to tell the tale of the Somme were horrified, filled with terror. As one low level officer said, “As I was coming out I met the relieving troops moving up. I have never seen such a look of terror on the faces of human beings.” After a foiled advance on July 2nd, an Irish Captain recalled, “It is a very small company now. I took 115 other ranks and four officers (including myself) into action. I am the only officer and only thirty-four other ranks are with me now out of the 115.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   

Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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