The Lost Orpen for Mr. Blettsworthy On Rampole Island by H.G. Wells
In 1916 William Orpen, then by no means the world famous artist he later became, painted the brilliant portrait of Sir John Benn which used to adorn the reception room of Bouverie House. (cont. below images).
Who else but an artist, as was JWB, for a formal portrait would have agreed to wear his green Norfolk golfing jacket to set off his florid three bottle man complexion – being in fact a strict teetotaler? Fourteen years later Sir William Orpen painted Sir Ernest, thus achieving a unique father and son double. (cont. below image).
Portrait of Sir Ernest Benn (1875-1954) by Sir William Orpen (1928). According to Orpen’s studio book, Ernest Benn paid £500 for his portrait (that’s over £20,000 in today’s money).
This painting originally hung at the headquarters of Benn Brothers Publishers, Bouverie House on Fleet Street, London. At an early sitting EJPB took along a set of proofs of H.G. Wells’ then latest novel and, slightly with his tongue in his cheek, asked the great artist whether it would amuse him to do a picture for the book jacket. Obviously intrigued, Orpen replied that it would. The sparkling result arrived at Bouverie House a few days later. Sir Ernest handed it to me and I, in turn, to one of the directors of a top process engraving firm. A timetable was soon agreed. He himself would bring the progressives to me in ten days. He admitted that he was going on holiday that night but said he would hand the Orpen over to his works manager immediately with the strictest instructions. Came the agreed delivery day and sharp on the agreed 10 a.m. my engraver friend walked into my room – empty handed. Before I could make any comment he blurted out, “I’m sorry, but we’ve lost the Orpen”. “don’t be silly”, I said, “You can’t do that”. “Oh yes we can and have” and proceeded to tell me an entirely convincing story. On his return from holiday the previous day he had asked the works manager about their two most important current jobs – an extremely valuable carpet and the Orpen. No trouble with the carpet, but said the manager, “I’m sorry, we’ve lost the Orpen”. “Don’t be silly, you can’t do that!” said the director. Finally convinced that the manager meant what he said, they had both stayed behind that night until the last employee had left the premises, and had then proceeded to search the place from top to bottom. No result. Probably some nervous operator had spilt some acid on the precious picture and destroyed it, rather than own up?So what next? I went straight to my father’s office and said, “I’m sorry but we’ve lost the Orpen”. “Don’t be silly, you can’t do that,” he said. Soon accepting the fact “There’s only one thing to do, Get in a taxi and go to Orpen’s studio and own up.” Which I did. I found the great man all by himself. “I’m sorry, sir,” I said, “but we’ve lost your Mr. Blettsworthy picture.” “Don’t be silly,” he replied, “You can’t do that.” Odd how all concerned in the affair used exactly the same words.In less time that it takes to record, Sir William saw that I was serious and, with a friendliness and charm for which I shall always be grateful, said, “Well, hold on a minute and I’ll see if I have still got my original sketch”. To my astonishment he then proceeded to rummage through a solitary waste paper basket. about the only piece of furniture it seemed in the large, bare room.Presently, he straightened up and with an endearing grin produced a common or garden envelope, the back of which had been ruled, with the figure of Mr. Blettsworthy drawn on top of the ruled lines. “Well, as I’ve got that, I can do you another “, he said, “And I must add you are an extremely lucky young man to catch me. I am off to Paris for the weekend and am now waiting for a taxi to take me to Victoria.”The happy sequel to the story was that the Mr. Blettsworthy number two version. In the corner in the famous Orpen fist is the comment, “If this drawing is burnt, stolen or strayed the price for the next will be £200. Mr Blettsworthy is getting on my nerves”.
Orpen had originally sketched this head & shoulders version of Mr Blettsworthy.