Paul Johnson

A little Anglo-Irish devil who painted like an archangel

A little Anglo-Irish devil who painted like an archangel

I seldom set foot on the South Bank if I can help it. Once across the River Thames, civilisation ceases and you are in the regions of urban swamps with motorised alligators snapping at your heels, and angry deserts of decay, peopled by Surrey Touregs looking for mugs. Just to get to the Imperial War museum involves a dangerous trudge to Lambeth, and once there you are in a bellicose inferno of world war hardware, barking your shins against rusting Tigers and stumbling over flame-throwers, with gigantic yobs gawping at 15-inch guns, wishing they could own — and fire — them, while fierce single mothers drive their toddlers’ pushchairs like tanks. All of which shows how much I admire William Orpen, by braving this Hobbesian world to see the retrospective of his works.

He belonged to a generation who were properly trained and loved their trade but whose careers were overshadowed by the Cubist nonsense early on, with Picasso strutting and well-connected idiots like Roger Fry muddying the waters of taste. They were uneasily aware that something horrible was happening to art and they did not know what to do. So they painted each other. Orpen did a masterly study of Augustus John, capturing his lazy arrogance and the knobbled beauty of his gifted hands with virtuoso skill. He did Nicholson with one of his wives and four children — a masterpiece he called, ironically, ‘A Bloomsbury Family’. Another splendid picture, ‘Homage to Manet’, has Tonks, Steer and Sickert glaring angrily at George Moore as he holds forth at breakfast. Moore, whom artists loved to paint because of his ruinous face, champagne-bottle shape and general decrepitude, appears shuffling off in another grand period piece, ‘The Café Royal’, dominated by the waiter attending the celebrities.

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