4 March, 2005
ART: Modernism’s other histories
William Orpen: Politics, Sex and Death at the IWM
This review first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.
Gimmicky though it may be, the subtitle of the exhibition of Sir William Orpen’s work currently on show at the Imperial War Museum — ‘Politics, Sex and Death’ — has at least the merit of giving some sense of the show’s breadth, if not much indication of its subject’s relative attitude towards these three lodestones of human endeavour. For while there can be little question that Orpen enjoyed sex, both politics and death constituted unwanted intrusions into the ambit of a life based, apparently, on a combination of hard work (art), hard play (apart from art, his recreations were the only thing he took seriously) and an innate and ineradicable flippancy concerning virtually everything else. For some critics, this lack of seriousness consigned Orpen to terminal unimportance, even oblivion, and their opinion has held the floor for decades. Now the IWM is giving us the chance to judge Orpen, anew, for ourselves.
The IWM’s decision to stage a monographic exhibition of Sir William Orpen’s work was certainly a brave one. Once very famous indeed, and despite the relatively recent publication of a serious biography, he is misunderstood where he is not simply forgotten entirely. Before this exhibition opened, Orpen existed in my mind as little more than a second-rate Lavery — which is to say, a fourth-rate John Singer Sargent — his auction prices and claims to art-historical significance inflated beyond credulity by the plangent special pleading of Celtic Fringe apologists, desperate for something to hang on country house hotel walls between the forgettable landscapes of Paul Henry and the smeary effusions of Jack Yeats. All of which is, I now learn, culpably unfair on all sorts of levels. Despite the immense prestige he enjoyed during the second decade of the past century, Orpen was probably, even at his best, a lucky painter rather than a great one. Yet his abundant technical gifts came wedded to a sensibility sufficiently fresh, fantastic and funny as to merit, richly, the retrospective exhibition he is offered here, while the background to his work — Ireland’s long nationalist nightmare, the Great War, the relation of modernism to all of this — raises more than enough pertinent questions to make this one of the London’s ‘must see’ exhibitions this decade.
Portrait of the artist
Given his recent obscurity, a quick biographical tour d’horizon is perhaps in order. William Orpen, the youngest of four sons, was born near Dublin in 1878. His father was a successful solicitor. Orpen grew up in a Gothick villa surrounded by pleasant gardens, the much-indulged baby of the family, and seems, by his own account, to have enjoyed an idyllic childhood. A precocious talent saw him admitted to Dublin’s School of Art at the age of eleven, and to the Slade School of Art in London seven years later. His facility across a range of media, his ability to mimic the Old Masters while allowing in just enough acid colour and ostentatiously flat surfaces to proclaim his equally sure grasp of stylish modernity, his evident if unpredictable charm: all of these conspired to make Orpen a phenomenally successful portrait-painter and a well-known figure both on the London and Dublin art scenes. Sargent praised him, all but anointing him as his successor. When the First World War began, Orpen initially did his bit by auctioning off blank canvases on which he’d paint portraits, all for the aid of the war effort. By 1915, however, his admiration for real fighting men won out, and he started pulling the string necessary to gain a commission, first within the Army Service Corps and then as a war artist. Given the rank of major and a place on the Official War Artists’ scheme, Britain’s most prominent society portrait-painter immediately became the celebrity recorder of Britain’s first mechanised, conscription-based, truly modern full-scale war.
There can be little question that Orpen’s experience of battle changed him. During his time as an official war artist, Orpen produced a number of well-received portraits and other paintings; he also courted controversy with several paintings relating to the Paris Peace Conference. Back in civilian life by 1919, he once again became a London-based superstar portrait-painter. But tastes were changing, and Orpen’s art had begun to look uncomfortable, squeezed between Edwardian gentility and cutting-edge modernity. (And indeed do we, even now, have much of an idea about what should be done with those artists like Orpen or Sir William Nicholson, whose recent retrospective at the Royal Academy was so full of surprises, who seem to represent a figurative tradition that while impeccably modern, still doesn’t fit neatly within any of our off-the-shelf narratives of modernity?) So Orpen wrote a couple of books, drank far too much, and in 1931 died in a nursing home, aged only 53, of what might or might not have been syphilis contracted in wartime France. For a while his name had currency, articulated in sorrowful tones, as a meteoric figure whose talent had been real but who had ‘sold out’ in pursuit of money and social success. In the 1950s the director of the Tate launched a personal attack on him from which he never entirely recovered. And then he was all but forgotten. It took the stubborn enthusiasm of a few individuals, a recent biography, plus the semi-indiscriminate hunger of the slightly mangy Celtic Tiger economy for collectable art of its own, to revive his fortunes. And here, at the IWM, a London audience can, for the first time in half a century, come to their own conclusions about this complicated, badly misunderstood painter.
A Long, Long Trail A-Winding
So what’s there to see at London’s least well-publicised, yet often most mesmerising exhibition space? The IWM Orpen retrospective, hung under the guidance of Tate Britain’s Richard Upstone, is very much a show of two halves. Within that framework, its intentions appear to be both narrative and apologetic. In one set of rooms we are introduced to Orpen, the fluent visual mimic, bon-vivant painter-about-town, lover of many women (only some of them married) and slyly subversive wit. There’s a smallish anteroom that prepares us for a scene-change. And then suddenly, we’re in the middle of the Great War, witnessing the gradual darkening of Orpen’s world-view, room by room, from pretty girls and playful ‘holiday snaps’ of the French countryside to something infinitely darker — a descent through blackening circles of hell culminating, at last, in a magnificent coup de theatre, in Orpen’s brilliant Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay where the acres of gloriously irrelevant gold-and-ormolu confectionary sailing over the heads of the world leaders lined up in the half-light below suddenly starts to read as an incandescently violent indictment of — well, something, although it is hard to know exactly what, since, like most of his contemporaries, he had not succumbed to the present-day myth that war is necessarily nothing but pointless waste and futile sacrifice.
