Sir William Orpen came to prominence in the Edwardian era as a society portraitist, although he is perhaps best known today for the works he produced as an official War Artist on the Western Front.
He trained in Dublin and at the Slade School, London, before opening a private studio in Chelsea with his friend and colleague Augustus John. After the outbreak of WWI, Orpen continued to paint portraits of prominent people, including Winston Churchill; in 1917 he was appointed an official war artist and an honorary Major in the British Army, and travelled to France. While on the Western Front, he painted portraits of generals and prominent individuals as well as ordinary soldiers, self-portraits, scenes from the trenches, and a series of portraits of his lover which he entitled ’The Spy’ (causing significant trouble with the military censors, who forced him to rename them ’The Refugee’). In 1918 he left 125 of his war paintings to the British nation, and they are currently housed by the Imperial War Museum.
Although very successful in his own lifetime, Orpen’s reputation dwindled after his death, and interest in his work was not revived until the 1980s. In 2010, a hitherto-unknown version of ’The Refugee’ surfaced on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, and was valued at £250,000, making it the most expensive painting valued on that programme to date.