While in London recently we saw the extensive Imperial War Museum exhibition, Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War. Billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, it has needed three posts to do it justice.  This one is concerned with the paintings of William Orpen.

At the outbreak of the First World War, William Orpen was a member of the Royal Academy and a highly successful society portrait painter. How did this artist, regarded as the epitome of conservatism, depict the war?

Irish by birth, Orpen was in his late thirties when war broke out.  Commissioned into the Army Service Corps in December 1915, he was already familiar with many of the top brass of the armed forces who had sat for a portrait. No doubt as a result of his highly-placed friends and contacts, he was duly appointed by General Haig as official war artist with the army in France.

William Orpen Thiepval

William Orpen, Thiepval, 1917 (© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2377)

In April 1917 Orpen arrived in France as a Major and in the indefinite employ of the Department of Information. Freed from the constraints of portraiture, Orpen underwent an artistic epiphany. It manifested itself in a series of vivid landscapes of the abandoned Somme battlefield and some of the most vibrant and incisive portraits of the war’s combatants.

Unlike younger war artists, Orpen’s artistic interests lay less with the latest developments in continental modernism than with the painters of the past. It was to their example that he turned in order to comprehend and condense his experience of the Western Front. The result was a series of extraordinary modern allegories reflecting upon the fragility of human existence and the madness of war.

The dreary dismal mud was baked white and pure – dazzling white . . . The sky was a pure dark blue, and the whole air . . .thick with white butterflies. It was like an enchanted land; but in place of fairies there were thousands of white crosses,marked ‘Unknown British Soldier’.

The  sight Orpen described was the Somme battlefield in August 1917. Although abandoned, the battlefield epitomised the sheer oddity of the Western Front, or as Orpen put it, ‘a life that never existed before, and never will again’. Yet despite the profusion of nature, Orpen found the area disorientating and unnerving. The occupying British forces had buried their own dead, but left the Germans to rot where they lay in one vast open cemetery. Thiepval (top) captured Orpen’s grizzly encounter with the remains of a British and German soldier, their bones entangled in a final death embrace.  It is reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s poem, ‘Strange Meeting’, which ends with these lines:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . .

William Orpen, Dead Germans in a Trench, 1918

William Orpen, Dead Germans in a Trench, 1918

Orpen completed over 20 paintings ofthe Somme battlefield, an alien landscape which would symbolise for him the barbarisrn and madness of the First World War. In Dead Germans in a Trench, the chalky Picardy soil and deep blue sky typically combine to provide a ‘queer fantastic’ setting for two putrefying German corpses.

Orpen exhibition poster

Poster for the 1918 exhibition of Orpen’s war paintings

When exhibited in an official exhibition in May 1918, the art critic of The Times commended the artist’s brutal honesty, stating: `Mr Orpen is certainly not a sentimentalist; he seems to paint [the corpses] with cold, serene skill, just as he might paint a bunch of flowers.’ Dead Germans in a Trench was, of course, passed for display, unlike CRW Nevinson’s Paths of Glory, causing the same critic to quip cynically, ‘the Censor’s aim being apparently to persuade us that only Germans die in this war’.

William Orpen, The Mad Woman of Douai

William Orpen, The Mad Woman of Douai, 1918 (© IWM (Art.IWM ART 4671)

Between 1918 and 1919 Orpen made several allegorical paintings, each distilling his revulsion at the effect of the war on human behaviour. The Mad Woman of Douai was inspired by his encounter with a woman who had been the victim of rape by retreating German soldiers. The war is presented as a nightmare world in which normal human pity and restraint are absent, captured by the grotesque curiosity of the peasants who crowd around the woman, while the soldiers appear indifferent. The crucifix on the ruined church wall seems like a clear reproof to a God who is powerless in the face of human bestiality.

William Orpen, Village, Evening 1917

William Orpen, Village, Evening 1917

Orpen was regarded by the military establishment as ‘a special case’; accordingly he was freed of the usual petty constraints imposed upon war artists.  He was equipped with his own transport, chauffeur, batman, and personal manager.  He stayed in the best hotels in Paris and Amiens.

