Monday, 5 November 2012

A Picture of a Man's (Miserable) Soul

Last week, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled its latest high profile acquisition – a portrait of a relatively young Winston Churchill, painted in 1916 – to great fanfare.  The excitement surrounding this event is understandable considering this is only the second time in its almost 100-year history that the painting has gone on public display - apart from a brief outing seven years ago when it was featured in an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, it has languished virtually unseen in the home of Churchill’s grandson. 

However, following the death of said grandson (also called Winston) in 2010, the NPG has been in talks with the Churchill estate to acquire the piece on long-term loan – and the fruits of these labours are now available for all to see, hanging in the gallery’s 20th Century room.

This painting is significant for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was painted by the celebrated World War One portraitist, William Orpen and is undeniably a very accomplished work – in fact, it is believed by many to be the finest portrait of the statesman in existence.  But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this piece is its rather unique historical provenance.

Churchill began sitting for Orpen in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign – a failed operation to capture Constantinople (the capital of the Ottoman Empire), which had been masterminded by Churchill in his capacity as First Lord of the Admiralty, and which had cost the lives of some 46,000 Allied troops (mostly ANZAC – Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – forces). 

The fall from grace had been spectacular – as a consequence of his fatal miscalculations (which were based, to some extent, on incorrect intelligence) Churchill was forced to resign from his beloved politics in the face of accusations of irresponsible leadership.   He was also facing ian inquiry by the Dardanelle’s Commission, which was set up to investigate the reasons for the Gallipoli campaign’s catastrophic failure (an inquiry, incidentally, which ultimately concluded that Churchill was not, in fact, personally responsible).

All of the turmoil of this period is reflected in the painting itself.  There is no sign of the brash self-confidence typical of Churchill in his later years.  We see instead a man weighed down by disappointment and doubt.  His eyes appear tormented by … what? Guilt? Regret? Self-reproach? Perhaps a combination of all three.  He could not have known then that he would be exonerated by the Commission (technically, if not morally).  Neither could he have known that his political career was far from over, that history would grant him a chance to rehabilitate his reputation.  And, above all, he could not have known that he would one day be regarded as Great Britain’s finest ever statesman. 

But even when these events did come to pass, it seems Churchill never forgot the lessons learned in 1915/16.  Of all the portraits ever painted of him, Orpen’s is the one he valued most.  He kept it all his life.  "It is not the picture of a man,” he said.” It is the picture of a man's soul."

About the artist: Major Sir William Orpen was an Irish artist and an official World War One painter.  He captured many disturbing images on the Western Front, including paintings of dead soldiers and German prisoners of war.  In 1918, he was made a Knight of the British Empire (KBE), and the following year was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts as a Royal Academician.  Orpen died in 1931 in London, aged 53 years.  He is buried at Putney Vale Cemetery. 

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