I hope you got a good feeling about William Orpen, (the man), as well as Orpen (the painter) from my previous post about Orpen and his series of intriguing self portraits here, because now we are going to study: Orpen and his Women!
Despite his lack of self confidence regarding his looks, Orpen was able to enjoy a series of fulfilling relationships with women all through his brief life. Sometimes he would be conducting these intimate relationships with more than one partner at a time.
It’s full of complex references. First off, there’s the Whistler-like composition. Next, in the mirror’s reflection Orpen sits at his easel, an echo of Velasquez’s Las Meninas, and Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, (Have a close look at that candelabra).
You can just make out a young woman peering at the painting in progress. Who is she? Is this the sitter, Emily Scobel, to whom Orpen was engaged, or could it be Grace Knewstub, the woman who Orpen became besotted with while he was still engaged to Emily?
This picture was shown at the New English Art Club in 1900.
Orpen was good friends with Augustus John who was a fellow Sade student, and the two of them frequently went carousing together. Their trips in search of fun often led them over the Channel to France.
Here they are together in the pub, presumably somewhere in London.
In The Pub.
In August 1901 Orpen married Grace Knewstub, who later became Lady Orpen when her husband was knighted in 1918 for his work as a war artist.
Her brother was Jack Knewstub, proprietor of the Chenil Gallery where Orpen used to buy canvases that had a distinctive “signature” mark.
William and Grace Orpen had three children together; Christine, Diana and Mary, who were all childless.
Lottie Stafford was a washerwoman from the run down area of Paradise Walk in Chelsea. She was a popular model because of her naturalness, complete self-assurance and subtle sensuality, even though she declined to pose in the nude.
Vera Hone was Orpen’s all time favourite model. She and her husband lived next door to the Orpen’s for about a year.
Orpen was a little besotted with Vera, as were many other artists. She modelled for so many paintings that Orpen began to use a numbering system rather than keep on inventing titles for his pictures of her.
The Big Affair
1908 was the year in which Orpen started his long love affair with the subject of the painting below, Mrs Evelyn St George.
“Mrs St George was an American, the daughter and eldest child of George F. Baker, president of the National Bank of America, and a man of immense wealth.
Their love affair was on a grand scale. It was hugely significant to both of them. The coming together of wealth on the one hand, genius on the other had an electrifying effect.”
“Evelyn St George had a flat in Berkeley Square, and the lovers met and stayed there, appearing with increasing frequency in London society.
This was commented upon in the press. Evelyn St George was over six feet tall. Orpen was just over five feet tall. They became known as “Jack and the Beanstalk”.
Orpen fathered one of Mrs St George’s children, Vivien. When Vivien is fully grown she describes how the boudoir expressed her mother’s “marked predeliction for oddities”:
`Some people applauded my mother’s sublime disregard for the stuffier conventions, but many more frowned on such practices as entertaining all but her most casual acquaintances – or those she simply didn’t like – in her bedroom.
I think this was unreasonable of them, for Mama’s were not like ordinary bedrooms at all. By dint of tearing down a wall here, raising a ceiling there, she ensured that they eventually became the largest and grandest rooms in any house she occupied, and it was here that my mother hung her favourite pictures’ [Orpen, Goya and El Greco amongst others].
`Here too were to be found her finest jades and crystal, and here, on its raised dais dominating the whole fantastic apartment, stood the great four-poster bed with its garlands and medallions painted by Angelica Kauffman.’ [Evelyn was `fit to be tied’ when it was discovered that the `monster bed’ was too large for the Berkeley Square apartment that the St. Georges were to occupy from 1912, but Orpen came to her rescue and painted her a smaller replica.]
Vivien continues: `It was not the presence of this bed alone that drove my mother’s detractors into such sweet ecstasies of speculation. No indeed. These were reserved for another truly titillating piece of furniture – the day-bed that jutted into the room from the shadows of a corner near the fireplace.
Luxuriantly upholstered, drowned in rich cushions, it was quite capable of accomodating two adults, a Great Dane, one small child, an alligator and a monkey. I should know – I was the child.’
Orpen was invited to stay on a regular basis, ostensibly to paint the St George family’s portraits.
Here’s one of many he produced of Gardenia, Mrs St George’s eldest daughter.
She became aware of her mother’s love affair and was distressed by it. She made some comment to her grandfather, the American banker, and he intervened and put a stop to his daughter’s (Mrs St George) relationship with Orpen.
In 1916 William Orpen became an official War Artist alongside Paul Nash, Muirhead Bone and Wyndham Lewis.
We’ll have a look at this fascinating period of his career in the next episode, Part 3.
Some of Orpen’s most famous portraits from the war were those of his mistress Yvonne Aubicq, which he first humorously entitled ‘The Spy’, and then, having to rename them after a court martial, ‘The Refugee’.
Orpen and Aubicq continued their affair for a decade, and when Orpen finally split with her, he gave her his latest Rolls-Royce.
The chauffeur, Grover, went with the car, as was the custom; Yvonne promptly married him and he became a racing driver.
In the next war they both had a heroic Resistance record; he was tortured and killed by the Gestapo. She survived to become a celebrated breeder and judge of Highland terriers, regularly featuring at Crufts.
We’ll draw a discreet veil over how many of Orpen’s other models he slept with, but note that contemporary accounts report these to have been numerous.
As far as I can ascertain,Orpen’s relationship with Miss Elvery remained close but strictly platonic.
Beatrice Elvery, a sculpture student, developed a friendship with Orpen when she first met him at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin in 1897.
In later years Orpen was based in London and Beatrice had her own studio in Kildare Street, Dublin but they continued their friendship via their correspondence with each other. He would address her as ‘Bridgit’ and would sign himself as ‘Digit’.
You can see facsimiles of their correspondence here.
In 1912 she married Patrick Campbell, who later became 2nd Baron Glenavy, and she became Lady Glenavy. Patrick Campbell enjoyed a long career in radio, despite having an almost debilitating stammer. He was one of the finest wits I have ever heard.
Next time (as hinted above): Orpen the War Artist!