[A Grenadier Guardsman (1917) Sir William Orpen (1878-1931) in the Imperial War Museum]
If ever an image is needed convince the viewer that war is good for absolutely nothing, this could be it. It's all in the glassy, weary, unbelieving eyes that have seen terrible things.
This portrait by William Orpen hangs in the NPG opposite a wall of military officials and generals and bigwigs who meet the eye with supreme confidence and assurance. You look from one to the other and back again, and know just how incredibly wrong the men on one wall were.
The paintings are part of a small, free exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery which is definitely worth seeing, despite the fact that it could have been a lot bigger. As you would expect there are some very powerful images of dead, injured, maimed and dying soldiers, but it was the portraits and drawings by William Orpen that stood out for me. He also painted many of the senior military figures which is what he was sent out to do, but he soon found himself recording images of ordinary soldiers. He drew all the time and very quickly, and the drawings included here are wonderfully immediate and unguarded. There are no poses with medals and waxed moustaches and top brass uniforms here, instead Orpen captures soldiers in unguarded moments leaning against the side of a trench or waiting for medical assistance, exhausted, suffering, wrecked and shellshocked. These are the the portraits with real power.
[I recently read Wilfred and Eileen which is also guranteed to make you question the point of war. This is a fictionalised account of a true story and it's extremely good. Although it's about a man who goes to war, it's Eileen who is the unexpected heroine, and it now makes me wonder why the NPG didn't include more portraits of women in the exhibition - just this morning I've been recommending Testament of Youth to Phoebe. An opportunity missed.]