William Orpen
Artists & Illustrators|January 2020
ROSALIND ORMISTON looks at the evolving paint techniques of this early 20th-century British master of portraits and studio interiors
ROSALIND ORMISTON
A century ago, William Orpen was the highest-paid portrait painter in Britain. Born into a Protestant-Irish family in Stillorgan, County Dublin in 1878, he had studied art at Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art and the Slade School of Art, London. He was knighted for his work as an official war artist during the First World War and he duly became President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1924.

Since his death in 1931, Orpen’s visibility in Britain has been low but a new exhibition at the Watts Gallery in Surrey is set to change that. William Orpen: Method & Mastery focuses on his early-to-late portraits and the one thing most artists want to know about: his painting techniques.

Watts Gallery painting conservator Sally Marriott recognised that there was very little technical knowledge of Orpen’s work so she has analysed his works using x-rays, reflectography and paint sampling. Her results, revealed in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, were surprising. Although there was nothing unusual found in Orpen’s use of pigments, his technique was different. He often painted directly on to the canvas without an underdrawing. On the rare occasions there was one, it was usually created from palette scrapings. In addition, some early canvases were extended in length, width or both, with strips of canvas tacked on during the painting process.

This approach can be seen in particular in works such as 1905’s Anita, an experimental portrait of the Dublin writer Anita Bartle that was painted on cheaper, student-grade canvas. It was informed by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, whose work Orpen had seen in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Orpen wanted to try painting directly on to the canvas, using a Rubens-style palette of red, black and white. His brushstrokes are visible – he used both hogs’ hair and sable brushes – with up to ten layers, each left to dry. Later works were painted wet-on-wet and blended in.

Technical examination by Sally Marriott shows that at a later date, possibly when Orpen gave Anita as a wedding present to the sitter, he dug into the canvas, deeply gouging out paint from the underground with the end of his paintbrush, the small nuggets of white paint creating highlights on Bartle’s pearl necklace.

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