Irish artist – Sir William Orpen 

I had the good fortune to meet Patricia O’Reilly, author of ORPEN AT WAR, in London during the 2014 HNS conference. That was my first Historical Novel Society conference – I’ve been to many more – and the experience of being amongst fellow writers is unforgettable.

Patricia’s latest novel features Sir William Orpen during WWI and I had the privilege of reading an early version. But enough preamble, here’s Patricia to tell us about this famous Irish artist.

From an early age William Orpen showed an exceptional talent for painting. Aged thirteen he was one of the youngest students to be accepted by the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (the Met); it was against his father’s wishes, but supported by his mother.  

Born in 1878, at the family home ‘Oriel’ in south county Dublin, William Newenham Montague Orpen – Billy to his friends, was the youngest of four sons and two daughters.  His father ran a successful legal practice and was a competent watercolourist, as was his mother who was a driving force behind  the burgeoning arts and crafts movement in Ireland.  

As a student William shone, winning prizes and being spoken of as one to watch. After gaining a scholarship to London’s Slade, his Play Scene from Hamlet won the painting prize in 1899. From then on his success was assured;  his going price for a commissioned portrait being in the region of 200 guineas. 

At little more than 5’2” he was an unlikely Lothario but from an early age he held a fascination for women. In 1901 he married Grace Knewstub, daughter of a London-based artist, and they settled in a stylish house in Chelsea. She was the model for several paintings, including Howth Head (Grace Orpen) and The Coral Necklace. During the summer months he  spent time in Dublin teaching at the Met and catching up on family. 

Howth Head – Grace Orpen

In 1906, he attended a dinner hosted by Evelyn and Howard St George, the Connemara land agent and a distant cousin. From his first glance at Evelyn he was besotted, ignoring the fact that they were both married and that she was a whole foot taller than he. When her portrait commissioned by Howard was completed, he wrote to her, ‘You are certainly the most wonderful thing that ever happened.’ She didn’t reply. He was a copious note writer, paying little attention to grammar or punctuation, frequently decorating the margins  with pen and ink drawings and signing with uncials. 

It was two years before they met again and they began a relationship that was mutually beneficial. She influenced his private and artistic life, suggesting he be more selective with his subjects – despite finding ugliness a deterrent, he wasn’t in the habit of turning down commissions. During their relationship that lasted more than a decade and resulted in the birth of a daughter, he fulfilled her creative aspirations and craving for excitement.

When the 1914-18 war was declared, feeling he owed the British a debt for his success, he put in to go to the front to paint pictures of the war.  In 1915 he was commissioned into Kensington Barracks for clerical duties. With Evelyn’s connivance he upped his campaigning to get to the front, and to Grace’s horror he succeeded.

Daily Mail 30 January 1917
Unique Honour for Irish Artist 

Sir Douglas Haig has conferred a unique honour on a distinguished Irishman, Mr W. Orpen RIA, who has been appointed official artist with the Army in France. Mr Orpen joined the Army Service Corps some time ago. 

On 17 April 1917, complete with his batman, his aide, and a driver for the Rolls-Royce, Major Orpen set sail to Boulogne, regarding his commission as a Boy’s Own style adventure. But nothing in his sheltered life had prepared him for the sights that met his eyes on the battlefields of the Somme – tommies in rat-infested, water-sodden trenches; men charging across the tortured earth with fixed bayonets, and, when injured, if they were lucky ending up in hell-hole hospitals. 

Initially he found it impossible to capture on canvas the sights he was surrounded by. But Ready to Start, a self-portrait, set in his room in Amiens, wearing the uniform of major provided the necessary impetus. From then on his output was prolific. His canvasses had to be approved before being forwarded to London – his approver wanted quantity and officers, whereas William was more interested in quality and the activities of the ordinary soldier.

Ready To Start

Never strong, his childhood was marred with colds and fevers. He was nursed to wellness in the luxurious surroundings of ‘Oriel’. But at the front no such luxuries existed. Sniffling his way through continuous head colds and ongoing bouts of fever, a gnash on his shin became infected and he ended up in hospital diagnosed with pneumonia, and an infection of the blood.

Bringing In A Wounded Tommy

There he met Yvonne Aupicq, a young volunteer nurse from Lille and they began a relationship. He painted a picture of her scantily clad, titled The Spy, and included it in his latest batch of canvasses. When his approver asked about the background of the painting, William spun a story about an unidentifiable prison on the outskirts of Paris; a cell occupied by an unnamed young girl, condemned to death for spying. On the morning after his visit, he explained, she faced the firing squad wearing her sable coat, and as the shots rang out, she shrugged off her coat. 

The Spy

Suspecting his explanation mightn’t be the end of the matter, William painted Yvonne again wearing a blue jacket, titled The Refugee. He wasn’t too surprised to be summonsed to London to answer questions about the painting, and ended up narrowly escaping being court-martialled or recalled from France.

He was knighted in June 1918 and that summer his exhibition of paintings, titled WAR was the talk of London, particularly The Spy with various versions of the story doing the round of dinner parties, and rumours that it had been acquired  by Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-British newspaper publisher and backstage politician.  The reviews for WAR were mixed. The Times bemoaning: ‘His work produced in France adds to our knowledge of himself, but nothing to our knowledge of war.’ While the Daily Telegraph wrote about the paintings ‘vibrating through our hearts’. 


In 1919, William was appointed official artist to the British Peace Delegation in order to paint the Peace, portraying the delegates. He was unwell, recovering from a dose of the Spanish flu, but he moved to Paris with Yvonne, took rooms in the Majestic hotel, studio space in the Astoria and rented an apartment for his driver. Day after day he sat in on the talks – one Peace painting morphed into three, the third proving to be particularly difficult. He wrote to Grace, ‘The picture has lost its glamour – its real bad time is on us now- and I’ve got the black dog – a what am I all about sort of feeling. Hands too cold to write’.  A few days later, he was complaining, ‘I haven’t enough shirts to do the rounds’. 

That third Peace painting titled To the Unknown British Soldier in France was controversial but the Imperial War Museum labelled it the only symbolic picture in its collections

When William returned to London in 1922, his marriage had broken down as had his relationship with Evelyn. He was in demand as a portrait painter, charging in the region of 2,000 guineas, but the war, ill health and increasing dependence on alcohol had taken its toll and he died in 1931.

He more or less faded to obscurity until in 2001 Gardenia St George with Riding Crop sold at Sotheby’s for nearly £2 million. It was the then most expensive Irish painting sold at auction. It revived his reputation, and from then on his work has increased in value.

Patricia has turned this true story into a fabulous novel. Many thanks, Patricia. Clearly a fascinating and talented man. Readers will be thrilled with this new WWI-based story.

ORPEN AT WAR by Patricia O’Reilly is published by The Liffey Press

Bombarded by artillery, dodging bullets, crawling through trenches in the Somme, Irish artist Major William Orpen, society portrait painter, witnesses the grim reality of conflict as he paints the war. This is his story.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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One Response

  1. I loved reading about this artist. What
    a wonderful introduction to such a talented
    man. I look forward to reading the book.

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