INTERVIEW BY REBEKAH SIMMERS
Patricia O’Reilly writes historical fiction based on real characters from history. She teaches fiction writing at University College Dublin (UCD). Her latest novel, Orpen at War, was first published in October 2022 and the U.S. edition is released today.
How would you describe Orpen at War and its themes?
Bombarded by artillery, dodging bullets, crawling through water-logged trenches, Irish-born Major William Orpen, society painter, witnesses the grim reality of battle as he fights to capture on canvas the horrific reality of WW1. Alcohol and memories of the women he has loved provide only limited release. Unlike many of his contemporaries who went to the front for short periods of time, he spent months rather than weeks at the front.
You’ve had a variety of writing experience: both a fiction and non-fiction writer, freelance, plays and broadcast, as well as being a writing instructor. What drew you to historical fiction?
For years, I wrote features for newspapers and magazines, frequently with an artistic theme; made some radio documentaries; wrote a few radio scripts and plays and contributed talks. A commission from Image magazine involved researching and writing about Eileen Gray (1878–1976), Irish artist and designer, and so began my love affair with biographical historical fiction, using Irish subjects. As well as two books on Eileen Gray, I’ve also written about Kathleen Newton (1854–1882) mistress and muse to James Tissot; Mary O’Connor (1829–1945), the first ‘Rose of Tralee’ and the inspiration for the annual festival, and my latest novel is about William Orpen. Historical fiction allows me to step into someone else’s shoes, a process that I find both transporting and exhilarating.
I’d love to hear more about your ‘love affair with biographical historical fiction, using Irish subjects’. How do you select a person to bring to the page?
I settle on a historical character that fascinates me. I begin by looking into their exploits, gathering information about them, their lifestyle and the era they lived in, paying attention to accuracy. When I have what I think of as their skeleton, I fill it out, cloak that with fiction ensuring the story that I’ve set out to tell dominates. I use Irish subjects because I live in Ireland. I understand the Irish psyche and have a feel for the Celtic tradition that would have run through my subjects’ bones.
Where did you first come across the story of Major William Orpen?
My father, an amateur painter, loved Orpen’s work. As we lived near ‘Oriel’ the Orpen family home in south county Dublin, we often walked as far as there on a Sunday afternoon. But it wasn’t until I came across Orpen’s portrait of Count John McCormack (wearing a cream linen suit and looking as though he was about to step from the frame) in the National Gallery of Ireland that I knew I had to write the artist’s story. Orpen’s life is authentically presented in Orpen at War, resulting in more fact than fiction. It was harrowing to read the diaries of the ordinary soldiers, which they wrote in secret, and that were published after the war, whereas the officers’ recollections were frequently statistics-led and sanitised.
Your novel, Orpen at War, features numerous paintings and drawings. What can you tell us about Orpen’s experience as a war painter and about war artists? Was his work featured in collections or published?
Orpen went to the Somme in April 1917 as an official British war artist. His brief was to paint the war. Prior to being sent to London, his paintings had to be approved by Colonel Lee, with whom he had a spikey relationship. A prankster all his life, Orpen presented a scantily dressed portrait of Yvonne Aupicq as a spy and wove an elaborate story that almost resulted in him being court martialled. Orpen was a prolific artist, dedicated, readily capturing the essence of his subjects.
In 1918, he was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. His exhibition, titled War, was opened to great fanfare by Lord Beaverbrook in the Agnew Gallery and was the subject of heated debate. The public flocked to the gallery. His paintings, particularly The Spy, were the subject of many dinner party conversations. The reviews were mixed. The Times bemoaning: ‘His work adds to our knowledge of him, but nothing to our knowledge of war’. While the Daily Telegraph wrote about the paintings ‘vibrating through our hearts’. Photography was still in its infancy and the most enduring images of WW1 were paintings produced by war artists on both sides.
How did Orpen choose which subjects and moments to paint? Were they mostly commissioned? What struck you about his journey from society painter to war painter?
When commissioning, Lord Haig had asked Orpen to paint the war ‘without the gristle’, a stipulation the artist blithely ignored. Orpen had certain military and airforce dignitaries to paint, but his heart lay in painting the trench warfare of the ‘Tommies’. Against the wishes of the top brass, who favoured a sanitised version of the war, he got down into the trenches with the men and recorded their horrors.
During his time at the front and painting the peace, he appeared to move effortlessly from society painter to war artist, but at what a personal cost? He loved women of all ages and social classes and they responded enthusiastically to him. He was engaged to Emily Sobel, who broke it off, saying ‘Billy can’t not paint, even when he is unwell’. In 1901, he married Grace Knewstub, daughter of a respected London painter. A year later, he was in the throes of a passionate affair with his model Fanny Burnett. In 1907, he began an relationship with socialite, Evelyn Saint George, daughter of a millionaire New York banker and married to the Connemara land agent. She was an abiding influence on his work, insisting that he be selective with the subjects he painted. Up to then, his main criteria was that the ‘sitter shouldn’t be ugly’. While in hospital in Amiens, being treated for blood poisoning among other illnesses, he began a relationship within Yvonne Aupicq, a young volunteer nurse from Lille, who nursed him through various illnesses, which were frequently alcohol-related. Increasingly, he used alcohol to dull the pain of his surroundings.
How did you approach your research for both the artist and his work?
I found London’s Imperial War Museum, National Gallery of Ireland, National Library of Ireland (Orpen’s letters) good sources of information and the staff very helpful. I used war diaries. Novels, such as Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon?, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Orpen’s own An Onlooker in France, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, provided mood, setting, the sense of an era.
Could you share something you learned while researching for this book that surprised you.
Humanity and compassion were overriding forces in much of what I read.
Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring historical fiction authors?
Ensure you are using accurate facts about the era you’re writing. Remember it’s fiction, so the story must take precedence.
What is the last great book you read?
Nuala O’Connor’s Nora.
You can read Katherine Mezzacappa’s review for Historical Novels Review of Orpen at War here.
You can read more about Orpen’s complex love life in Patricia O’Reilly’s article, ‘Sir William Orpen’s “Spy” Affair’, here.