William Orpen, the son of a Dublin solicitor was born in Stillorgan, County Dublin in 1878. He studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin and the Slade School in London, where his fellow students included Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis. At the Slade he produced two important paintings, The Play Scene from Hamlet and The Mirror. Orpen soon became known for his portraits of public figures and during his career produced over 600 of these pictures.
In 1916 Orpen’s friend, the Quartermaster General, Sir John Cowans, arranged for him to receive a commission in the Army Service Corps. This mainly involved him painting the portraits of senior political and military figures such as Winston Churchill and Lord Derby.
In 1917 Charles Masterman, head of the government’s War Propaganda Bureau (WPB) recruited Orpen and he was sent to the Western Front. While in France he painted portraits of Sir Douglas Haig, Hugh Trenchard, Herbert Plumer and Ferdinand Foch. Orpen was shocked by what he saw at the front and also painted pictures such as Dead Germans in a Trench. Other pictures painted in France included Members of the Allied Press Corps, Ready to Start, The Signing of Peace.
Orpen was commissioned to paint portraits of the politicians at the Versailles Peace Conference. Orpen believed that the soldiers that fought in the war were betrayed by the politicians at Versailles. Instead of the portraits he painted To the Unknown British Soldier in France. The original painting showed the draped coffin flanked by two ghostly figures of soldiers standing guard. There was such an outcry when it was exhibited in 1919 that Orpen was forced to paint out the soldiers.
After the war Orpen returned to portrait painting, including one of David Lloyd George (1926). Sir William Orpen died in 1931.
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