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WWI letters from artist William Orpen discovered in library storage

Letters from the Irish portrait artist to his father written in 1901 and 1917 were discovered by the National Library of Ireland during a review of stored material.

Image of one of the letters written by Orpen to his father in 1917.
Image of one of the letters written by Orpen to his father in 1917.
Image: National Library of Ireland

A GROUP OF 10 PREVIOUSLY unknown letters written by Irish artist William Orpen has been found by the National Library of Ireland.

The letters, written by Orpen (1878-1931) to his father, include some penned shortly before the young man’s marriage to Grace Knewstub.

Others include fragments of Orpen’s World War I experiences, which were later included in his memoir An Onlooker in France.

The letters were discovered among thousands of boxes of unsorted material by staff at the National Library’s Kildare St premises in Dublin city centre.

Fiona Ross, Director of the National Library, said the letters will be of great interest to anyone researching Orpen, who was one of the most popular portrait artists in London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Library has provided the following extract from one of the letters Orpen wrote during his time as an official war artist on the Western Front in 1917:

I got rather a fright about myself the other day.  I was working some distance away from the car among the trenches, painting the remains of a Boche and an Englishman – just skulls, bones, clothes, rifles, water bottles etc and after a couple of hours I began to feel sort of strange.

I did not know if I was lonely or afraid – so I put down my palette and went a few yards back and sat down – when suddenly a huge puff of wind came and blew over my heavy easel canvas and all, tearing the canvas to bits on the stump of a shelled tree. This did not make me feel any better and it was as much as I could do to sit down and start on a fresh canvas.

That evening I was talking to the French official artist and told him about these skeletons and he said he would like to draw them. So I brought him out the next morning and dumped him down beside them.  I was working about ½ a mile further on.  When I came back for lunch with him, I found him in a very bad state, and had to send back to a town for some brandy for him.

The letters will be put on public display by the National Library on Kildare Street, Dublin, from 16 March 2011 in an exhibition called Discover Your National Library. The material will also be made available online.

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