William Orpen's paintings and drawings from this period is impressively large. He worked quickly and drew almost daily, usually for long hours. His love life is as colourful as his landscape paintings.
He exhibits in London’s Royal Academy in 1908. He is married to Grace Knewstub and they have three daughters (Christine, Diana and Mary) but he falls in love with a married, American woman called Evelyn St George who would model for him. Evelyn was the daughter and eldest child of George F. Baker who was the president of the National Bank of America; a man of immense wealth.
Orpen is a well-established and respected artist as well as a talented writer. He is thirty-six at the onset of the war.
Autumn: Evelyn St George’s daughter, Gardenia, discovers her mother has been having an affair with William Orpen. Orpen’s Wife Grace finds out. This places a huge strain on his marriage.
December: Orpen looses his close friend, Hugh Lane, who was on the SS Lusitania when it sunk on the 5th May off the coast of Ireland. This may have been the reason that he decided to enlist in the British Army.
March: March: He is commissioned into the Army Service Corps as a Second Lieutenant and reports to Kensington Barracks. He receives no military training which breaks with usual protocol. At Kensington he worked as an administrator.
May: Muirhead Bone is appointed as Britain’s First Official War Artist. Orpen paints the portrait of Sir John Cowans who is a Quartermaster General of the Army (and a close friend of Evelen St George).
January: Orpen is released from his administration duties and given the rank of Major. He is appointed as the second Official War Artist.
April: He travels to France and finally arrives in Amiens where he stays for a fortnight and gets straight to work exploring and sketching the area.
May/June: He is sent up to Divisional HG near Peronne. He then moves to St Pol and uses this town as his base. He is asked to paint the portrait of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
When Orpen started to paint Haig he says, “Why waste your time painting me? Go and paint the men. They’re fellows who are saving the world, and they get killed every day.
He paints General Trenchard.
June/July: He moves further North to the small town of Cassel which is right on the border of Belgium and part of the Ypres Salient. While here he also visits Dieppe, Le Harve and Rouen.
August: He is summoned back to Amiens. He explores much of the Somme including Thiepval, Albert, Peronne and Aveluy with his chauffeur Gordon Howlett.
September: He paints Monsieur R. de Maratray, a philosopher and musician and also some Canadian Generals.
October: General Trenchard orders him to paint some Flying Corps Officers and Captain Hoidge.
November: He goes to Paris and then on to Cassel again where he meets his younger brother. Orpen is told he has Scabies and is sent back to Amiens where he is placed in an isolation ward for two weeks.
November: He actually has blood-poisoning.
December: He paints Prince Antoine d'Orleans et Braganza.
March/June: He is ordered back to England with very short notice where he reports in to Lord Beaverbrook and is promised that all his expenses would be paid, which they never were.
May: An exhibition of his work opens at Agnew's Gallery in London called Canadian War Exhibition. It receives briliant reviews. You can see a short movie of Orpen at the Private view here.
June/July: He gets sent back out to France to organise the arrangements for the return of all his belongings that he left in France. He arrives in Boulogne where he is met by his driver Gordon Howlett and he manages to reinstate himself once again as an Official War Artist, despite opposition from HQ Intelligence who he’d upset earlier in the year.
August: He travels down to the South of France, to paint a portrait of Marshal Foch at Bon Bon.
As the German front line is pushed back, Orpen is keen to stay in France and live amongst the excitement and positive feeling. He visits Cassel again to paint General Plumer and comes down with flu which doesn’t stop him working. He visits Bailleul.
November 10th He returns to Amiens with his blood poisoning weakening his spirits.
November 11th The Armistice is signed. Orpen ponders what this means for him as a war artist and concluded simply that...
“The Fighting Man – that marvellous thing that I had worshipped all the time I had been France – had ceased actively to exist”.
November - 1919
Orpen stays in France until the end of January 1919. His doctors flatly refuse to move him. He is strong enough by then to paint more portraits. He gets an invite to Paris to paint the Peace Conference.
He moves to Paris and paints many great portraits at the Astoria Hotel of those who were attending the conference including President Wilson.
June 28th 1919 Orpen was there for the signing of the Peace Treaty of Versailles and painted the Hall of Mirrors.