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Orpen at War


by Patricia O’Reilly





This illustrated, fictionalised biography of William Orpen, the leading society portraitist of his day and an official war artist for Britain during the Great War, provides an intimate and persuasive insight into the life and times of this fascinating and under-represented Anglo-Irish artist.

Set during a period where the accepted social order is about to change forever, O’Reilly skilfully juxtapositions Orpen’s privileged life amongst London’s Edwardian elite — a gilded world of afternoon tea and exclusive men’s clubs — against the brutal reality of the killing fields and the rat-infested trenches of the Somme. In the process, the author gives the reader a unique insight into both constructed realities. What makes this experience unusually satisfying, is that the story is interspersed with the poignant images of Orpen’s artworks of the people and places that he encountered during this period.

The story begins as the artist, filled with bravura and a spirit of adventure, sets off to France with his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, leaving behind his disgruntled wife Grace, two small daughters, and his vivacious American mistress, Evelyn St Georges.

Orpen, determined to represent the realities of war, quickly realises that it is not the glorious endeavour promoted through war-office propaganda — it is hell on earth. Disenchanted, particularly at the inequalities experienced between the conditions of officers and men, he evades official attempts to censor his work. Instead, he paints scenes from the front reflecting war’s futility and the inhumanity of sending young soldiers as ballast into the trenches to face certain death.

On the brink of Armageddon, Orpen drinking heavily, finds solace with a beautiful French nurse, Yvonne Aupicq, who becomes his mistress and his muse with unexpected political and personal consequences.

O’Reilly tells Orpen’s story with pathos, tenderness, and humour, painting a picture of the artist as a likeable but flawed hero whose obsessive desire to portray truth in art adversely affects his health and wellbeing, eventually causing his own carefully constructed private life to dramatically unravel. This is an enthralling portrayal of Orpen providing unique insights into the inspiration behind his art. Meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated with many of Orpen’s lesser-known drawings from the front, this compelling cameo tells of a flawed hero from a golden age, an artist, husband, lover, whose war-time story and haunting images will remain for some time to come in the minds of its readers.


at-infested trenches of the Somme. In the process, the author gives the reader a unique insight into both constructed realities. What makes this experience unusually satisfying, is that the story is interspersed with the poignant images of Orpen’s artworks of the people and places that he encountered during this period.

The story begins as the artist, filled with bravura and a spirit of adventure, sets off to France with his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, leaving behind his disgruntled wife Grace, two small daughters, and his vivacious American mistress, Evelyn St Georges.

Orpen, determined to represent the realities of war, quickly realises that it is not the glorious endeavour promoted through war-office propaganda — it is hell on earth. Disenchanted, particularly at the inequalities experienced between the conditions of officers and men, he evades official attempts to censor his work. Instead, he paints scenes from the front reflecting war’s futility and the inhumanity of sending young soldiers as ballast into the trenches to face certain death.

On the brink of Armageddon, Orpen drinking heavily, finds solace with a beautiful French nurse, Yvonne Aupicq, who becomes his mistress and his muse with unexpected political and personal consequences.

O’Reilly tells Orpen’s story with pathos, tenderness, and humour, painting a picture of the artist as a likeable but flawed hero whose obsessive desire to portray truth in art adversely affects his health and wellbeing, eventually causing his own carefully constructed private life to dramatically unravel. This is an enthralling portrayal of Orpen providing unique insights into the inspiration behind his art. Meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated with many of Orpen’s lesser-known drawings from the front, this compelling cameo tells of a flawed hero from a golden age, an artist, husband, lover, whose war-time story and haunting images will remain for some time to come in the minds of its readers.


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