More probably, if Orpen was protesting against something, as this hanging of the work hints, it was surely the distance, or disparity or something along those lines, between the blood, mud, cameraderie and bloated corpses there in the trenches, there where the real soldiers fought and died, and the gilded salons and titled sitters amongst whom Orpen’s future would lie once the war was over. In a later work, To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921-28), where there’s a similarly spectacular contrast between ornate architectural setting and sombre reality, Orpen at first flanked the flag-draped coffin with the spectral figures of two dead ordinary soldiers — but then agreed, meekly, to paint them out, and to re-brand the work as a tribute to the recently dead Field-Marshal Haig, in order for the work to be accepted into the IWM’s collection. Well, he had great respect for Haig, gave to the IWM a large number of important works which might have fetched a lot of cash elsewhere, and left behind a painting arguably all the stronger for the fact that its more explicit symbols have long since been subsumed into art-historical myth. Given the choice between being flippant about his own dignity, or about wartime sacrifice, he made the sort of sacrifice too few artists today would dream of making, and repainted. Some things are, after all, much more important than art.
Needless to say, this powerful arrangement of the work comes at the cost, first and foremost, of chronology. A number of the society portraits in the first set of rooms were painted after the war. The hanging tends to imply a radical discontinuity between Orpen’s work as a war artist, and as a painter of civilian life, that for all its emotive power doesn’t quite work. And the reason for that has a lot to do with the first of that modish trinity conjured up by the show’s subtitle, Politics, Sex and Death. For the Great War wasn’t the only war that left its mark on Orpen’s life and work. It’s a matter about which the IWM is, for fairly obvious reasons, eternally a bit reticent. In this current exhibition it is the dog that, if not entirely silenced, instead of barking is only allowed the occasional low, unsettling snarl. What’s missing? Ireland, of course — the land of Orpen’s birth and buccolic childhood, and the place he would visit only for a single day between 1915 and his death. After its time at the IWM, this show will travel to Dublin, and it benefits from generous loans vouchsafed by Irish collections. Furthermore, civil wars, especially ones that don’t come to neat conclusions, are the ones that soldiers like least. So there are points that are addressed rather gingerly in Roy Foster’s catalogue essay — alternatively informative and more than slightly silly — and a lot that is frankly left out of the show itself. What, then, were Orpen’s politics, especially with regard to Ireland?
Dublin’s cultural firmament was, in the early years of the twentieth century just as now, hardly enormous. When studying in Ireland or, up to 1915, paying long visits, he moved in broadly the same circles as W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Augusta Gregory. His commissioned portraits for the National Gallery in Dublin included a painting of Land League founder Michael Davitt — Orpen would later write enthusiastically about the old man’s conversation, which admittedly included the advice to avoid all party politics like a curse — and another of T. M. Healy, who later became first governor-general of the Free State. As the catalogue notes, both men were, at the time they were painted by Orpen, more relics of a soon-to-be-mythic past than up-to-date nationalists. Was his heart in this commission? Probably not. Even less did this compulsively flippant man have any patience with the broader ‘Holy Ireland’ business— the swans, lake-isles, fairies, pointless complicated spellings and dreary epics and so forth, shading off all too soon into a world of green lager, franchised theme-pubs and Riverdance. Whether Orpen could see this denoument coming is unknowable. What is certain is that he never missed a chance to poke fun at Yeats’ high-minded idiocy, and refused to take up Lady Gregory’s kind invitation to paint the inhabitants of the Coole workhouse. Synge, on the other hand, he admired, not least because those who criticised Synge’s work most loudly were considerably more pompous than the playwright himself. For if anything is clear about the three rather opaque allegorical works Orpen produced between 1913 and 1915 — Sewing New Seed and and The Western Wedding are included in the IWM show — it is Orpen’s dislike of everything in the New Ireland that that took itself too seriously: the Catholic hierarchy (not on sectarian grounds, by the way — Orpen, brought up in the Church of Ireland, was a generously ecumenical creature by nature, and indeed later had an oratory built adjoining his London studio), the dogmatic political parties, the serious-minded institutions, the po-faced sexual Puritanism.
At the same time, there were moments when Orpen appeared, if not sympathetic to nationalist allegiances, surprisingly warm towards those whose nationalist sentiments were manifest. The IWM exhibition includes Young Ireland, Orpen’s Manet-influenced 1907 portrait of his friend and fellow art-student Grace Gifford, all wild red hair, girlish smile and Puckish high spirits. The titles makes reference to a romantic and mostly harmless nationalism that would later curdle into something considerably less pretty. We shall return to Grace Gifford later. But in passing it is also worth noting a few other portraits.
To me, at least, Orpen’s male portraits are somehow more persuasive than his female ones — did self-identification yield up richer fruit than simple physical attraction? Maybe. In any event, of the portraits on show at the IWM, several male ones stand out. One depicts Orpen’s friend Captain John Shawe-Taylor (1908), like Hugh Lane a nephew of Lady Gregory. Shawe-Taylor is shown casually seated astride a chair, dressed in hunting pinks, his stock neatly done up. Yet what works, here, is less the pose than the face, which is incontrovertibly handsome, but also tense, alert, more than a little guarded. Indeed, it would be easy for a certain sort of critic to see this as some sort of parable of Ascendency privilege and anxiety — were it not for the fact that Shaw-Taylor was already, at the time of sitting for this portrait, the architect of the proto-Zimbabwean, pointlessly destructive Land Purchase Scheme. Then, as if by way of contrast, there’s The Man from the West (c. 1915), a brooding portrait of Orpen’s sometime London studio assistant Sean Keating. Orpen appears to have been pulling out all the stops in this painterly, dramatic work, as if to impress someone who realised how difficult these effortless-looking effects were to achieve. But he was also making reference to Keating’s risibly wooden self-portrait, Men of the West (1915), in which the young nationalist depicted himself as an armed rebel. Unsurprisingly, when the First World War started Keating, increasingly extreme in his various discontents, tried to persuade Orpen to return to Ireland. For his own part, Keating was eventually to become a major artistic figure in the infant Irish state, producing such mawkish tributes to terrorism as his famous Men of the South (1921). Looking at them, even in reproduction, it’s not hard to guess why Orpen didn’t want to go back. This tributary product of socialist realism, minus the skill, was hardly an attractive idiom for a painter of any intelligence, sympathy or sense of irony. To his credit, Orpen was endowed with all these things, even if Keating wasn’t.
