Artist's Sketchbooks: Bea Orpen

Zoo by Bea Orpen
Part of the Irish Archives

Beatrice Esther Orpen

Beatrice Esther Orpen was born in Carrickmines, County Dublin, in 1913. She was the youngest of 6 children, and her parents were Cerise Maria Orpen (née Darley) and Charles St George Orpen, a solicitor. She was the niece of architect and painter Richard F. C. Orpen (1863 - 1938) and the prominent artist William Orpen (1878-1931). Her sister Kathleen Delap  (1910–2004) became a prominent political activist and feminist and a founder of the National Women's Council of Ireland.

Like many girls of wealthy families, Bea was educated at home by a Governess until she was 13 years old. From a young age, Orpen was a gifted artist. She received private art classes from the Irish artist Lilian Davidson (1893-1954), later enrolling in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now NCAD) and the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). She was a student of the painter Seán O'Sullivan  (1906-1964) and won several awards, including the first prizes for drawing from life in 1933 and painting from life in 1934.

Orpen later trained in drawing, painting, textiles and commercial design in London, winning first prize in decorative composition in 1936 and earning her diploma in design in 1939. She returned to Ireland when she was 26 years old, shortly after her marriage to her husband Chalmers Edward FitzJohn ('Terry') Trench (1909–2005).

Orpen became an art teacher and taught at several schools in Drogheda, including St. Peter's National School, Drogheda Technical School, and Drogheda Grammar School. She also travelled the country and gave talks and lectures to children and adults about art and its appreciation, funded by the Charlotte Shaw Trust.

In 1946, she founded the Drogheda municipal art collection alongside her husband Terry Trench and played an important role in establishing the Drogheda Municipal Gallery of Art. Bea was an active member of the National Institute for Higher Education and The National Trust for Ireland, An Taisce.

Orpen’s Sketchbooks

Orpen was an accomplished painter, working primarily in quick-drying mediums such as gouache and watercolour. She exhibited her work frequently, showcasing several hundred of her paintings with the Watercolour Society of Ireland, the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, and the RHA Annual Exhibition. She was made an honorary member of the RHA in 1980.

Orpen enjoyed depicting landscapes and travelled around Ireland and Europe, painting the natural world. We can see this reflected in her sketchbooks, such as the 1939 gouache painting of Ventry Bay, Co. Kerry. Orpen has painted bright blues combined with more muted greys and greens and beige paper forming the sand. This combination of off-white or beige paper and muted grey tones combined with bright colour is a technique that Orpen returned to in her sketchbooks, such as this painted sketch of a rustic home dated summer 1938 while she was travelling around rural Yorkshire.

Orpen also enjoyed drawing, particularly drawing from life. She used sketchbooks to explore proportions, as evidenced in the below image where she appears to practice sketching hands, an element of life drawing which are notoriously challenging to illustrate!

Cats and Birds

We can also see that Orpen's love of drawing from life extended to animals too. There are several examples in her sketchbooks of studies of cats, both big and small. In one such sketch from 1932, she has named the sleepy house cat 'Punnie'.  Another, shown above in the banner, presents sketches of a lion and other related animals in a piece entitled as the 'Zoo'.

Orpen created several sketchbooks during her time as a student of art and design in the 1930s, with two later sketchbooks dated 1969 and 1973. They include various methods, mediums, and subjects and help us understand how the artist used sketchbooks to experiment with her ideas.

Buy Irish

Below is a page from a 1932 sketchbook that demonstrates Orpen's skills in using linear composition, vibrant colours, and quick brushwork to create a visually appealing poster design. Orpen possibly created these designs with the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) in mind. This British governmental organisation encouraged the British public to buy goods from colonies and former colonies, such as the recently formed Irish Free State. The EMB had commissioned several similar posters from Irish artists such as Margaret Clarke and Seán Keating and ultimately aimed to increase the reciprocal purchasing of British products in Ireland.

Also included in the Gallery's archives are examples of Orpen's commercial work in the 1960s, including designs for greeting cards, menu cards, bookplates and tokens, calendars, medals, whiskey labels, and tea towels.

As well as providing us with insight into a particular moment in Irish history, Orpen's sketchbooks are an invaluable tool for understanding her creative process as an artist, an element of her work that may not be as evident in finished paintings.

When considered alongside her paintings, they can help give us greater insight into the artist's student work and versatility as both an artist and designer. Orpen's sketchbooks can provide us with a more rounded understanding of her creative process and are a valuable resource in researching such an influential figure in the history of Irish art.



by Donna Rose, ESB CSIA Fellow, 2022.