William Orpen found his way into conversation this week, I am not in the business of sketching out biographies but I would suggest you look at the work of this wonderful painter. I first became aware of him through the portrait he produced of Augustus John, a compositional tour de force, brilliant in every regard. Orpen and John were fellow students at the Slade and became constant companions, the painting hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Orpen excelled at the Slade, Steer, Tonks and Brown acclaimed him as a prodigy. He produced drawings of extraordinary brilliance, his observation and mastery with paint were second to none. At the end of his time at the Slade he was considered 'the only show in town'. In his lifetime he became incredibly wealthy, materially one of the most successful painters to have ever worked in England. Much of his career was devoted to portraiture, he painted Princes, politicians, the great, the beautiful and the wealthy. At the height of his success Rolls Royces' queued outside his grand studio in South Bolton Gardens, sitters awaiting their appointments.
,Rothenstein however maintained that John was a more considerable artist than Orpen who now sits somewhat neglected on the periphery of artistic achievement. Rothenstein felt that despite all his gifts Orpen lacked the all important intellectual rigour and curiousity essential for greatness. Rothenstein's comments, which have marred Orpen's legacy, are in the context of the times, quite understandable. In an art world full of new ideas and experimentation Orpen failed to take on the new questions being posed by his contempories. Nevinson, the great exponent of Vorticism, called him 'the last great Victorian painter'. But Orpen knew where his strengths lay and within his personal parameters he created an unrivalled body of art.
Orpen made many self portraits, and I think they are amongst his most fascinating work. Dressed in a variety of guises, often painting the same profile, he never flatters and gives us an insightful glimpse into his character. In the story of English portraiture he is a master class. Knighted and feted in his time he is now sadly neglected, but remains an artist worthy of scrutiny and admiration, check him out.
AGED AND AWKWARD