Sir William Orpen archive bought by National Gallery of Ireland

Collection of ‘unique aesthetic and research value’ bought for ‘substantial six-figure sum’

The National Gallery of Ireland has acquired an archive of more than 400 letters and drawings by Sir William Orpen – one of Ireland's best-known artists of the 20th century.

Orpen, who was born in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, in 1878, became a leading portrait painter in London and was one of Britain's official first World War artists.

The gallery said the collection comprises “a rich variety of material spanning much of Orpen’s life from his student years through to his death in 1931” and contains “some 200 of the artist’s illustrated letters and 200 manuscript letters to his wife Grace Orpen” as well as “finished sketches and drawings, sketchbooks, photographs and other personal memorabilia”.

Seán Rainbird, director of the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI), said the collection – much of it unpublished – is of “unique aesthetic and research value” that would “support and contribute to new and future research associated with one of Ireland’s most important and influential artists”.


The gallery already has a collection of 360 letters from Orpen to his mistress, Evelyn St George, as well as a collection of his paintings.


Orpen studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art before moving to London where he married English woman Grace Knewstub in 1901, but he had affairs in London with Mrs Evelyn St George and in France with Yvonne Aubicq, the daughter of the mayor of Lille.

The collection was acquired from a descendant of Orpen's who lives in England. The gallery did not disclose the price. However, Dublin art auctioneer Ian Whyte, who negotiated the sale, told The Irish Times that the price paid was "a substantial six-figure sum" but that, "thanks to the generosity of the seller", the amount was "substantially less than its retail value".

He also said that Whyte’s had “reduced its commission to the NGI by 75 per cent as a donation towards its acquisition”.

Mr Whyte said the collection “could have made significantly more at auction” but that the “family wanted it to go to the National Gallery in Dublin – in the city where Orpen was born”.

Mr Whyte said the archive had previously been loaned to “the Tate gallery in London who had been keen to acquire it” and that the British government had been “generous in allowing the export of an archive that the Tate was also keen to acquire”.

The highest price ever achieved at auction for a painting by Sir William Orpen was at Sotheby's Irish Sale in London in 2001 when his Portrait of Gardenia St George with Riding Crop (depicting the daughter of his mistress) sold for £1.98 million to an anonymous American collector.

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about fine art and antiques