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Object of the Week 368: William Orpen, Three Studies of a Female Figure, and Study of the Leg, c.1899

By Andrea Fredericksen, on 23 November 2018

UCL Art Museum’s Object of the Week is by Lucy Waitt, Curatorial and Collections Assistant

When I began reading about Slade artists and the First World War to prepare for UCL Art Museum’s ‘Armistice Pop Up’ (November 9th 2018) I had not expected to become intrigued by William Orpen in particular. Other Slade artists such as CRW Nevinson, David Bomberg and Paul Nash have arguably produced more famous representations of the conflict, but what interested me about Orpen was not so much the work he produced -which is considerable and varied, but his attitude to his war art and ultimately what he did with it after the war.

William Orpen, Three Studies of a Female Figure, and Study of the Leg, c.1899

Major Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen (1879-1931) was born in Ireland and enrolled aged 12 at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, studying for 6 years before joining the Slade School of Art at UCL from 1897-99. At the Slade he was highly regarded for his technical ability, winning the Slade Composition Prize in 1899. Orpen was taught drawing there by trained surgeon Henry Tonks, my chosen object, a life drawing (LDUCS- 6713) shows the influence of this teaching and emphasis on understanding anatomy, with the inclusion bottom right of an écorché torso- displaying the muscles with the skin removed. In this I see the basis of some of the gaunt figures in Orpen’s WWI pictures featuring exhausted and shell-shocked soldiers.

After leaving Slade Orpen taught in London and Dublin, his reputation as a society portrait painter grew and he enjoyed considerable financial success. When war broke out in 1914 he was encouraged to return to Ireland to avoid conscription- but refused and was commissioned into the Army Service Corps at the end of 1915. Following a year of campaigning by his supporters he received the title of Official War Artist in January 1917. Orpen was promoted to the rank of Major and given an extended stay in France via his contacts with senior Military personnel. This freed him from some of the restraints facing other War Artists and he repeatedly used this to his advantage. He arrived in France days before the Battle of Arras and saw it as his mission to witness and document the war, its battlefields and soldiers. In his memoir An Onlooker in France he described the experience of arrival at the front;

‘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…’ [1]

Orpen produced a series of portraits of Earl Haig and other senior army staff and worked on portraits of British troops and airmen. He documented the battlefields and trenches, and by 1918 he was also working for the Canadian War Memorials Committee on a series of portraits.But on return to England in 1918 Orpen’s feelings regarding the war condensed:

‘…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.’ [2]

To the Unknown British Soldier in France (Art.IWM ART 4438 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20880

Following Armistice in Nov 1918 he was commissioned to paint the Peace Conference in Paris. His final work for this (IWM 4438) was rejected by the Imperial War Museum as it depicted a coffin draped in a Union Jack rather than the requested politicians and dignitaries, which Orpen had deliberately painted out adding instead two battle-fatigued Tommies standing guard next to the coffin. In a later twist in 1928 Orpen then painted over the soldiers leaving the work we see today and donated it to the War Museum. The painting was then accepted in this third incarnation. Orpen also gave all his war work of over 150 paintings and drawings to the government for free. His memoir of this time ‘An Onlooker in France’ was published in 1921 with all proceeds being given to war charities.

Despite Orpen not being established perhaps as much as other artists for producing some of the most currently recognisable First World War paintings- such as Paul Nash’s The Menin Road or John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, it is this act of protest in paint and gesture and of generosity surrounding his donation of works that captured my attention. Orpen appears a complicated character but I can only respect this choice he made to use his talent and opportunity to voice his and many others feelings on the Great War and those who paid the ultimate price.

UCL Art Museum is open Tuesday – Friday 1-5 pm­­­­­­­ The current Exhibition REDRESS, an exhibition and series of public events weaving new life into the Slade’s once prestigious Drapery Drawing Prize will close on 14 December 2018.

Lucy Waitt is Curatorial and Collections Assistant at UCL Art Museum.


[1& 2] An onlooker in France, 1917-1919 , William Orpen Sir, 1878-1931. London : Williams and Norgate: 1921

IWM 4438 https://www.iwm.org.uk/




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