Lot 181 – ‘Private Green’ by William Orpen (1905). One of six works by Orpen for sale at Christie’s London – Modern British Art Day Sale 18th June 2019.
Estimate £15,000 – £25,000.
UPDATE – Lot 181 NOT SOLD, Sale 17190 Passed at £12,000 Hammer.
Private Green by William Orpen (circa 1915).
Signed ‘ORPEN’ (lower right) and inscribed ‘Pte. Green’ (upper right).
Charcoal on buff paper.
16 ¼ x 17 1/8 inches (41.2 x 43.5 centimeters).
Text from Christie’s Catalogue.
James McIntosh Patrick, R.S.A.
with Fine Art Society, London, December 1965, where purchased by Professor L. and Mrs. Holliday, and by descent to the previous owner.
Purchased from the above by the present owner.
Exhibition catalogue, Sir William Orpen, Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings, Rye, Art Gallery, 1968, n.p., number 18, illustrated on the front cover.
B. Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, London, 1981, page 344, illustrated.
London, Royal Watercolour Society, 50 Years Ago, June 1965, number 136.
Rye, Art Gallery, Sir William Orpen, Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings, June – August 1968, number 18.
When he arrived in Northern France at the beginning of April 1917, Orpen’s entourage included an aide-de-camp, a driver and his batman, Private Green. More model than amanuensis, Green was to be immortalised in one of Orpen’s most important canvases, Soldiers Resting at the Front (sold in these Rooms, 17 May 2002, lot 52), sitting on the ground, clad in a great coat, his ‘Balaclava’ helmet pulled up on top of his head to form a woolen cap. His hands are cupped around what may be a water-bottle or a piece of bread and in the finished canvas, he has been given a mess-tin.
Soldiers Resting at the Front by William Orpen. Not in auction.
Known as P.B.I. (‘Poor Bloody Infantry’) these veterans from a few weeks of trench bombardment were, for the artist, the true heroes of this disastrous war and they bore the full impact of its blundering betrayals by generals and politicians. The artist was to lampoon the latter when they congregated at the Palais d’Orsay to divide the spoils in 1919.
Orpen was an exceptional draughtsman. Being part of a precocious generation of Slade-trained painters that included Augustus John, he came under the strict discipline of anatomist and drawing master, Henry Tonks, who believed that ‘The representation of form still remains the one and only power of drawing’ (J. Fothergill (editor), ‘The Principles of Teaching Drawing at the Slade School’ The Slade, MDCCCXCIII-MDCCCCVII, 1907, (Slade School), pages 32-33). Nothing was made easy and with conviction in drawing came ‘rapid improvement’ and the ‘same insistent fury’ found its way into Orpen’s painting (S. Granger, in Fothergill (editor), pages 11-12). Referring to Orpen’s drawings in 1914, The Graphic noted that ‘draughtsmanship of this order permits of no fumbling, of no dodging, of no method of trial and error; it must be limpid and direct’ (17 January 1914, page 104).
This limpid line, describing the contours and searching out the shadows is what we find in Private Green. Its bold undulating graphite carries weight and ‘colour’, enabling the painter to lift the figure from present reality into the dilapidated shelter that forms the setting for Soldiers Resting at the Front. Such studies, for Arnold Bennett, writing in the catalogue of Orpen’s War exhibition at Agnew’s in the spring of 1918, perfectly expressed the monotony that came with life in the trenches. Only Orpen, with his ‘singular freshness of vision’ could make something of the experience (exhibition catalogue, Thomas Agnew and Sons, pages 4-5) The veteran critic, Frederick Wedmore, commenting upon the show, noted the peculiar circumstances the artist faced and that his line was ‘… charged with the very maximum of meaning’ (‘Sir William Orpen’s War Pictures’, The Studio, volume 74, 1918, page 48). He could indeed have been studying Private Green at the time these words were written.
Christie’s – We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.
Blog post by Dominic Lee who added the image not in the auction.