Not his finest hour
In fact — and it’s a point that needs to be remembered when wandering through the IWM exhibition — Orpen could scarcely escape Ireland and her vexed constitutional politics anywhere, try though he might. Orpen’s portrait of Winston Churchill (1916) was, by all accounts, perhaps the best likeness of Churchill ever painted, and certainly one of the subject’s favourites. Whatever else it might have been, it was a remarkable piece of painting, the velvety black of the background throwing the shirt-front, hands and that well-known face into dramatic prominence; it’s a work that transcends the society-portrait conventions of its time, perhaps even its subject. Here we see not the self-mythologising world historical figure of later years, but rather a slightly anxious, self-conscious politician staring out of the darkness, frown-lines creasing his high forehead, eyes frankly distrustful, measuring up the situation, almost as if worried about the impression he was making on the viewer. But then it’s far too easy to read things into portraits of famous people. What would Orpen have known about Churchill? Certainly, not the famous narratives of a career we all know too well, so that we see 1916 as a depressive dip on the way to ineluctable world-historical greatness (real or imagined). Orpen would, however, have known that Churchill, in his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, had been stumping around the country speaking up with characteristic aplomb for the 3rd Home Rule Bill; during the Curragh Mutiny, he’d advocated using the Royal Navy to shell Belfast in the event of armed resistance there to implementation of the Act; Britain was, in fact, on the brink of civil war, and if there’s a tendency today to talk more, in the context of this portrait, about the Dardanelles expedition and disgrace than Home Rule and Churchill’s increasing distance from Unionism, it’s a set of priorities we should not impose, anachronistically, on Orpen or his contemporaries.
There are two further portraits in the IWM exhibition that need to be mentioned with reference to that ‘politics’ subtitle. One is, perhaps, the finest portrait in the entire show. Count John McCormack (1923) [sic, as in any event McCormack didn’t receive this papal title until 1928] depicts the Athlone-born tenor more or less at the point where, due to a self-confessed lack of acting skills, he’d abandoned opera for a less prestigious yet infinitely more lucrative career as a superstar concert performer; even those who’ve forgotten his name today probably retain, however unknowingly, his renditions of It’s A Long War to Tipperary and There’s A Long, Long Trail Awinding as part of their mental backdrop to the carnage of the Western Front. But the connection with the Great War was, in a sense, rather paradoxical, because in 1914 McCormack took US citizenship, while his forthright nationalist made him, for a decade or two, an unpopular figure in much of Britain.
Orpen’s portrait, painted near the height of that unpopularity, is a minor masterpiece. McCormack looks, frankly, a bit of a mess. His collar is open, his cream-coloured suit is wrinkled and his hair is standing up, while his left hand, resting at his waist (the other holds a score) draws attention to his paunchy middle and badly-tucked-in shirt. It’s his face, though, that really draws our attention. For while there’s a sense of good looks overripe and on the turn, somewhere there amongst the jowls and growing corpulence, it’s the sitter’s shrewd, appraising yet slightly deadened eyes that really connect. There’s something disconcertingly fleshy, real and intimate about the image, not least in McCormack’s air of slight unease. And to be honest, I have no idea whether any of this was intended by Orpen. Yet it’s hard to imagine that the painter — still earning something like £35,000 per year, a minor fortune at the time, but increasingly depressed, dependent on drink and perhaps suffering from syphilis — failed to compare his career with that of his sitter. Both, in a sense, had set aside the claims of ‘art’ in favour of wealth, popularity and success. Both had the new-model Rolls Royces, the entertainment budget and cacophony of sycophantic friends to show for it. Did McCormack’s professional, if no longer domiciliary Irishness make it easier or harder for Orpen to identify with him? It’s an unanswerable question. The genius of the painting lies in making one wish, however ineffectually, that it were otherwise.
That leaves one final portrait to shed light on Orpen’s relations with Ireland. Unlike the others already discussed, it hangs in the wartime half of the IWM exhibition. Major A. N. Lee in his hut office at Beaumarie-sur-Mer (1918) is a large oil sketch, rather than a carefully finished studio work, and that shows in its very evident appeal — the sense of light, the fluency of the brushwork, the clear colour, the freshness of the entire scene. Major Lee sits at a cluttered desk, all but invisible amongst a pile of papers, speaking on the telephone, while through the window behind him one can make out a splash of bright countryside, there between the full shelves and the primitive stove. The painting has almost the air of a snapshot taken by a bored visitor, waiting for his friend to finish that call, in a room he knew well. And indeed, Orpen and Major Lee were friends, as the inscription in the lower-right corner of the painting makes clear.
Friendship had not, at first, been plain sailing. Major Lee, a Sherwood Forester, was responsible for overseeing matters related to press and propaganda, and in particular the work of the official war artists and photographers — a group who were about as tractable as the proverbial herd of cats, and in some cases equally productive — and in fact Lee’s occasionally censorship of their work still attracts the odd swipe from the sort of people who value an ill-defined ‘freedom of expression’ over the need to protect lives or win wars.
Flippancy is not an easy vice to curb, if only because the truly flippant can never understand why flippancy might be considered a vice at all. Orpen was one of Lee’s more turbulent charges. At first, Britain’s most famous official war artist didn’t seem to be doing any work — just ‘looking round’ — and then, when Lee’s superior officer reproved him for this, Orpen passed on his grievances to his old friend Philip Sasson, private secretary to Field Marshal Haig, culminating in a rebuke from General Headquarters to the unfortunate superior officer.
