This illustrated letter[i] was artist’s Sir William Orpen’s response to Mr Anthony Prinsep’s request to produce an illustration for the commemorative programme to accompany a “Special Matinee Performance under the patronage and in the presence of Their Majesties the King and Queen, of E. Temple Thurston’s “The Wandering Jew” in aid of King George’s Pension Fund for Actors and Actresses at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane”, planned for Monday May 23rd 1927.[ii]  

“My dear Princep I can’t do a wandering Jew its no use, send them both back to me and I will destroy them,

William Orpen, Hotel Majestic Paris, 2nd May 1927″.


Ernest Temple Thurston.

In the play, The Wandering Jew, written in 1911, and first produced in 1920, the author and playwright, Ernest Temple Thurston (1879-1933)[iii], attempts to tell, quite literally, the original legend of  “The Wandering Jew”, tracing the journey of the Jew from Biblical times through to the Spanish Inquisition.

                                                                                                                             Matheson Lang in ‘The Wandering Jew’ (V&A).                                                                            

As with the original 1921 production and the 1923 silent film, the title role was played by Matheson Lang. The play was produced both in London and on Broadway. In 1927, Lang reprised the role in a touring production, which probably gave rise to this ‘Special Performance’.

[i] The Wandering Jew – Illustrated Letter to Mr Anthony Prinsep, dated  (1927).

Medium : Pencil, Pen, Brown Ink and Wash on Paper : 97/8 x 6¼ ins (25×16 cms)

Inscribed : Lower Centre S.I.D. : ‘my dear Princep I can’t do a wandering Jew it’s no use / send them both back to me and I will destroy them / …William Orpen, Hotel Majestic / Paris / 2nd May 1927

Current Location : Private Collection, Canada.

Provenance : London, Phillips Sale, 02/05/1995, Lot No.48 (Illustrated in Catalogue, p.11), sold for £550;

Private Collection (Canada);

London, Bonhams Sale, 28/11/2006, Lot No.51 (Illustrated in Catalogue, p.61), unsold;

Private Collection (Canada).

[ii] Although Orpen has addressed his letter to “Princep”, this is a spelling error for he was writing to the British artist, Anthony Leyland Prinsep (1888-1942), born in Kensington, London, the son of the Royal Academician, Valentine Cameron Prinsep. Anthony was a member of the General Committee of the King George’s Pension Fund for Actors and Actresses. Together with his wife, the Australian actress, Marie Lohr (1890-1975), whom he married in 1912, and divorced in 1928, he led the management of the Globe Theatre from 1918 to 1927. He died in Marylebone, London in 1942.

[iii] Ernest Temple Thurston (1880-1933) was born in Halesworth, Suffolk, England. the youngest of four children of brewery manager Frank Joseph Thurston and his wife Georgina Temple. In 1895, he left England to live with his paternal grandmother in Ballintemple, Cork. For many years Temple Thurston found it difficult to make a living from writing and worked as a yeast merchant, brewer, research chemist, and commercial traveler before finally becoming a reporter. It was while in Cork that Temple met his first of three wives, Katherine Cecil Madden, (1875–1911). After living in various places, they settled in a house in Kensington, with visits to their country cottage at Ardmore, Ireland. The marriage did not last, and their divorce was formalised in 1910. Temple died in Maida Vale, London, in 1933.

Thurston wrote a total of forty books, from which seventeen motion pictures were made. In addition, he authored several theatrical plays, three of which were performed on Broadway and four of which were made into motion pictures. His best-known work for the stage is ‘The Wandering Jew’, a play in four parts which was performed on Broadway in 1921. The play was made into a film of the same name in 1923, and, reproduced in 1933. His third wife, Emily Cowlin, published the play as a novel in 1934.

[ ].

It is obvious from his letter that Orpen was not satisfied with his original artistic attempts and was ready to abandon the whole exercise; and consequently asked that the originals be returned. The accompanying sketch clearly relates to this self-perceived sense of failure to produce something that met his exacting standards. Indeed, it is almost certainly a self-caricature, his features suitably altered to suggest “The Jew”, mainly by changing the shape of the nose, and thinning the face. In applying his oft employed self-effacing humour, he equates this situation, with the Jew in the story, condemning himself to exile and wandering. Such self-mockery is totally in keeping with Orpen’s character, especially at this point in his life.

Orpen: ‘The Wandering Jew’ – Original Sketch for Theatre Royal Programme, 23rd May 1927.

However, despite Orpen’s plea to “Princep”, at least one of the original drawings survived. Signed by the artist, it was auctioned off, for £45 or £50 (accounts differ), during an interval, at the Special Matinee Performance of the play, on Monday, 23rd May 1927 [i]. A facsimile of the drawing adorned the souvenir programme. Subsequently, the same original drawing was sold at auction, in Bonhams, London, Knightsbridge, Modern British and Irish Art Sale, 29th May 2012, Lot 167, as “The Beggarman”, for £1200[ii].