But Orpen did not treat his mission lightly. Of his crossing from Folkestone on a packed troop ship, he later wrote in his war memoir, An Onlooker in France, ‘my stomach was twitching about with nerves. What would I have been like had I been one of them?’

William Orpen, The Great Mine, La Boiselle 1917

William Orpen, The Great Mine, La Boiselle 1917 (© IWM)

In 1917, heading south from Ypres, Orpen encountered the Somme in summer-time:

Never shall I forget my first sight of the Somme in summer-time. I had left it mud, nothing but water, shell-holes and mud – the most gloomy, dreary abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, in the summer of 1917, no words could express the beauty of it. The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure – dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky a pure dark blue, and the whole air, up to a height of about forty feet, thick with white butterflies: your clothes were covered with butterflies. It was like an enchanted land; but in the place of fairies there were thousands of little white crosses, marked “Unknown British Soldier,” for the most part.

The intense light deflected off the seared white chalk permeates the paintings he made that summer – such as The Great Mine, La Boiselle. Half a mile from the village of La Boisselle at the heart of the Somme battlefield was a huge crater,known to the British troops as the ‘Glory Hole’, the result of a massive explosion created by British sappers tunnelling under German lines. It was the largest crater of the Great War and measured about 91 metres across. Many German troops lost their lives here as the explosion ripped out over 100 metres of their dug-outs. It made a powerful impression on Orpen:

The great mine at La Boisselle was a wonderful sight. One morning I was wandering about the old battlefield, and I came across a great wilderness of white chalk—not a tuft of grass, not a flower, nothing but blazing chalk; apparently a hill of chalk dotted thickly all over with bits of shrapnel. I walked up it, and suddenly found myself on the lip of the crater. I felt myself in another world. This enormous hole, 320 yards round at the top, with sides so steep one could not climb down them, was the vast, terrific work of man. Imagine burrowing all that way down in the belly of the earth, with Hell going on overhead, burrowing and listening till they got right under the German trenches—hundreds and hundreds of yards of burrowing. And here remained the result of their work, on the earth at least, if not on humanity. The latter had disappeared; but the great chasm, with one mound in the centre at the bottom, and one skull placed on top of it, remained. They had cut little steps down one of its sides, and had cleared up all the human remains and buried them in this mound. That one mound, with the little skull on the top, at the bottom of this enormous chasm, was the greatest monument I have ever seen to the handiwork of man.

William Orpen, A Grave in a Trench, 1917

William Orpen, A Grave in a Trench, 1917 (© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2976)

The paintings that Orpen made that summer are disorientating; under an intense blue sky, the bright sunlight on the white chalk soil makes a strange backdrop to the scenes of death and destruction he paints. I was particularly interested in a couple of paintings of the ruins of Peronne, having visited the town during my 1WW trip in the summer.

William Orpen, The Church, Péronne

William Orpen, The Church, Péronne, 1917 (© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3034)

William Orpen, A House at Péronne, 1917

William Orpen, A House at Péronne, 1917 (© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2997)

Towards the end of the exhibition we find what is perhaps Orpen’s most infamous painting of the war. Days after the Armistice, the Imperial War Museum assigned Orpen to make large official paintings of the Peace Conference at Versailles.  Orpen embarked on a panorama of the statesmen gathered in the gilded surroundings of the Hall of Peace at Versailles.  Then, without warning the museum, he painted them all out.  Methodically, he obliterated thirty-six figures, painting in their place a coffin covered by the Union Jack, two semi-nude soldiers guarding it and two cherubs in the air above. Orpen told the Evening Standard:

It all seemed so unimportant somehow.  I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France for ever.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1923, with the title To the Unknown British Soldier in France, it was voted ‘picture of the year by public ballot. However, the posture of the soldiers, the nudity, and the bitter irony of the symbols gave rise to contrasting reactions in the press, with right-wing papers attacking it as a ‘a bad joke’ that lacked dignity and good taste. The left-wing press hailed the painting: the Daily Herald calling it ‘a magnificent allegorical tribute to the men who really won the war’. The Imperial War Museum rejected the painting and witheld the final instalment of Orpen’s fee.

William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier in France, 1921 William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier in France, 1929

William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier in France: before and after

See also


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