In 1917 William Orpen went to the Western Front as an official war artist. The small self portrait sketch above comes from a letter he wrote to Philip Sasoon (private secretary to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig and cousin of the poet Siegfried). The text of the letter is illuminating because it reveals something that until recently biographers of Orpen had failed to spot or chose not to reveal. The text of the letter reads:
42nd Stationary Hospital (Officers Branch)
My dear Philip
It is very sad, is it not. ?
Here am I totally isolated
a blot on the pure world.
Orps the unclean
it is truly very sad.
I’m afraid I’m here for 8 or 9 days.
Don’t be afraid of this letter
nothing leaves the room before it is
submitted to 230 degrees of heat!
How can I go back to Cassel?
I suppose they are all in Hospital [together]
The Poor Peaches –
My isolated ward pyjamas
do not fit me – ah! ah!
Could I be more wretched
[yours ever] Orps
So why is Orpen in hospital and who are the peach and the peachlets?
Orpen himself told various stories of why he was in hospital in 1917. He says, in his book “An Onlooker in France” that he was thought to have lice, and then scabies and then blood poisoning. Bruce Arnold, Orpen’s biographer, repeats these explanations but more recently Robert Upstone (in his catalogue for the exhibition William Orpen: Politics , Sex and death”, 2005 and in the annotated version of “An Onlooker…”, 2008) has provided evidence, again in an illustrated letter, of an alternative explanation. In short, Orpen did not suffer from blood poisoning as he claimed but from the symptoms of syphilis.
Which brings us to the The Peach. When he went to France Orpen was a frequent visitor to the Hotel Du Sauvage in Cassel (Orpen’s painting of its courtyard is in the Imperial War Museum). The hotel offered not only accommodation but food, entertainment and probably acted as a brothel. The hotel was owned by Madame Loorius with her two daughters Suzanne and Blanche. Suzanne was known as “The Peach”. The girls of the Hotel Sauvage were therefore the “peachlets”.