To the Unknown British Soldier in France
- Catalogue number
- Art.IWM ART 4438
- Production date
- Subject period
- medium: oil
- support: canvas
- Support: Height 1542 mm
- Support: Width 1289 mm
- Frame: Height 1765 mm
- Frame: Width 1520 mm
- Frame: Depth 70 mm
- Alternative Names
- object category: painting
- IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUMS. Presented by the artist in memory of Earl Haig, 1928
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image: A coffin holding the remains of an unknown soldier, draped in the Union flag, lies at the bottom of the composition. The coffin lies in state in a richly decorated marble hall directly beneath a chandelier. There is a dark hallway in the centre with light from the archway at the far end casting a pathway to the head of the coffin.
This was to be the third of Orpen’s three commissioned paintings of the Peace Conference. Orpen claimed he had completed thirty portraits before taking the radical decision to paint over the politicians and military leaders and reduce the scale of the chandelier. The painting caused some controversy when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1923. Orpen had painted two semi- nude soldiers guarding the tomb and two cherubs above - 'after all the negotiations and discussions, the Armistice and Peace, the only tangible result is the ragged unemployed soldier and the Dead'. The Museum chose not to purchase the work, arguing that the content was not the subject they had commissioned. Orpen eventually painted over the figures and cherubs, too, and donated the painting to the Museum in memory of Earl Haig, 'one of the best friends I ever had'. In a letter to his mistress Mrs St George, written in 1921, Orpen sketched out the design of the original painting and identified a number of the twenty sitters. These included Sir John Cowans, (left, back row); Sir David Beatty, Sir Edmund Allenby, Sir Henry Rawlinson, Sergeant Grenadier Guards, (left, front row); Marshall Foch and Sir Douglas Haig (standing, archway); Sir Arthur Currie, Marshal Petain, Sir Frederick Sturdee (right, standing); Sir John French, M Georges Clemenceau (right 2nd row); Lieut A P F Rhys Davids, Mr D Lloyd George, Lord Plumer (front row). A number of these original portraits are still just visible.
This was to be the third of William Orpen’s three commissioned paintings of the Peace Conference. Orpen had completed thirty portraits before taking the radical decision to paint over the politicians and military leaders and to replace them with the flag draped coffin and crucifixion. Orpen also added two semi-nude soldiers guarding the tomb and two cherubs above - 'after all the negotiations and discussions, the Armistice and Peace, the only tangible result is the ragged unemployed soldier and the Dead'. The Museum would only accept the painting if these figures were removed. Some years later Orpen eventually over painted them, too, and donated the canvas to the Museum in memory of Earl Haig, 'one of the best friends I ever had'.
Imperial War Museum commission
- Paris, Département de Ville de Paris, France
- Great Britain GB
- Germany (pre 1945 and post 1990) DE
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