This pretty much set the tone. When Orpen had eventually looked, wandered and drunk enough to start translating the Western Front into line and colour and tone, he caused even more trouble for Lee. In the winter of 1917-18 he met Yvonne Aubicq, the young French girl who was to be his mistress for the next decade. Frankly besotted with her, in that unmistakeable ‘first few weeks of sexual passion’ sort of way, he could not prevent himself from trying to include not one but two pictures of the pretty blonde in a forthcoming official war art exhibition. One painting was titled Refugee, but Orpen’s mistake lay in the title of the second, A Spy, and the ridiculous story he concocted to explain it. Lee had Orpen recalled to London where the artist received a severe reprimand from the War Office; Lee, in fact, recommended that Orpen should be barred from France, but Orpen apparently arranged to have the relevant minute destroyed, and slipped back into France, illegally, in the company of some GHQ senior staff. According to his memoirs, he then sat prominently in Lee’s headquarters, waiting for a pre-arranged telephone invitation to dine with Haig in order to fix up a date for Orpen’s official return to France. The long-suffering Lee apparently, at this point, accepted the inevitable. The affectionate nickname ‘Orps’ resurfaced, drinks were poured, some laddish chat about Yvonne followed, and the two men became friends for life, corresponding throughout the 1920s up to the point where Orpen could write no more.
What, though, does this story reveal, other than yet more evidence of Orpen’s ability to tell tall tales, to get himself into fearful scrapes and yet to turn heads and win hearts despite it all? Only this. During their many long conversations, Orpen and his friend Lee could hardly have failed to discuss Lee’s posting just prior to his time in France, when — as brigade major — he took part in the suppression of the April 1916 Easter Rising. Although the Sherwood Foresters and their comrades fought with enormous courage, given the huge cost in human life of events on the Western Front, most of the men sent out to Dublin had been yanked out of Watford Barracks after less than three months’ basic training, lacked sufficient arms or a background of good intelligence, and in any event had yet to acquire the ‘fighting in built up areas’ experience that would be the sad inherited wisdom of their successors a few generations hence. Although the Rising was put down very effectively, the cost in terms of British military casualties (killed and injured) was something like 500. The centre of the city where Orpen had first made his reputation was burned and battered. Once peace was restored, Major Lee was one of those responsible for arranging the courts martial, including organising the executions of convicted insurgents. Amongst these was Joseph Plunkett, the husband of Orpen’s pupil, friend and occasional subject, Grace Gifford. All of which is a very long way of saying that by choosing to become an official war artist, by choosing to throw his sympathies entirely behind the plight of the British soldier on the Western Front, by choosing to drink warm whiskey with Major Lee, Orpen was saying as much as he ever would say about nature of his British and Irish identities. Ultimately, his Irishness was a regional inflection of a British identity that counted for more, and although he loved Ireland — why else call his 1924 memoirs Stories of Old Ireland and Myself? — by 1924 the way in which he had taken sides was pretty unmistakeable.
The personal and the political in Orpen’s life could entwine very tightly indeed, as when his erstwhile dear friend and travel-companion Hugh Lane, yet another relative of Lady Gregory and a major figure in the history of Dublin’s art institutions, went down with the Lusitania off the Cork coast in 1915, on his way back from selling a very great Titian to the Frick Collection in New York. Lane’s death may have nudged Orpen into taking a more active role in the First World War. But another violent death probably hardened something in Orpen’s heart with respect to what scholarship on this subject endlessly calls his ‘Irish identity’. The 1922 assassination by the IRA of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, both an old friend of Orpen’s and someone whose wartime record Orpen admired deeply, came as a shock. (Apropos of very little, Sir Henry had just come from unveiling the war memorial at Liverpool Street Station when he was murdered; anyone who’s read much of Orpen’s writings and absorbed much of his attitude towards ordinary soldiers and the value of their sacrifice will see, immediately, what impact this juxtaposition must have made on him.) In any event, Orpen never again returned to Ireland, except once, for a few hours, between 1915 and his death.
Doubtless he had his reasons. Slightly buried in the catalogue to the IWM exhibition of Orpen’s work, one finds the suggestion that he may well have been warned off a return to the land of his birth and family. As late as 1929, writing to Lady Gregory, Orpen said that he would gladly return to visit her
when I am allowed to come to Ireland without danger — I most certainly will but at present — and for years past — it seems to me just taking a risk — of asking for it.
In truth, he’d made his choice. It’s a choice that the National Gallery of Ireland ought, in all decency, to acknowledge when the work of this ‘Irish painter’ returns ‘home’. When, in Tales of Myself and Old Ireland the ageing Orpen wished to link himself with some sort of Irish identity, it was very much that of a consciously ‘old’ Ireland: irrecoverable, a place of myth and memory already more than a little removed from geopolitical relevance. The last thing that would have attracted him was some troublesome upstart statelet, full of nationalistic claims, extravagant mythic bombast and all-too-real terror.
Orpen, whatever else he might have been, was far too sensible and pragmatic for that. Instead, it is likely that this talented, warm-hearted man felt, as his death approached, increasingly homesick for the Ireland of his childhood — which is to say, a place of tennis clubs and walking holidays, long drives (safe) and Georgian facades (unscarred), old friends and nostalgic comfort. But all too soon that became irrecoverable. And when it did, his sense of his own Britishness did not include enough of a tolerance for sanctimonious cant, vacuous fairy-tales and ever-present violence to allow him to discover whether the land of his youth still, somewhere, existed. Quite literally, after 1915, Orpen couldn’t go home again. He was neither the first nor the last Irishman to have experienced this plight. All the same, it makes his ongoing presence in Irish auction-rooms and state collections all the more poignant. An Irish artist? Given only a limited choice in the matter, Orpen made sure he was a British artist. Those who frame him otherwise, today, forget a lot about the choices he wasn’t allowed.
