National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts

Bulletin 6 (III:2), 1965

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Orpen Portraits in the Canadian
War Memorials Collection

Robert F. Wodehouse, Curator of War Art

Résumé en français

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Sir William Orpen is represented in the Canadian War Memorials Collection by eight portraits. Seven of these are paintings of General Sir Arthur Currie and five divisional commanders together with Major Willis-O'Connor, ADC to General Currie. The eighth portrait is of Captain Reginald C. Hoidge, MC and Bar, an airman who was one of the early Canadian aces.

The choice by Lord Beaverbrook of Major William Orpen, Army Service Corps, to paint these portraits for his scheme for the Canadian War Memorials was an obvious one, as even before 1914 Orpen was one of the leading artists of his day. He was born at Stillorgan, co. Dublin, 27 November 1878, the fourth and youngest son of Arthur Herbert Orpen, a Dublin solicitor. He was an infant prodigy and entered the Dublin school of Art at the age of 11 and, at 17, the Slade school of Fine Art where he came under the critical encouragement of Henry Tonks. Fellow students were Augustus John and Ambrose McEvoy, both of whom were to become outstanding portrait painters and who were later to join him in contributing to the Canadian War Memorials scheme.

Success came quickly, backed as he was by the recommendation of John Singer Sargent, and he rapidly became a successful portrait painter. He was elected ARA in 1910, and his pictures in the ensuing years were among the main attractions of the exhibitions at Burlington House. For the first few years of the war Orpen limited his contribution to painting portraits for the funds of the Red Cross. With other famous painters he auctioned blank canvases on which the buyers' portraits were later painted, and the sums received were given to the Red Cross funds. However, by the end of 1915 more direct national service was demanded and through the influence of Sir John Cowans, then Quartermaster-General, for whom he was painting a portrait, he obtained a commission in the Army Service Corps. At Kensington Barracks London he conscientiously and effectively performed routine office work until the end of 1916. At that time he was among those selected as a war artist by Charles Masterman, a liberal politician who was put in charge of war propaganda by Asquith. Masterman liked the idea of reproducing paintings in his publications and recognized at once that artists could do what photographers could not. (1)

This early group included Muirhead Bone, Eric Kennington, Francis Dodd, James McBey, Paul Nash, and C. R. W. Nevinson. (2) With the assistance again of Sir John Cowans, he was promoted major and sent off to France. It was felt that this rank would facilitate amicable relations at the higher headquarters where he was destined to work.

In France in 1917 he painted energetically portraits of generals and privates and much of that superb record of war as he saw it, which he donated after the peace to the Imperial War Museum. It was early during this time that he met Lord Beaverbrook who was to prove such a friend in the summer of 1918. At this later date Orpen had been returned to England after a series of indiscretions and it was only at the insistence of Lord Beaverbrook, then head of the Ministry of Information, that he was permitted to return to the front in 1918. (3) After the armistice he became the official artist at the Peace Conference and painted a famous series of portraits and groups. It is worth recalling that, after nine months of work, he forfeited a commission of some £ 2000 when he replaced some forty eminent faces painted against the grandiose surroundings of Versailles with a coffin flanked by winged putti and two gaunt wraiths from the trenches. He called the painting To the Unknown British Soldier in France. This was his way of showing his displeasure at the contrast between the manoeuvering in high places and the misery and fatalities at the front. The painting caused considerable controversy. It had to be revised before being hung at the Royal Academy and was finally only accepted by the Imperial War Museum, minus putti and mad soldiers.

After the war Orpen resumed his successful career, being elected RA in 1919. He died at the relatively young age of 53 in 1931, worn out by hard work and hard play. Orpen was probably the most successful artist of his time. With nearly six hundred portraits to his name he assumed the position in the public eye which Sargent, and before him Millais, had occupied.

In his book, An Onlooker in France, begun during his time at the Peace Conference, Orpen relates how he first met Lord Beaverbrook at the dockside in Boulogne, some ten minutes before boat departure time, 'Are you Orpen?' 'Yes sir,' 'Are you willing to work for the Canadians?' 'Certainly, sir,' 'Well that's all right, jump in, and we'll go and have a drink,' It would appear that the initial plan was to have Orpen paint a portrait of General Currie together with a battle picture. (4) There is also mention in the files of a planned group of the Headquarters staff in France. (5) Certainly the seven military portraits by Orpen now in the collection would have formed the basis for such a group. In his book he records how in the autumn of 1917 he went up to Paris several weekends at odd times and painted Generals Burstall, Watson and Lipsett and Major Willis-O'Connor. However, the portraits of Watson, Lipsett and O'Connor are dated 1918, He makes no mention of when or where he painted General Currie or Generals Loomis and Macdonell, although again the latter is dated 1918, During the winter he also painted Brigadier-General Seeley who commanded the Canadian Cavalry Brigade; and he gives an amusing description of Sir Alfred Munnings in action. This picture is now in the Imperial War Museum.

The portraits of the six generals comprise a group of some historical importance, for it marks the first time that all four divisions in the field together with the Canadian Corps itself were commanded by native-born Canadians, Three of them, Burstall, Loomis and Watson, came from the province of Quebec, either Quebec city or Sherbrooke. Macdonell and Currie were from south-western Ontario, at Windsor and near London respectively; Burstall and Macdonell, graduates of R. M. C, had seen service in South Africa and were in the regular force at the outbreak of war. The other three had had varied careers in contracting, journalism or real estate and had risen from the ranks of the militia. General Lipsett is also an historic figure as he was the last British officer to command a Canadian division in the field and, while in Canada as Staff Officer for Western Canada from 1911 to 1914, had instructed General Currie and others at Militia Staff courses. Major Willis-O'Connor had been twice wounded before being made ADC to General Currie. After the war, he became senior ADC to Lord Byng and a succession of Governors General and was a well-known figure in Ottawa until his retirement from the army.

Next PageThe Portrait of Captain Hoidge

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