Sir William Orpen


Featured Artist - Sir William Orpen - By Keith Potts

The Refugee
The Refugee
The chef
The chef

Sir William Orpen - Master Portrait Artist

Major Sir William Orpen (1878 - 1931) - the most eminent portrait artist of the earliest 20th century and yet many have never heard of him.

However you may recollect the BBC's 'Antiques Roadshow' episode a few years ago in which the painting of a beautiful woman called 'The Refugee' was featured at the Imperial War Museum . It turned out to ne a genuine picture by William Orpen of his lover Yvonne Aubicq valued at £250,000.

William Orpen was born in 1878 in Dublin. He was the fourth son of Arthur Open a middle class protestant solicitor, his mother was the eldest daughter of Charles Cualfield Bishop of Nassau.

'Little Orpse' ,as he liked to call himself, became a student of the Dublin Art School age thirteen, won every prize there including the British Isles Life Drawing prize. Age seventeen he joined the Slade School in London where his tutors included the surgeon Henry Tonks and Phillip Steer.

Orpen, together with fellow student Augustus John, founded the Chelsea Art School in 1903 however the venture was short -lived. Meanwhile, Orpen had started to teach at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin for short periods during the year and in both schools he is known to have lectured in anatomy.

Before and after WW1 Orpen became one of the most fashionable and well known society portrait painters. In 1920 it was said that he charged 2,000 guineas (£125,000 in today's money) for a full length portrait.

Orpen was an official war artist in France and was given the rank of major . 138 paintings of military heroes and devastated battle scenes and now deposited in the Imperial War Museum.

Orpen used a number of different canvas types , sizes and suppliers in his career . Chenil & co., supplied him witha range of prepared surfaces and groundsin a variety of colours. Orpen also adapted commercially prepared whaite canvases with his own dark and mid-tone primers. Flesh tones being achieved using brown or dark grey a similar technique adopted by Velasquez and Rubens. Mid-tones and shadows being achieved by the use of thin layers of translutent flesh paint exposing the dark under painting.

His colours, purchased commercially, include ivory black, flake white, vermillion, rose madder, strontium yellow, cerukean blue, cobalt blue ,viridian, emerald green, sienna, umber, yellow ocre and light red.

Orpen used a wide variety of brushes , the long haired filbert was named in his honour.

The confidence of Orpen is suggested by the way he worked. a few of his complex paintings being based on charcoal under drawings . However he preferred to sketch his portraits with paint directly on to the canvas. His paintings then built up with thin applications of colour worked wet in wet. Many of his works were spontaneous executed at speed without alterations - he was indeed a true master.

Keith Potts