Born in Ireland, Orpen became a star pupil at the prestigious Slade School of Art, London. As official war artist in 1917, he was knighted. A rebel and outsider, his artistic reputation plummeted after his death and is only now being reappraised.
William Orpen's "To the Unkown Soldier in France" is a moving and heartfelt tribute to the millions who died in the First World War. Helena Stride reports
"It was all over. The 'frocks' (government officials) had won the war. The 'frocks' had signed the peace! The army was forgotten. Some dead and forgotten, others maimed and forgotten, others alive and well - but equally forgotten
The whole thing was finished. Why worry to honour the representatives of the dead, or the maimed, or the blind, or the living that remained. Why? In heaven's name, why not?"
These words from William Orpen's war memoirs of 1921 reveal his feelings at the end of the war and partly explain the fascinating history behind this painting, "To the Unknown British Soldier in France". For Orpen, the experience of the First World War was to inspire some of his most compelling work. As an Irishman he did not need to volunteer, nor did he desire to fight, yet he felt that he should do something, and, as a professional artist, the only thing that he could do was paint.
At the end of 1916, the Propaganda Department was reorganised into the Department of Information, and employed artists to record the war for posterity and not just for short-term propaganda. Orpen, with his reputation and connections, was able to secure an appointment as an Official War Artist and arrived in France in 1917.
He was promoted to the honorary rank of Major with accompanying salary, his own car, chauffeur, batman (personal valet) and private secretary. Not surprisingly, Orpen was conscious of his privileged position compared to the ordinary soldier. At first, he found it difficult to produce anything.
When painting the Commander-in-Chief, Douglas Haig, his sitter supposedly said: "Why waste your time painting me? Go and paint the men. They're the fellows who are saving the world, and they're getting killed everyday."
Orpen followed this advice, producing a range of work from sensitively observed realistic drawings to allegorical figures symbolic of suffering and sacrifice, such as "Blown Up", where the stylised figure of the soldier, whose uniform has literally been blown away, is deliberately reminiscent of early Renaissance paintings of Christ emerging from the tomb.
"To the Unknown British Soldier in France" is the natural summation of Orpen's ideas and feelings about the ordinary "unknown British soldier", and the third painting produced as witness to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The first two show government officials, "frocks," dwarfed by grand architecture. A sketch in a letter of 1921 reveals how this painting started in a similar vein with delegates waiting to enter the Signing Chamber side by side with "dead fighting heroes".
Not happy with this, he wrote: "You know I couldn't go on. It all seemed so unimportant somehow. In spite of all these eminent men, I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France forever. So I rubbed out all the statesmen and commanders and painted the picture as you see it - the Unknown Soldier guarded by his comrades."
This "unusual" second version (below) was voted Picture of the Year in 1923 by the public but was also severely criticised, for its "scarecrow", semi-naked soldier guardians, reminiscent of "Blown Up" and deemed antiheroic. Sometime later, in 1928, Orpen decided to paint out the figures and leave the draped coffin. He gave this final version to the Imperial War Museum. A body had been taken from an unmarked grave on the Western Front and buried in Westminster Abbey in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier on 11 November 1920.
This final 1928 version is arguably the most effective in composition and mood. It shows the Hall of Peace, at the Palace of Versailles, in all its classical architectural grandeur, with shining marble and gold leaf, but now devoid of dignitaries. A coffin draped in the Union Jack flag is placed in the centre of an arched doorway. Through this doorway is a darkened space, The Hall of Mirrors, which, tunnel-like, leads the eye to another arched brightly lit doorway to the Hall of War in the distance, where a figure of Christ on the cross can be seen.
Like a director, the artist leads us through the picture space; everything carefully placed to enhance meaning. Orpen's composition uses the Renaissance system of one-point perspective with all the lines of floor and architectural elements leading the eye to the vanishing point at the foot of the crucifix in the far distance. The red central vertical, edged in crisp white, of the flag, is directly aligned with the vertical of light reflected on the floor of the Hall of Mirrors and leads to the brightest part, the arched doorway with the crucifix.
The red cross of the flag mirrors the crucifix, and the British helmet placed at the "head" of the coffin, makes a direct reference to the death and sacrifice of this "Unknown Soldier", representative of the thousands who died, as well as to that of Christ. Warlike associations of the classical decoration of helmets, shields and armour in the foreground directly contrast with the simplicity of the cross in the far distance.
Orpen's own heartfelt tribute to the ordinary soldier left behind in France can also stand for the feelings and the loss of millions of ordinary people.
Helena Stride is head of education at the Imperial war Museum, London