To the extent that we can separate the three, it seems fair to say that compared with politics and death, sex was a topic that appealed to Orpen. Probably he discovered it early at art school, and then effectively forgot it again in his grim last years, when, as syphilis took its toll, his relationships both with his wife and mistresses fell badly apart. Sex was there, often, in his pictures, sometimes very evidently so. Not for Orpen the icy academic nude, the female form as an exercise in mass and contour, a ironic art-historical allusion. Orpen really did love women, not as abstractions, either, but for all their physicality and flaws. And if it’s true, as suggested earlier, that his paintings of men were often better than his paintings of women, the reason may lie less in misogyny and objectivisation than in tact, kindness and the hope of an earthly reward for his efforts. There are paintings here that read like love-letters, albeit those of the most delightfully flippant, non-serious sort, and they form one of the most attractive aspects of Orpen’s ouuvre/
Sex isn’t everywhere, of course. On the Beach, Howth (1910), where his wife and young daughter are lying on the shingle beach in front of him, his daughter mostly asleep, his wife smiling and closing her eyes against the bright sun, seems more intimate than the Impressionist exercise in the painting of light that it in some ways resembles. (Parenthetically, though, how he must have missed his past, looking back at this painting years later!) It isn’t there in the extraordinary A Bloomsbury Family in which his friend Sir William Nicholson is portrayed at coffee with his wife and four children, where there’s as much tension in the air as in an Ibsen drama or a Vuillard interior; no wonder Sir William didn’t much like the work. And there’s only a strange sort of sex in The Vere Foster Family (1907), a really extraordinary commissioned work which reads like the most vicious sort of Sargent pastiche: idiot peer in checked breeches, his rifle knocked down into sad detumescence, his sad ghostly po-faced wife half-vanishing into the malign-looking infant at her side, while in front minces a fey elder sister, all lick-spittle blonde curls and tiny ankles, a key hung round her waste on a red ribbon, a fat fowl hanging from her hand in a gesture that would have appeared rather rude, or perhaps just inviting, in a seventeenth century Dutch painting, while behind, two donkeys ambled on in hapless stupidity, emblem and sign of the family of which they are so much a part. Indeed, once cannot help wondering whether Orpen meant this as a joke. It is a question that has often to be asked in the presence of Orpen’s work, often without a clear reply. But in this case, even the sitters themselves saw that something was wrong with this painting, with the thin paint and vacuous looks. So was it a mistake, or a parody — a Sargent that didn’t work, or a Goya that worked all too well? Alas, Orpen never said, and we shall never know.
And although there must have been something said, however elliptically, about sex in Orpen’s various portraits of Evelyn St George — the six foot tall, super-rich American-born married woman who was Orpen’s mistress from 1906 onwards, who gave birth to his daughter in 1912 and who continued to be one of his dearest friends thereafter — that something comes so encased in affection, respect and a degree of real awe that it is hard, a century on, to engage with it. Mrs St George was intelligent, knew what she liked and didn’t much mind whether she was considered eccentric — which was just as well, given that she received callers when lying in bed, and insisted on making her bedrooms the largest rooms in any house. The published portraits of her say a lot about her strong sense of visual drama, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that she was a sharp-witted critic of her lover’s work, hemming round the many commissions she offered him — each and every one a good excuse, no doubt, to see a lot of him without attracting comment — with playful restrictions regarding composition, palette or scale. Mrs St George appears in the IWM exhibition in a portrait of c. 1912, tall, elegant, more than a little haughty, encased in furs and pearls and satin. Perhaps unusually for Orpen, theirs was a relationship of equals, losing nothing in strength or seriousness as the years passed, whatever else was happening in terms of his marriage, his other mistresses or casual lovers — generally, quite a lot. Yet his letters to her, almost uniquely, offer tiny flashes of seriousness as well as the silliness, the mocking scribbled self-portraits, that heavy protecting veil of flippancy. But his portraits of her, for all their splendid period style and their evident warmth, lack intimacy, presumably for the paradoxical reason that there was real intimacy there which needed to be hidden. They are not his greatest paintings. Being a sensible man, he saved things for life that he didn’t expend on art. Perhaps that is why he has not managed to convince posterity that he was a great painter.
Nor is there much to do with sex in all the nudes that Orpen painted. The Studio (c. 1910-1915) and Sunlight (c. 1925) seem to me, anyway, to be as much about the effects of light as anything else, and indeed in the latter case carrying some slight trace of the way in which Orpen had learned to paint the flash of flares when he was at the Front. Yet Sunlight is an elegant exercise, with all its complicated relationships of planes hovering in space, and were it by the right sort of French painter, it would doubtless be a well-known masterpiece rather than an unknown daub, as it mostly is today. And The English Nude (1900) is largely stripped of any sexual connotation by being, so obviously, an attempt (a pretty good one too, it must be said) to transcribe the earthy semi-ugliness of Rembrandt into the here-and-now of Gay Nineties. If Orpen slept with this woman, though — and certainly, like his friend Augustus John, he seemed to have sex with many of his models, although it ought to be noted that he had a good reputation amongst them both for being an affectionate and companionable lover, and also for keeping them on a steady retainer — he would have been sleeping with a pot-bellied dream from a half-remembered Amsterdam, on sheets spun from flax that saw the suns of a seventeenth century summer.
It’s a haunting little painting. Orpen kept it until the end of his life. But the reason, I think, came less from its realism than from its escapist nostalgia. Ultimately, the real world was, in general, a boring let-down for a man of Orpen’s gifts and intellect. The English Nude was an attempt on Orpen’s part to metastasize real physicality into mythic permanence, and if it doesn’t quite work for us, perhaps it worked a little for him. So perhaps, ultimately, it was about sex, a little, in an odd sort of way. But anyway, it doesn’t carry with it anything like the charge of the really astounding nude in this exhibition, Early Morning (1922).
Old Masters and a Young Mistress
Because, admit it, at a monographic show it is quite an odd thing to move into a new room, see a painting and think, ‘wow, who on earth painted that?’ Yet this is the response that Early Morning elicited from me, anyway. For one thing, I’d never have guessed, even with that hair and the bee-stung lips, that this painting was finished in 1922. For it’s a strange, disconcerting thing — like something by Stanley Spencer, but only if he could have painted that elegant little silver coffee-pot, which of course was impossible, since one could practically count on one hand the numbers of British painters, post 1900, who might have done so. No, Early Morning is by Orpen — so maybe the shock is that, for a moment, pastiche is absent, and this vision is all his own. And a very intimate vision it is. Here’s Yvonne Aubicq again — still young, still with a tiny bit of lovely puppy-fat and delightfully rosy skin — naked, in bed, a robe thrown away somewhere, those letters disregarded, her coffee greedily finished, the upturned cup with the spoon erect in its void making a rude rhyme with something else, her plate empty nearby, her little breasts painted by someone who understood their weight and orientation at more than a technical level, the centrifugal nature of the composition ever and again drawing this nude back from being a studio confection towards being what it is, which is a painting of a naked girl, legs folded, viewed from above, finished with her breakfast, ready for …?
