William Orpen

There are four major Christian traditions, which are of course Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian and Coptic. Some sects and cults also exist, like the Moonies or Anglicanism. Yet in some bizarre way this weekend, protestant contributions to something other than the seizure of churches have been making their way into my consciousness.

I suppose that the first indication of this trend was a reflection in an old copy of Gibbon that he actually became cultured because of Calvinism. Packed off to Switzerland because he went Catholic at an otherwise boring Oxford, Gibbon fell in love with Suzanne Cuchod, and with Greek because of instruction from a Calvinist mentor. It's an odd thing--I keep coming across indications of Calvinists who could have fun, though they doubtless thought that they would pay for it later, and whose political intelligence was second to none. Althusius springs to mind, for instance.

But then what am I thinking, I thought to myself? I've sat on balconies in North Carolina sharing alsace wines and light cigars with people from that tradition; and the tale of the Swiss in America is not lacking in sensualism. I've met some very lovely Swiss women in my time.

So, there I was, the sectarianism of what Splintered Sunrise calls The Federally Administered Tribal Areas and what other people call North-west Irish culture enjoying a little tremor in my head, and suddenly I started recalling not the usual Yeats when I'm faking it, but William Orpen. He's buried just down the road from me in Putney, which is also where Gibbon was born.

I think that I was in Baker Street Station, since I've been teaching law a lot near there this week when it began, and Gloucester place when my head moved on. Well, I say moved on; I was thinking about housing regulations, and european competition law. That's probably a fall to some of you.

There's no necessary connection between Gibbon and Orpen, by the way, except my somewhat impressionistic senses of Protestantism and place. I prefer the Calvinist to the Lutheran and Pentecostal traditions, since at least you know what you are getting, but, well, I tend to draw all the western rejectionists together in my mind. That's not to necessarily imply disrespect.

Orpen's work is probably very familiar to you if you have been anywhere near a gallery, and yet the name might not be--a little like Richrd Nixon's ongoing effect on the American right. Orpen, who was episcopalian and from Dublin, was the national war artist in the Great War, and painted many of the lasting scenes of the British Tommy that have stuck in our consciousness. He was also present in Paris in 1919, and though stunned by the malice and silliness of most of the leaders neverthless left us with most of our images of Versailles. A millionaire from portraiture, he died at an age--53--that I am now beginnning to think of as not old.

Orpen was part of an Irish revolutionary generation that sought to generate nationalist government on the island, but he himself was mostly non-political; indeed, men like Michael Davitt could tell him to be neutral, and just enjoy the beautiful world as much as he could. He witnessed Erskine Childers bringing guns from Germany in 1914, and his best friend listened for newspaper boys to shout on the off-chance that some happy calamity had befallen England, yet he spent most of his life in London and mostly worried about himself.

Isn't it odd? Ireland's most remembered revolutionaries were anglicans who weren't that revolutionary at all, and its Catholic and Northern Protestant nationalists are characterised by their conservatism and fidelity to older religions or states, whether Rome or biblical Israel. It's no wonder things go strange there in a recession, though if anyone had told me last year that Martin McGuiness could end up Prime Minister of the North because Iris Robinson split the DUP, I'd have asked for what they were drinking.
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And gone is all the innocence of anger and surprise
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room
And Christian hateth Christ that hath a newer face of doom
And Christian hateth Mary whom God kissed in Galilee....

I like outsiders like Orpen. Gibbon wrote about others in ways that more than one person has suggested were simply autobiographical. His famous phrase, for instance, that Mohammed's understanding was enriched by conversation but solitude was the school of his genius seems to apply much more to Gibbon, and of Orpen, it was written,;
Bill Orpen's rapier thrust is great
He'll paint your portrait while you wait
But, though he doesn't want it known
He much prefers to paint his own

For a boy who grew up fearing his own ugliness, there are an awful lot of self-portraits and mirrors in Orpen's work. And nudes, of women who look normal, frankly, which is always a good sign. I've put one on the top of the post, since on a cold and dreary day, it made me think of summer and the smell of warm pine floors and clean sheets. Orpen seems to fall between the nineteenth-century pedestal and the distorted twentieth-century image of the body, probably because he was from the first generation to experience naturalistic, as opposed to posed, photographs in great number.

Bill Orpen. From being a millionaire society painter to a 'probably syphilitic' statistic on his death in 1931, his reputation was forgotten (partly thanks to a vicious attack from the Tate in the fifties, and partly through embarassment at his drinking) and then somehow revived in Dublin in 1978. There's a nice review of him here thanks to a 2005 exhibition at the Imperial War museum that linked politics to sex and death. I mean, really. I'm shocked, shocked.

I may be off to Dublin in a couple of weeks and will report back on whether or not Orpen's flame is kept going. Alcohol, after all, burns for some time if coddled in the right solution. Thats what I thought as I walked soberly through Baker Street earlier this week, anyway.


Mary said…
Hi Martin, I love the way you bracket the Anglicans with the Moonies. Provocative, to say the least and almost certainly intentionally insulting. At least you are still open to criticism. Some of the most obnoxious, opinionated and annoying, have decided that they won't allow feedback on their blogs. Of course, they feel free to put their tuppenceworth in on other blogger's sites.

