Aidan Dunne, on ‘Politics, Sex & Death’, review of the Orpen Retrospective at National Gallery of Ireland, in The Irish Times ( 28 May 2005) [Weekend].

The received view of William Orpen is likely to be that he was an Irish-born artist, a gifted draughtsman, who found success as one of the most fashionable portrait painters in Edwardian London. Habitual visitors to the National Gallery of Ireland may also be familiar with works such as his striking but distinctly unflattering self-portrait “The Dead Ptarmigan”, and his singular Irish allegory “The Holy Well”, an ambitious though thoroughly idiosyncratic symbolist concoction.

Bruce Arnold did more than anyone to enlarge this limited view with his 1983 biography Orpen: Mirror to an Age, persuasively presenting a case for him as not only a gifted technician but a valuable witness to his life and times on several levels. The biography came some years after the National Gallery’s 1978 retrospective, and accompanied a growing interest in the work of Irish artists by Irish collectors in auction rooms in Dublin and London, an interest substantially fostered in Orpen’s case by the work of the art dealer Alan Hobart. As with Sir John Lavery, another celebrated society painter with a peripheral but significant interest in Irish politics, Orpen has been in the ascendant in terms of both reputation and auction prices.

This substantial retrospective, provocatively subtitled Politics, Sex & Death should do a great deal to consolidate his growing reputation. In fact it has already made an impact during its original run at London ’s Imperial War Museum. As the retrospective’s curator, Robert Upstone, observes, prior to this show, “the last Orpen retrospective was held in 1933”, just a couple of years after his death. In Dublin, the exhibition is brilliantly augmented by Yours very sincerely, William Orpen, featuring some of the artist’s war drawings from the Imperial War Museum and a generous selection of the illustrated letters he sent to his long-term lover Mrs St George throughout their 15-year relationship.

Orpen was born in Stillorgan in 1878. He was the youngest of five children. His father was a solicitor, circumstances were comfortable and his childhood was he wrote, happy, “with not a blot of sorrow”. However, he also recalled accidentally overhearing a conversation between his parents during which they wondered at the fact that he was the only ugly child of the five. Not exactly reassuring and probably instrumental in prompting the endless reinventions of himself in his numerous self-portraits. It is as if, Upstone notes, he saw portraits as theatrical opportunities to try on different personas, hiding his own identity behind a series of elaborate disguises.

As the self-caricatures in his letters to Mrs St George and elsewhere, and many paintings, including “The Dead Ptarmigan”, demonstrate, his humour was often self-deprecating and he tended to exaggerate negative aspects of his appearance, notably his short stature, beak like nose and obtruding lower lip. Mrs St George was Evelyn Baker, an American who married a relation of orpen’s mother. Although Orpen had married Grace Knewstub in 1901, and they had three children together, his life was lived on the basis of complex layers of amorous relationships. Grace was often consigned to the role of a stay-at-home mother raising her family alone during Orpen’s prolonged absences. Orpen and Evelyn met around 1906 and by 1908 they were lovers. He was the father of Evelyn’s daughter, Vivien, born in 1912. In 1974 Vivien presented the National Gallery with an archivist’s treasure trove; some 366 sheets of illustrated correspondence from Orpen to her mother.

In any case, precociously talented, Orpen was accepted at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art at the early age of 13 where he gained a reputation as an exceptionally capable and industrious student. In a sense the experience was repeated when he went on the Slade in London and quickly became one of the elite, palling around with Augustus John and Albert Rutherson. Collectively they became known as the three musketeers. Later, relations with the mercurial, egotistical John cooled. He is unfairly scathing about Orpen in his autobiography.

Evelyn’s social connections and Orpen’s considerable technical gifts ensured his rapid and sustained success as a portrait painter. He was seen as a plausible successor to John Singer Sargent as the society portraitist and he was easily up to the task, coping with a daunting volume of commissions with apparent ease. Portraits occupied a great deal of his time in the pre-first World War years and continued apace after the war. In the 1920s, Upstone points out, he was making a great deal of money, probably equivalent to about £1 million (€1.45 million) a year in today’s terms. Yet he became increasingly disenchanted and troubled. He was also drinking a great deal, a long-term weakness that he was well aware of, and one that certainly contributed to his relatively early death.

Why was he, as one of the most successful and sought after artists of the time, so unhappy? It is true that, by the time of his death, he had in some respects fallen out of fashion. He was intellectually and stylistically ill-equipped to make the transition to modernism, something that is starkly apparent in his stilted Irish allegories, including “The Holy Well”. But there was more undoubtedly involved than that. Upstone suggests, convincingly, that his traumatic experiences of a war artist were decisive and unsettling for him.

The role of the war artist was one he took on with great flair and enthusiasm. His first undertaking was a portrait of Field Marshall Haig, who apparently told him that he should be concentrating on the situation of the ordinary soldiers at the front. Which Orpen thereafter did, with tremendous application and a growing sense of horror and disenchantment. His factual accounts of individuals at the front are direct and powerful. His allegorical compositions are more awkward. He felt guilty, in France, at the fact that he was observing unbelievable horror from a perspective of relative privilege and comfort. By the time he came to paint “The Signing of the Peace” in the Hall of Mirrors he was contemptuous of the “frocks”- the politicians in frock coats - who “had won the war”. He “kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France forever.” Orpen maintained a presence and interest in Ireland in several ways, teaching at the Metropolitan - where Sean Keating was one of his students and painting a series of portraits of some key political figures. Yet his relationship with Ireland was sometimes obscure and remained ambivalent and inconclusive. Roy Foster writes informatively in the catalogue about his plight as an Irish Protestant opting “for success in London, and a niche in the British Empire”, curiously displaced and adrift in a time of cultural ferment.

Besides all this, however, Orpen’s endless self-dramatisations, his many but somehow unfulfilled relationships, his sense of not quite belonging, suggest a deeper, underlying unease. Writing in 1932, Sidney Dark perceptively observed that he “was a man who wanted something from life with all the intensity of his vivid personality. I do not believe that ever quite knew what that something was, but whatever it was, I am quite sure he never found it.”

[Orpen: Politics, Sex & Death runs at the National Gallery of Ireland Millennium VA until Aug. 28, admission €10 (concessions €6). Yours Very Sincerely, William Orpen runs at the National Gallery of Ireland, Print Galleries, until Aug. 14, admission free. For further information: 01-6633513.

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