by Scholes, Robert
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William Orpen (1878 - 1931)
He was born in Stillorgan, County Dublin in 1878, the son of a Dublin solicitor. He studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin and the Slade School in London, where his fellow students included Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis. At the Slade he produced two important paintings, The Play Scene from Hamlet and The Mirror. Orpen soon became known for his portraits of public figures and during his career produced over 600 of these pictures.
In 1917 Charles Masterman, head of the government's War Propaganda Bureau (WPB) recruited Orpen and he was sent to the Western Front. Orpen was shocked by what he saw at the front and painted pictures such as Dead Germans in a Trench.
Orpen was commissioned to paint portraits of the politicians at the Versailles Peace Conference. Orpen believed that the soldiers that fought in the war were betrayed by the politicians at Versailles. Instead of the portraits he painted To the Unknown British Soldier in France. The original painting showed the draped coffin flanked by two ghostly figures of soldiers standing guard. There was such an outcry when it was exhibited in 1919 that Orpen was forced to paint out the soldiers.