Do keep it up. Sometimes, I could scream but I know you're honest and, it goes without saying, much cleverer than me.
Martin Meenagh said…
hahaha. With a face like mine, mockery is a controlled exercise in avoiding self-demolition, Mary. Glad to see you back, and I didn't really mean it about the Moonies....

Nor, really, about Anglicans. Some of my best friends were involved with them, and I think English culture, which obviously I like, is unimaginable without it. They do deserve a little pricking from time to time though.
Martin Meenagh said…
and I have the appropriate pin. No music hall jokes please
Mary said…
I'd never have noticed any double entendre if it wasn't for your follow-up. I bet you did that on purpose.
Martin Meenagh said…
I thangew

Anglicanism and the moonies? Interesting.

You raise a question I've sometimes debated with myself about how a cult is defined? Any thoughts.

The only thing I can come up with that seperates a religion and a cult is that religions have some level of establishment support and/or authority.
Martin Meenagh said…
A cult is all-embracing that takes over your life and is usually focussed on a strong leader and is unchallengeable.

Just like Anglicanism and completely unlike, say, my blog. And certainly unlike my own dear Catholicism.

I mean, frankly, I don't believe cult is anything more than a loaded term that is now more or less devoid of any objective meaning. You use the phrase to start a row or to affect a false and comically pompous superiority.

Right, that's two people I've offended... This is all going to end in some sort of sheepish apology isn't it?
Martin Meenagh said…
I have also just been told by a rambling philosopher to my left that cult is the first four letters of 'culture' and the last of 'occult'. Hmmmmmmm. He added the Hmmmmmm himself.
Martin Meenagh said…
CC--you'll like this--Abraham Lincoln once said 'God must love the poor--he made so many of them'. I found myself thinking about this as I read over the comments here, and went searching for what I was reminded of, which was a quote from an obscure churchman later denounced as a defender of cultists in Constantinople in 381, who said 'God must love opinions--he made so many'. I think that you're right, in the sociological sense--look at how Mormons have become respectable as they have become settled and establishmentarian in the American west and businses world.

Catholics have cults too, of saints. This is something that the church allows but is wary of--veneration, and praying through the saint or for intercession is allowed, but theurgy--asking for God's specific help with secular concerns, is a little bit of a grey area. Actually worshipping material things or abandoning reason and upholding unthinking belief, rather than faith is also something catholic theology has been historically sniffy about. Look at Augustine and Aquinas, for instance, or all those Vatican scientists at the observatory or connected with cosmology.

Anglicanism's two central features, if an essentially social movement can have distinct intellectual features, are doubt and contradiction between Protestant fidelity to some delimited truth, unto death, and possibly described somewhere in the Tanakh or the New Covenant, and whatever is acceptable to the regime of the day, accreted over centuries. I get annoyed with their pretensions to reformed 'catholicism', because they were born in a Royal marriage crisis, but each to their own. I prefer the English tolerant to the English in an intolerant fit, and mostly Anglicans if anything are too tolerant now.

Incidentally, I think that there is a good case that the Church is in schism, between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but that Protestants are heretics, and I think lots of their book or pentecostal logic devolves to philistinism or narcissism. I don't mean to offend by that, and I like the most Protestant of the reformed people, because they know what they believe, and, you know, they're more honest and disciplined than me a lot of the time.

People draw comfort from Anglicanism, and they pray through it, and many of them do good (no doubt like the Moonies). I suppose that I--and, frankly, I believe the least wrong and the most right institution to be the Church as defined by its intellectual tradition, the nicene creed, and the deposit of faith upheld by the Pope--would define a religion by its effects.

If something can lift you from time and space, from the merely secular, and give you strength, and at the same time not devolve into pettiness, and bring you nearer to love, and charity, and hope, that's good. A true cult would be anything to my mind that didn't. But then, the word is negatively defined and loses much meaning.

That won't stop me dropping it here and there. Neoconservatives are cultists, for instance. So are the madder Islamists. Opus Dei, many of whose members I know and whose generosity and open-mindedness to me have been eye-opening, are not, but then I would say that, wouldn't I?
Mary said…
Martin, I would be most surprised if you weren't already a fully fledged Opus Dei member. If you're not, then you're obviously being groomed.You have all the credentials so it's only a matter of time.
Martin Meenagh said…
Mary--its not my impression that the people whom I know in OD are anything other than kind, intelligent persons. They are more open-minded than many I've met on the left, and have in London sponsored fascinating seminars drawn from panels of all believers and none about ethical engagement.

They don't 'groom' as I see it. Frankly, I like people who believe in things and who are prepared to try and to articulate those intellectual beliefs in a spirit of charity. I used to really admire Jesuits, and I still do, but I remember the disappointment at meeting a couple of missionaries who refused to deal intellectually with issues and who seemed enamoured of lefty activism when I was younger. That said, some of the work of their social apostolate and their commitment to the poor in other countries is profound. I also have personal reasons to be deeply grateful to the Whitefriars and to the followers of Saint Vincent de Paul.

How long have you known me electronically? :D credentials? My god, who manufactured them?

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