William Orpen The Spy
The Refugee; first titled The Spy

Deep in the Surrey countryside, the Watts’ Gallery is hosting an intriguing display of work by William Orpen.

Orpen was one of the most successful First World War artists and society painters in early 20th century Britain and Ireland. He was celebrated for his record of World War I and thousands flocked to see his works in 1918. A knighthood followed. But was he only a patriotic establishment figure?

After his riproaring success in the 1920s and early 1930s, Orpen fell out of fashion. He came to be seen as artistically and socially conservative, as the Modernist aesthetic replaced what came to be seen as “old-fashioned” oil painting and society portraiture.

Born in 1878 in Stillorgan, County Dublin, Orpen was to gather within himself the most contradictory and disturbing strivings. An exceptionally gifted child, he began artistic training at Dublin’s strictly academic Metropolitan School of Art before he was 13. He left Ireland to enrol at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 1897.

A tightly-curated display in Watts’s atmospheric spaces seeks to draw out Orpen’s particular mastery of painterly technique. It encompasses not only paintings and drawings but explores his use of canvas, paint, easel, brushes and how he designed his own studio.

His teacher at the Slade, Henry Tonks, believed that “hands learn while they do”. From his other instructor, Philip Wilson Steer, Orpen learned how to “lay on paint like a breath”, as Scottish critic Dugald Sutherland MacColl wrote, absorbing the ability to render the quality of light falling on his subjects.

William Orpen: Nude study 1906
William Orpen: Nude study 1906

A haunting early Nude Study from 1906 gives a taste of the scary darkness that so often lies below the glitz and glamour of Orpen’s superb skills. The model’s disturbing face is half-hidden in the shadows cast by a stark light. We are left to guess at the meaning.

Orpen always had a particular sensitivity to feminine mood. His female models ranged from hard-working laundresses, street flower sellers, his lovers, to high society ladies and Dames. When it came to portraits he said it was his job to read “the mind’s construction in the face”. And he did this with consummate psychological insight, rivalled in his day only by American-cosmopolitan John Singer Sargent.

Homage to Manet, 1909 (oil on canvas) by Orpen, William (1878-1931); 162.9×130 cm; Manchester Art Gallery, UK; (group gathered in artist’s home to hear the critic George Moore speak about Manet; painting of Eva Gonzales on wall bought by Sir Hugh Lane (hand to head); Philip Wilson Steer; Henry Tonks (holding cane); D.S. McColl; Sickert (hands to lapels); New English Art Club; South Bottom Gardens;).

Tonks, Steer, Walter Sickert, writer George Moore, art dealer Hugh Lane, and D.S. McCall are brought together in an imaginary gathering, Homage to Manet, painted between 1906-9. At first sight, it seems to be a sedate club of middle-aged men around a table. But wait.

This is a manifesto painting, a challenge to conservative taste and a tribute to the men who pioneered Impressionism in Britain and Ireland. It was an illustration in painting of Moore’s declaration that: “It was France that forced open the deadly fingers of the ecclesiastic and allowed the rose to bloom again”.

Over their heads, as if an altarpiece surrounded by devotees, hangs Édouard Manet’s portrait of the artist Eva Gonzales. She gazes dreamily – exchanging glances with a nude statue, the only other female in sight. Four sketches reveal how the artist laboured over this composition. And in an effort at respectability he even replaced the original bottle of absinthe with a teapot and cups.

As Roy Foster notes, it is “one of Orpen’s supreme examples of mirror-effect, a painting of someone reading about paintings to a group of painters in front of a painting of a painter who is painting a painting”.

Lane fought an epic battle to create a National Gallery for Ireland, making a pioneering purchase of 39 Impressionist paintings. It still remains a little-known fact that some of Britain’s best-loved paintings, including Renoir’s The Umbrellas, belong to the bequest of an Irish art dealer and that their ownership remains disputed.

In 1917 Orpen joined the ranks of the official war artists. A self-portrait from that time captures his self-confidence in a bold, piercing look. He was close friends with top general Field Marshall Douglas Haig. The British War Propaganda Bureau provided him with a personal car. He stayed at the front for 18 months. So well-connected was he that when he got into trouble for using “company time” to portray his lover Yvonne Aubicq (see painting at the top), pretending she was a French spy, Haig came to his rescue.

The war was to shock and haunt him, as Kenneth McConkey has explained. In a dramatic gesture Orpen painted out the politicians and military leaders in his commissioned, To the Unknown Soldier in France. He placed two half-naked ghostly soldiers by a flag-draped coffin. This was too grim for the authorities and it was rejected by the Imperial War Museum. Eventually he painted out the soldiers and donated it to the museum. In later years he drank himself to death and died at the age of 52.

The other conflict in Orpen’s life was his connection to Ireland. Although he made his glittering career in London, he remained deeply attached to his homeland. Roy Foster gave a fresh and fascinating account of the artist’s attitude to Ireland’s struggle for self-determination after the 2005 Orpen shows at the Imperial War Museum and Ireland’s National Gallery.

Big thanks to the Watts Gallery for helping bring Orpen back out of the shadows. His complexities remain to be explored and more stories discovered about this enigmatic and contradictory figure.

William Orpen: Method and Mastery is at the Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton. GU3 1DQ until 23 February 2020. Open daily. Tel: 01483 813593