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Saturday 24 February 2018

Lost Orpen letters depict traumas of love and war

Louise Hogan

POIGNANT letters from a famous war artist have been uncovered after spending decades tucked away between long-forgotten title deeds and wills.

The 10 letters provide an insight into the struggles and traumatic suffering William Orpen witnessed during his time on the Western Front during the First World War.

There are also personal struggles played out in the letters, some of which document Orpen's struggle to win his father's approval for his bride-to-be.

Orpen, born 132 years ago to a well-to-do family living in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, is recounted as one of history's greatest war artists.

The previously unknown letters were discovered among papers in one of several hundred boxes of material acquired by the National Library of Ireland from Dublin legal firm, Orpen Sweeney.

The artist's father, AH Orpen, was a principal in the firm, and the letters were penned between 1901 and 1917.

The early letters, written in 1901, reveal the artist's bid to seek his father's approval for his impending wedding to Grace Knewstub. It appears from the letters that AH Orpen was not easily persuaded that marriage was the right step for his then 22-year-old son to take.

The fact that the domestic harmony did not last, with Orpen later taking a mistress, make the words of the time particularly poignant.

Orpen declared to his father: "I suppose it is the lot of all men to fall in love... but not always with the right person".

Fiona Ross, director of the National Library of Ireland, explains that the letters were discovered as the 120-year-old library was trying to increase its limited storage space at the Kildare Street venue.

Librarians had started trawling through 3,500 boxes of unsorted collection material acquired from legal firms, land agents and members of the public over decades.

On the second day of the search, the project archivist discovered the correspondence between Orpen and his father tucked away among title deeds, wills and other records.

"The Orpen letters will be of great interest to historians and others researching one of Ireland's greatest and, for a time, most successful painters," Ms Ross said.

In one of his letters, written in June 1901, Orpen documents his income for his father by listing the paintings sold during the course of the year and his impressive earnings for 1900 -- £586 pounds and 10 shillings.

"There is also an interesting comment on his use of models -- clearly a practice of which his father did not approve," she said.

Three of the letters were written during the First World War when Orpen, like John Lavery, was an official war artist at the Western Front.

Visitors will be able to view the material from March 16, 2011, when they go on display at the Kildare Street venue.

Irish Independent

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