Orpen letters detailing war experience found in National Library


TEN LETTERS written by Irish painter Sir William Orpen, some of which detail his experience as an official war artist on the Western Front, have been discovered in the archives of the National Library of Ireland.

Orpen, born in 1878 in Stillorgan, Dublin, became one of the most- sought-after society portraitists in early 20th-century London. At the time of his death at 52, his sitters had included Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson and John McCormack, the Irish-born tenor.

The letters, written in 1901 and 1917, were found in one of several hundred boxes acquired by the National Library from Orpen Sweeney, a Dublin firm of solicitors. They were written to the artist’s father, AH Orpen, a principal in the firm.

In 1916, Orpen was recruited as an official war artist. He was sent to the Western Front the next year, an experience he later detailed in a book, An Onlooker in France. Three of the new letters were written during this time.

In one, Orpen recounts his attempts to paint the remains of two soldiers.

“I got rather a fright about myself the other day. I was working some distance away from the car among the trenches, painting the remains of a Boche [German] and an Englishman – just skulls, bones, clothes, rifles, water bottles etc and, after a couple of hours, I began to feel sort of strange,” Orpen wrote.

“I did not know if I was lonely or afraid – so I put down my palette and went a few yards back and sat down – when suddenly a huge puff of wind came and blew over my heavy easel canvas and all, tearing the canvas to bits on the stump of a shelled tree.”

The others, written in 1901, try to secure his father’s approval for his wedding to Grace Knewstub.

One appears prescient, given that the marriage later foundered: “I suppose it is the lot of all men to fall in love . . . but not always with the right person,” wrote Orpen, who had numerous affairs.

Fiona Ross, director of the National Library, said the correspondence was found in unsorted material. “The letters will be of great interest to historians and others researching one of Ireland’s greatest and, for a time, most successful painters.”

The letters will be on public display from March 16th.