William Orpen War Paintings & Sketches Slideshow by Dominic Lee, Priory Studios, Orpen Research Archives.

“Did you really believe this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sadness, the sorrow, the shame
The killing the dying it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again and again”.

The Green Fields of France, a beautiful ballad by Eric Bogle sung here by Finbar Furey, helps one relate to the adverse effect that World War 1 had on Dublin born Official War Artist – Major Sir William Orpen R.A., R.H.A. who witnessed the slaughter of Allied and German soldiers who were often buried side by side with their arms and legs left sticking out of the soil.
He not only painted many of the top brass including Winston Churchill but also regular soldiers and war torn landscapes. Winston Churchill commented of his own portrait by Orpen “It is not the picture of a man, it is the picture of a man’s soul”. Churchill’s portrait was painted shortly after the disastrous battle of Gallipoli which Churchill took the blame for.
After the Armistice, Orpen served as Official Artist at the Versailles Peace Conference but he felt that the politicians had betrayed those who had fought and died on the battlefield. He completed two Peace paintings – A Conference at the Quai d’Orsay and The Signing of the Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles. But having spent several months on the third painting he finally blotted out “The Frocks” as he called them (Politicians & Generals) who “Won the War” and replaced them with a coffin draped in the Union Jack guarded by the ghosts of two comrades dressed in blankets and rags.
The Imperial War Museum refused to pay Orpen for his final painting but accepted it several years later when Orpen agreed to paint out the two ghostly looking soldiers and the angels.
The original and the final paintings are part of this slideshow.

Thank you to Finbar Furey for his kind permission to use ‘The Green Fields of France’ as a backing track.

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Post by Dominic Lee, Orpen Research Archives.