This November we take a look at the life of painter Sir William Orpen, one of the most prolific war artists of WWI.

William Orpen was born on 27th November 1878, in Stillorgan, Ireland. He had a privileged childhood, and grew up with his parents and siblings in their large family home, with extensive grounds containing stables and tennis courts. Both his parents were amateur painters, so it was no surprise when Orpen enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, at the age of thirteen. During his six years at the collage, Orpen won every major prize there plus the British Isles gold medal for life drawing, before leaving to study at the Slade School of Art between 1897 and 1899. At Slade, Orpen mastered oil painting and began to experiment with different painting techniques and effects. He would include mirrors in his pictures to create images within images, add false frames and collages around his subjects and often make pictorial references to works by other artists in his own paintings.

William Orpen
Students at Slade School of Fine Art 1905 (Image Credit:

Orpen soon became a very sought after artist, painting portraits of the rich and famous. In fact some of his clients even came from America. He regularly returned to Dublin to teach in his old school and to take a holiday. He is credited with introducing an new era of painting to Ireland and many of his students went on to become world renowned artists.

With the arrival of war in 1914 Orpen’s role was initially limited to the auctioning of blank canvases upon which the purchaser’s portrait would be later painted, funds raised going to the Red Cross. Towards the close of 1915 however, Orpen felt obliged to take a more active role in the prosecution of the war effort.  With the assistance of the British Army Quartermaster-General, Sir John Cowans, whose portrait Orpen was currently preparing, Orpen secured a commission into the Army Service Corps. Initially tasked with routine office work at Kensington Barracks, he later came to the attention of those responsible for the War Propaganda Bureau, and was soon recruited as an official war artist, where he was joined by others including Paul Nash, Muirhead Bone and Wyndham Lewis.

It was believed that Orpen would be regarded more seriously if he held a higher military rank, therefore in 1916 he was promoted to Major and despatched to France, where it was anticipated that Orpen would paint portraits of a number of senior military command figures. Throughout 1917 and 1918 Orpen was responsible for portraits of a number of generals, privates and politicians, including Sir Douglas Haig, Hugh Trenchard and Herbert Plumer.  Following the war Orpen was elected RA in 1919 and returned to portrait painting, which included one of the British wartime Prime Minister David Lloyd-George in 1926.

William Orpen
Lewis R. Tomalin, By William Orpen

Before his time as a great war artist, Orpen was commissioned to produce a portrait of Lewis R Tomalin, in 1909. Tomalin was a successful British businessman, and founder of Jaeger clothing, who specialised in wool-jersey long johns in the early 20th century. These woollen undergarments were worn by many explorers, including the Irish polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic. In 1910 the company had received its first Royal Warrant from King George V. We are delighted to have currently have this piece in our collection at Trinity House.



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