I don’t usually find myself paraphrasing that arch-liberal Robert Hughes, but — well, to ignore the sexuality in this painting amounts to not seeing the work. It’s there in that cup, that plate, the perky little spout of the teapot, the red satin folds of the irrelevant cloth at Yvonne’s curved heel, even that big fold of drapery in the upper right-hand corner. This isn’t a painting about ‘light’, or ‘mass’, or … well, who cares what it isn’t about? It’s a description of lust, pure and simple — a conqueror’s memoir of that well-known, pacified and proximate terrain, at the point where it will never again yield up a mystery but has not yet started to bore or decompose; in other words, it’s a painting about sexual love, perched that that fragile point a second away from tedium, disillusion and disengagement, replete to bursting with fullness of knowledge, but not yet spoilt with familiarity. It’s not about art history, theory or anything else. And if Orpen had been able to claim any stylistic descendents, this painting would be reckoned a masterpiece. As he can’t, it’s freak. It doesn’t fit anywhere. Why put it in any textbook? It’s not a necessary link in any developmental narrative, not a way of getting from art-historical A to B, neither the alpha nor the omega of any school or movement. Still, if it had been the only painting in this exhibition, I should not have grudged the taxi-fare. Early Morning isn’t what you think it will be, and is all the better for it. It may quite possibly be Orpen’s greatest painting. Perhaps, for once, the heat of his lust simply short-circuited his flippancy.
But before moving on, there is one other Orpen subject — one to which he returned throughout his career at a painter — that probably ought to be mentioned in this context — that is to say, the image of Orpen himself. Orpen painted, drew and doodled endless self-portraits. The IWM exhibition begins with a good run of these, while other self-portrait images occur in letters and sketches elsewhere in the show.
Orpen was not, in his own estimation, a very handsome fellow. He was short, with sharp features, pursed mouth and rather beady, appraising eyes. As Robert Upstone’s helpful essay in the catalogue makes clear, Orpen was more than a little self-conscious about this. In Tales of Old Ireland and Myself, he recalls overhearing — in the course of what he believed to be a very happy childhood — a conversation between his parents in which they discussed amiably why he was so ugly while the rest of his siblings were so good-looking. In later life, companions like the dashing Augustus John must have caused him to make similar comparisons. It was silly, really, because ultimately Orpen had more than enough charm, wit, talent and wealth to distract pretty much anyone from his perceived imperfections, and certainly he had no shortage of glamorous female admirers, elegant female friends or out-and-out mistresses. But in these matters, self-image counts for more than actuality. Thus it is hard to read the self-portraits as anything other than a sustained attempt, sometimes humorous and sometimes just desperate, to project an image of himself that measured up to what he felt, somehow, the world expected of him.
One solution was fancy dress, either literal or figurative. Orpen painted himself as a jockey, as a sportsman, as a man about town and even as Chardin — his costume, as it happened, at a Chelsea Arts Club fancy dress ball, for which he won a prize. Another was talismanic: the introduction onto the picture plane of the stuff of real life, like tickets and receipts and a page from his studio book, anchoring Orpen firmly into the world of sociability and friendship on which much of his self-image may have depended. In all of these, there’s a strong tendency for objects, dress, setting to press inwards, distracting attention from the sitter himself — or perhaps protecting him with their collective force? In his Ready to Start (1917) we see Orpen checking himself in the mirror before setting out into a French village, wearing a tin hat and fur gilet; the empty bottles and soda-siphon on the table in front of him telling their own story about the nature of his preparations. But the element of disguise, appropriation, call it what one will, is important, too. It’s worth remembering both how easily and subtly Orpen could throw on an adopted style, a borrowed persona — almost as easily as he could don the mask of flippancy which became more or less habitual.
It is equally easy, sometimes, to criticise Orpen for this reticence, this failure just to ‘be himself’, and to the extent that self-revelation has come to be seen as a positive quality in visual art, Orpen has suffered for his lack of it. John Rotherstein, sometimes director at the Tate Gallery and, oddly, Orpen’s own nephew, wrote twenty years after his death of Orpen’s ‘failure to describe what he felt most deeply’. Even if this were true, though, is it fair ? Complex, quick-witted, super-successful yet somehow never quite secure in his success, by no means always happy, Orpen seems to me, at least, at his most attractive when he’s at his most elusive. Orpen seems to have liked sex, to have needed it, but at the same time, like most things in life, it may well have unsettled him a bit, too. What was everyone else thinking? Did he measure up? The longer one looks, the more one notices that there’s a real, twitchy, palpably painful anxiety underneath even the dullest of Orpen’s paintings — and absolutely raw nerves apparent in his better ones. It is a shame, for this reason amongst to many others, that Orpen was allowed to fall out of the canon of modern painters, since there’s a quickness of consciousness in much of his work far more striking than in the apparently more ‘advanced’, less ‘Edwardian’ work of so, so many of his successors.
Paths of Glory
What, then, of death? The lazy view of the Great War, hawked about by the stupider sort of secondary school teacher or documentary maker, is that those who experienced its carnage, waste and mechanised brutality hated every moment, were scarred forever by it. The reality was, obviously, considerably more complicated. What can be said for certain about Orpen’s war was that it offered an intensity of feeling that civilian life afterwards was hard-pressed to match. War gave him a beautiful new girlfriend, a knighthood, sustaining friendships, a long holiday from the dull demands of everyday life, an adrenalin-pumping sense of purpose, and — because, other than having fun, art was virtually the only thing he took really seriously — a subject that tested to the limit his abilities as an artist, ultimately pushing him to moments of real achievement. The fact that several of Orpen’s paintings will be familiar to most people who have ever read much at all about the First World War — even if his name is completely unknown to them —speaks volumes. At its best, his work said something about that terrible, pivotal conflict that no one else, working in any medium, managed to say.
