William Orpen, the youngest of four sons, was born in Stillorgan near Dublin, in 1878. His father was a solicitor with a successful practice in Dublin. The young Orpen grew up enjoying the benefits of life as the youngest son of a happy and successful family. Like Ronnie Wood, Orpen's artistic talents were clear from an early age; enabling him to gain a place at the Dublin School of Art at the age of just eleven. He went on to further his studies under Henry Tonks, at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. During his time at the Slade great emphasis was placed on studying the works of old masters.
Orpen developed skills across a range of media; an ability to imitate the old masters, together with a demonstrable understanding and execution of stylish modernity. His Irish charm and the recommendations of John Singer Sargent enabled him to become an incredibly successful portrait painter; well known on both the London and Dublin art scenes.
At the start of the First World War, Orpen supported the war effort by auctioning blank canvasses, onto which the purchasers portrait would be painted at a later date. By 1915 he felt obliged to take a more active role and, using the influence of the Quarter Master General, Sir John Cowans, (whose portrait he was working on at the time) he gained a commission in the Army Service Corps. However, he soon came to the attention of the War Propaganda Bureau and was recruited as an official war artist, promoted to the rank of Major and posted to the Western Front. During this time he produced a large body of work, paintings and drawings reflecting the full horrors of life in the trenches, together with contrasting formal portraits of Generals. He chose to highlight these contrasts again in one of his paintings of the Paris Peace conference "To the Unknown British Soldier Killed in France' . The majority of Orpen's war paintings are in The Imperial War Museum Collection in London.
The war had enhanced Orpens reputation. In 1918 an exhibition of his work in London's Bond Street, was visited by over nine thousand people during its first month. Elected to the Royal Academy, he was made a KBE in the 1918 Kings Birthday Honors list for his war efforts. As his reputation grew and demand for his services increased it allowed him to charge more for his portraits. He was immensely popular and enjoyed huge success, living the 'rock and roll life style' to the full, with houses, cars and mistresses'.
Orpen should have had many years ahead of him, but sadly, in the best traditions of 'superstars' he lived hard and died young, in 1931 aged just 53. In the years that followed country house portraiture and war art fell out of favour, and his work slipped below the horizon of the art world. However, Orpen's work is now enjoying a renaissance; indeed Ronnie Wood was one of the first to rediscover him and Ronnie Wood aided Orpens return from obscurity. If one values artistic expertise and technical execution, together with historical context then one can understand the attraction Ronnie has for this once forgotten artist.