WHAT happened to William Orpen? How did he come to be so neglected, though he is clearly the greatest Irish artist this century and probably the greatest ever?

Others of his generation, such as McGonigal and Keating and Yeats, remained cherished and in the forefront of popular consciousness.

But Orpen vanished - until, that is, Bruce, Arnold's, magnificent, reputation rescuing biography about 15 years ago, with the accompanying retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery.

What happened to Orpen was, of course, a fate which he shared with much else from the period in which he worked, was the time when a new state was being created, and those who had identified with the historical processes which led to the formation of that state came to be incorporated in popular mythology and common memory.

And those who did not - unionists like Orpen, constitutional nationalists and those policemen, civil servants, soldiers, who had served the former regime - vanished from the dramatis personae of Irish, collective, recall.

All societies do this, picking and choosing their heroes by conscious and unconscious processes abandoning certain individuals to obscurity, for no clear reason other than that the did not fit the required templates of historical suitability.

Genius Shines Through

And so Orpen vanished from sight, and Ireland forgot the one true artist of unquestionable genius whose works will be collected and cherished by non Irish people in 100 years time.

Nobody seeing the latest Orpen publication, the reprint of An Onlooker in France, in a limited reprint available only from Fred Hanna's bookshop in Dublin, could be in any doubt but his greatness as an artist. His genius shines through every brush stroke, every touch of pencil on a line drawing, every light he places in the eye of a sitter.

He had lightness of touch and of purpose simultaneously; he was witty and sombre had a sublime sense of composition, and technically was gloriously skilled.

But of course these skills, though heaven sent, could achieve nothing unless refined and improved on so that each line represented an expression of artistic intention, executed, according to intellectual principles which the artist himself understood.

This is one of the reasons Orpen is a joy to behold. The mind intends, the eye envisages, the hand performs and, in performing, creates something new which feeds the mind, hand and eye which created it. That is, what one feels whenever one contemplates an Orpen work - the sheer dynamism of the artistic process.

Genius at Work

That is the reason even, those potentially dull portraits of seated, posing generals contain so much to enchant creative genius is at work. And according to An Onlooker in France, more than mere creative genius.

When Orpen was painting General Plumer, a buffoonish looking figure who was also the most brilliant general of his time, Plumer's cockney bat man insisted on making his own contribution to the portrait.

Just as Orpen declared that the general was perfect as he was the batman spoke up. "No he ain't, not by a long chalk," and proceeded to pull out the creases in Plumer's tunic, saying, "`Ere, you just sit up proper - not all `unched up the way you are. What would Her Ladyship say if I let you be painted that way?

Later the batman returned and laid a hand on Orpen's shoulder, saying, "Look up at me." Orpen obliged while the hat man scrutinised the work.

"Won't do," he sniffed. "You wants keeping up to the mark," promptly vanishing and then returning with a huge glass of port.

Thus was the portrait of Herbert Plumer begun, and pretty much thus wad it completed. It is outwardly a straightforward enough composition. But there is a great and gentle humour in the eyes. It is a true reflection on his character: there was not a man more concerned about the welfare of the men he led than Plumer.

Orpen's greatness shines in the quick sketch of the soldiers in the dentist's chair or the more carefully composed works called Scenes from the Trenches - the shell shocked Highlander, the naked, insane figure of a man who has been blown up, or the Dubliner in the South Irish Horse, resting on his way to Arras.

Some of his war work was meticulously precise - a drawing of a heavy gun and its tractor-tow is almost photographic in its detail; yet some of his, water colours are impressionistic in their vigour and use of light.

And some of his works in this volume must constitute some of the great and most devastatingly accurate portrayal of war - The Madwoman of Douai, with the eponymous figure sitting amid the ruins of her town, a surviving crucifix on a fragment of wall behind her and around her the assorted figures of baffled townsfolk and a brace, of indifferent, exhausted soldiers provides a truly haunting, unforgettable vision of the lunacy which Or en was witnessing as an official war artist.

Orpen was much more than that, of course, both before and after the hostilities, but the humanitarianism which informed his art was never more evident than during this, era. He came to worship the ordinary soldiers he was painting.

Minor Masterpiece

He could write, too.

Of the Somme in summer he said, "The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure - dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky was a dark blue and the whole air, up to a height of 40 feet, thick with butterflies . . .

"Through the masses of white butterflies, blue dragon flies darted around high up the larks sang higher still the aeroplanes droned. Everything shimmered in the heat. Clothes, guns, all that had been left in confusion when the war passed on, had now been baked by the sun into one wonderful combination of colour - white, pale grey and pale gold . .

It is 75 years since this book was first published. It is a minor masterpiece. Only 550 copies have been reprinted. From Fred Hanna's. Hurry.