It’s worth remembering that at the point when Orpen decided that he wanted to take a more active part in the war than simply painting portraits for the benefit of the Red Cross and other charities, the whole concept of an ‘official war artist’ was still in its infancy. In fact, when towards the end of 1915 Orpen used the influence of his friend Sir John Cowans, at the time Quarter-Master General, to gain a commission, it was into the Army Service Corps. So it was the Britain’s most famous and best-paid artist began his time in uniform carrying out administrative duties Kensington Barracks. Whether he was any good at office work is unclear. In one of his many amusing illustrated letters to Mrs St George, mentioned here in the catalogue to the IWM exhibition, Orpen conjured up a scene in which a furious Colonel looms over him, asking ‘What can you do? What can you do?’ To which Orpen could only reply ‘Nothing, Sir, I’m an artist’. As usual, there was more than a hint of truth underpinning Orpen’s flippancy.
By the end of 1916, however, Orpen was able to pull various strings — both Cowans and Haig were friends of Mrs St George — in order to secure himself a place as an official war artist, reporting to the Department of Information. The official war art scheme, which included other artists such as Muirhead Bone, Paul Nash, C W Nevinson and Wyndham Lewis, was only just being developed. Roles remained slightly unclear. Were these artists there simply to provide useful material for newspapers and magazines to use, at a time when only two photographers (both army officers) were accredited by the Ministry of War? How could the demands of propaganda, good taste, military security and artistic self-expression all be reconciled? In fact, the artists’ role continued to grow and develop, sometimes amidst some fairly acrimonious argument, for the duration of the conflict — indeed, even in this age of embedded journalists, email and text messaging, blogging and so forth, it has not entirely been resolved. Here’s the point, though — when, in April 1917, Orpen arrived at the Western Front with a promotion from 2nd lieutenant to major, he had a certain amount of scope to shape his own remit, which his close connections to senior figures only enhanced. What, then, did he do?
The Horrors of War
At first, Britain’s most successful working portrait-painter set to work painting portraits of senior Allied officers such as Haig and Foch. In some cases, as with his civilian portraits, the joviality of the sittings resulted in something very like real friendship. Haig, for instance, made a very positive impression on Orpen. The resulting portraits sometimes have a warmth and sympathy about them that lifts them above the level of mere officers’ mess wallpaper. Later, however — following the contretemps described earlier in this essay, which almost saw him removed from his post altogether — Orpen was able to wander at will behind the lines, making drawings of individuals, scenes and landscapes that attracted his attention. In doing so, he benefited from a car and driver provided by the Ministry, as well as his own batman and private secretary. As his wartime memoir makes clear, Orpen was perfectly well aware that his experience of conflict was, in many ways, extremely comfortable, cushioned and convivial. If anything, though, this seems to have increased his occasionally almost sentimental regard for the ordinary soldiers he encountered, in whose drinking habits, black humour and even blacker cynicism he found inspiration. Later, in the summer of 1918, he returned to the shell-blasted landscape of the Somme and found it frightening, unnaturally beautiful — a place of treeless bleached soil, red poppies and white butterflies thronging together under a high azure sky. He painted this, exposed skulls and all.
The war changed Orpen. This is less apparent in the portraits than it is in the genre scenes and in the landscapes he produced. In the IWM exhibition one can almost watch Orpen rifling through every last shred of his own art-historical experience in order to come up with a visual language capable of keeping pace with the challenges total war threw at it. There had been hints in earlier works of Orpen’s interest in Goya, possibly dating from that early visit to Spain in the company of Hugh Lane — for instance, in Improvisation on a Barrel Organ (1904), which recalls Goya’s tapestry cartoons. In the war pictures, though, such as Armistice Night, Amiens (1918) and The Official Entry of the Kaisar (1918) the affinities with Goya are more than just stylistic. They have a lot to do with tone as well — the way in which both artists seemed almost to relish the macabre and the morbid, for instance, the bleak humour, the uncomfortable intimacy between sex and violent death. His palette, however, especially in his landscapes, took on a lurid, acid, unwholesome quality that was wholly of the twentieth century. In a painting like Changing Billets, Picardy — showing sex and death very intimate indeed — even the living have the livid flesh of a week-old corpse, while the landscape is bleached white and the light seems to signal the end of the world, like an El Greco canvas without the redemptive message. In Harvest, 1918, in contrast, the colour is just too sweet — all lurid pinks, clashing golds, muddy violet — for the grim content. The broad hint of hallucination in these paintings makes them hard to look at for long, and then hard to forget.
Self-expression for its own sake never much interested Orpen, which has earned him no favours from a posterity obsessed with it. Here, though, it didn’t matter. Confronted with war, for once, Orpen’s hard-won technical skill makes itself apparent, not as that bogeyman of modernist endeavour, ‘mere facility’, but rather as an impressive ability to frame, compose and execute a memorable scene. (For it’s one of the dirty little secrets of war art that not all war artists, then or now, had the technical means to say all they wished to — one thinks of Graham Sutherland, struggling to make the simplest military hardware look vaguely recognisable yet having to find refuge in drawing biomorphic caves instead, while at the same time the workmanlike, still disgracefully underrated Eric Ravilious got on with transforming aeroplanes and aircraft carriers into some of the most lyrical painting ever produced by English hands.) A lot of hard looking and drawing went into this (the reclining figure in Changing Billets turns up again in The Mad Woman of Douai (1918) which is that rare thing, a piece of official war art dealing fairly explicitly with the aftermath of rape), but so did a lot of accumulated expertise. After the viewer has finished registering the full horror of Dead Germans in a Trench (1918) there’s still time to reflect on the formidable skill that underpins its visceral punch — the apparently effortless foreshortening of the left-hand corpse, the stylised treatment of the trench itself, and the way the high view-point is established. Perhaps only someone who had built a career out of making rich people look beautiful — hence the high commissioning fees, the queue of Rolls Royces in front of his studio, the waiting lists and all the rest — could score such a hit when it came to making dead people look appalling.