[i] The Stage – Thursday 12 May 1927, page 14 (Extract).

“King George’s Pension Fund.

Sir William Orpen has generously given a black-and-white drawing for the souvenir programme. The original will be offered at auction on the afternoon, probably by Mr. Joseph Coyne, and the distinguished artist has promised to autograph it for a purchaser.”

The Stage – Thursday 26 May 1927, page 17. (Extract).


On Monday, May 23, 1927, was played here, in the presence of the King and Queen, the play, in four phases, by E. Temple Thurston, entitled: — “The Wandering Jew.”

Brilliant success attended one more matinée in aid of King George’s Pension Fund for Actors and Actresses. The King and Queen (the latter in white toque and silver-grey dress) were received by Sir Douglas Dawson, the President of the Fund; Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Chair­man of the Committee; and Dame May Whitty, who all three oc­cupied a box next to the Royal Box. The spacious auditorium of Old Drury, kindly lent by Sir Alfred Butt, was crowded, and magnificent indeed were the finan­cial results of the matinée as an­nounced by Sir Johnston Forbes Robertson after the third interval. He had been preceded, after the second interval by Mr. Joseph Coyne, who, quite unannounced and without any blare or fanfare of trumpets, came before the cur­tain to auction an original drawing of “The Wandering Jew,” made by Sir William Orpen, a facsimile, of which adorned the souvenir programme, sold by a body of professional ladies, under the direction of Miss Lilian Braithwaite, assisted by Mr. Athole Stewart. The popular Joe Coyne succeeded in knocking the draw­ing down, or, rather, running its price up, to the good round sum of £50, which was presumably in­cluded in the amount afterwards stated by Sir Johnston. The total receipts or takings were, he said, £2.410, in itself a splendid figure: and this was more than doubled by a munificent donation received from Lord Rothermere, who, though unable to be present, amply atoned for this by sending to Sir Douglas Dawson a cheque for £5,000, bringing up the sum- total to £7,410.








Another drawing of an old man with a stick, which formed part of Cara Copland’s gift to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, Canada [i], may also be associated and could even be the second attempt to which Orpen referred, in his letter of 2nd May 1927.

Orpen: Man Leaning on a Stick: Collection Beaverbrook Art Gallery Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.

[i] Orpen: Man Leaning on a Stick: Pen and Ink on paper laid down on pressed paperboard, 11 x 8½ in. (27.9 x 21.6 cms). Signed: Lower Right; ‘ORPEN’. Collection Beaverbrook Art Gallery Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, Gift of Miss Cara Copland, 1959 (59.423).


Thurston’s play was the latest literary incarnation of a recurring and enduring medieval myth, the origins of which can be traced back, at least to the 13th Century. It has a number of variants, but generally speaking it refers to a Jew, who taunted Jesus on the way to His crucifixion and as a result was cursed to roam the earth, until the Second Coming of Christ. Various suggested identities include:- Malchus, Cartaphilus and Ahasuerus (or Ahasverus); but Thurston calls him Matathias. Down the ages the theme of the Wandering Jew has been regularly portrayed in Art, both in literature and as pictorial art. Of the many depictions, it is probably Gustave Doré’s set of twelve etchings, illustrating the tale, that is one of the most evocative. [i] However, whereas Doré endows his character with a bearing of defiance and fortitude, Orpen chooses to display his in utter wretchedness, isolation and despair.

[i] “The Legend of the Wandering Jew – A Series of Twelve Designs”, various editions London and New York between c.1850 and c.1900, the publication of which Orpen would certainly have been aware.


Other artist’s impressions of ‘The Wandering Jew’.

Gustave Dore – The Wandering Jew – Drawing in pen and ink c.1856 (V & A). Later hand coloured.

Gustave Dore, The Legend of The Wandering Jew – A Series of Twelve Designs, (circa 1866).

“Too Late he feels, by look and deed, and word. How often he has crucified his Lord”.


Marc Chagall – The Wandering Jew (1924).


MacKay – ‘The Wandering Jew (1927).

Edmund J. Sullivan – Wandering Jew (1898).


 The Wandering Jew and Gargantua. Gustave Dore (1832-1883).

A series of B&W drawings by Gustave Dore.

Wandering Jew Release on Last Judgement Day – VIII.


Wandering Jew at the Flemish Inn – II.


Wandering Jew in Brussels – I.


Wandering Jew in a Shipwreck – VI.


Wandering Jew in Swiss Valley – IV.


Wandering Jew in Search of the Black Knight – V.


Wandering Jew Through a Defile in the Andes – VII.


Wandering Jew in Brussels – I.



A postcard by The Princes Theatre, Bristol with a photo of Matheson Lang as ‘The Wandering Jew’.


Post by Dominic Lee, Orpen Research Project.