After the war came the armistice. For Orpen, who chose to say on and paint the peace negotiations, the sense of anticlimax was grim. The consequent depression makes itself felt in the paintings that followed, in which some heavy, looming, inhuman mass always seems poised to crush the tiny, self-important protagonists lined up below it. As was mentioned earlier, the IWM exhibition is hung in such a way as to gloss these paintings as carrying a sort of anti-war message, and certainly Orpen’s writing, both around this time and afterwards, shows the degree of contempt in which he held what he called ‘the frocks’, particularly when compared with the ordinary fighting men whom these same ‘frocks’ had sent to their deaths. But it’s hard not to read into these works, as well, a sort of monument and summation. As the well-known story of To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921-28) makes clear, to some extent Orpen intended a literal monument to the men whose sufferings and bravery he had observed, if not shared. It is also striking to note how many war paintings he later gave to the Imperial War Museum. (While the Ministry of Information held copyright of all war artists’ new work for the duration of the conflict, after the war, the works reverted to the artists’ ownership. Given the prices fetched by Orpen’s paintings during his lifetime, his gifts were generous ones indeed.) The war had, if anything, boosted Orpen’s reputation. His exhibition of war art at Agnew’s in Bond Street in May 1918, opened by Lord Beaverbrook and covered by Pathé News, was visited by over 9,000 people in its first month alone. His international reputation was growing. Commissions came rolling in once again, with ever-higher prices attached. Orpen was still a relatively young man, apparently with decades of good work ahead of him. By any standard, he was a success — a fitting heir to Sargent, perhaps even fit to exist in the same universe as Manet or Velasquez. He had all the houses and automobiles and mistresses and friends he could possibly want. He could have asked for little more.
Yet by the end of 1931 Orpen was dead, his mind and body shattered by disease and overwork, and in the years that followed his reputation died away with him. John Rotherstein’s poisonous verdict of 1952 has largely held sway. In a world where being rich, or successful, or having a happy childhood, or working hard, or being bored by ‘ideas’ were all seen as anathema to the creation of serious art, Orpen became the prisoner of country house portraiture, the less popular rooms of Tate Britain, or at best a partisan hero of that airless little ghetto of figurative resistance known as ‘war art’. In terms of his nationality, he had the misfortune to be divided up between a place that takes its contributions to the arts far too seriously, and a place where the whole concept of art has historically been greeted with a mixture of distrust, distaste and hilarity. Mostly, though, Orpen simply slipped below the horizon of art-historical cognisance. Over the past few weeks I’ve enthused about the IWM exhibition to dozens of people of every possible age, background and degree of art world literacy. Only once or twice, though, have I been met with anything other than a faintly blank look. ‘Orpen? Who’s he? Wasn’t he Irish or something?’ Rarely, I think, can such a skilful, complicated, genuinely interesting and important painter have been damned with such a sad, confused little epitaph.
One of Orpen’s more appealing traits was his habit, when dinner party conversations grew too long and boring, of getting down on the floor and wandering around the table on all fours, yapping like a dog, just to liven things up. Heaven only knows what he’d have made of this essay. The yapping would, probably, be all but deafening by this point. Still, that in itself might well conceal an element of double-bluff. Orpen would, I think, still be quite interested to learn how he measured up, what people thought, whether anyone still cared about him or liked him. And that, I suppose, is my excuse for writing at such length about him here. If nothing else, I hope I have conveyed something of my own enthusiasm at having discovered his work, and my gratitude to the IWM for the sort of exhibition that — as with that brilliant Ravilious show a couple of years ago — instead of merely reflecting art-historical argument, actually goes some way towards refining and reshaping it.
There are a few minor criticisms which might as well be mentioned, although they take little away from the overall importance of this exhibition. The first relates to the catalogue which, though excellent in many ways, refuses to follow the well-justified convention of numbering its plates from No. 1 onwards, and instead presents them in a completely random order, making it impossible, especially in the absence of an index, to use the first serious Orpen catalogue for generations as a work of reference. This is a waste and a pity. The second criticism relates to the IWM’s shop, which is missing a trick in its failure to provide a range of books relevant to the exhibition, rather than just the catalogue. And the third is simply the one raised earlier in this essay, which is to ask why the curators couldn’t have provided a little more detail and context in the interpretive material accompanying the show, rather than burying this in the catalogue. The fact that Orpen’s work is being shown at the IWM hints strongly that a purely formal or art-historical reading isn’t really the main point here — so why not provide a little more material to help the neophyte Orpen enthusiast on his or her way?
What else is there to say? Only something that ought to be evident by now, which is that Orpen deserves a better fate than he’s received. And so it’s instructive, somehow, that those who have rescued him from oblivion have to do so in the context of the IWM. For the IWM, unlike most art galleries, is forbidden by the logic of its foundation from viewing art as an end in itself, from seeing context as irrelevant or that strange web of narratives and genealogies known as ‘art history’ as being decisive. This, ultimately, is why Orpen has re-appeared now, and why he is shown to such great advantage here. Because if you believe that art is more important than anything else, an end in itself, Orpen will always be, in such a world, a second-rater. Yet if you value skill, sound workmanship, functionality, the frisson of historical and biographical context — and if you have the requisite patience with flippancy — then there’s a strong case to be made for this forgotten, misunderstood painter. Orpen? There’s scope for arguing that he was one of the important painters of the Great War, a portraitist of formidable ability and one of the greatest British artists of his age. Anything else? No, if not a simple line of reproach, however quiet, at the great premium that the narratives of modernism, for all their tendency to make a fetish out of irony, still put on high seriousness. Seriousness is not, ultimately, a very useful solvent either of politics, sex or death — and where art is concerned, its limitations are all too obvious.