Painted in 1917, the sitter for this engaging war-time portrait was Yvonne Aubicq, daughter of the Mayor of Lille, and Orpen’s lover between 1917 and 1928. Yvonne was serving as a nurse at the time, and she met Orpen whilst he was recovering from a serious illness caused by sulphur poisoning that almost cost him his life. Her stunning complexion and loving personality gave Orpen renewed energy, both artistically and personally, during one of the most difficult periods of his life, and he fell deeply in love with her shortly thereafter. ‘She was then just 20 years old, ravishingly beautiful, with tousled blonde hair, a fresh, light complexion and blue eyes. Her features were delicate’ (B. Arnold, Orpen: Mirror to an Age, London, 1981, p. 337).
Orpen was an Official War Artist, receiving pay equal to a British Army ‘Major’ in exchange for recording the war effort. Towards the end of the war, Orpen came to the realisation that the powerful paintings he did of Yvonne did not fit into this genre, so he devised a daring scheme to metamorphosise these celebrated works into valid contributions to his role as a war artist. ‘When he submitted them to the Intelligence section at G.H.Q. to get them passed for exhibition by Major A.N. Lee, he gave the title of ‘The Spy’ to both pictures. He developed a typical First World War story to go with the title. The girl, he explained, was a German Spy called Frieda Neiter who had been arrested by the French and found guilty. As a last request she asked that she be allowed to face the firing squad in a dress of her own choosing. The gallant French agreed, and she appeared before the fusiliers draped in an army greatcoat. When the orders for her execution were given she let fall the coat, and stood naked before the soldiers. They flinched for a moment at the sight of her unparalleled beauty, but obediently squeezed the triggers of their rifles and she fell in a lifeless, crumpled heap on the ground!’ (ibid., pp. 334-335).
After a series of letters from Colonel Lee’s intelligence unit questioning the authenticity of his account about the spy, Orpen was summoned to the War Office for cross-examination. Realising that his elaborate story had gone too far, the artist revealed the truth. ‘In fact, I was in black disgrace. My behaviour could not have been worse, according to Intelligence (F), or whatever they were then called at G.H.Q.’ (W. Orpen, quoted in ibid., p. 337). The couple were carefully monitored right up until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
Yvonne became one of Orpen’s most recognisable models of the period, and his ‘War’ exhibition of 1918 made her famous amongst the British public overnight. Newspaper’s at the time referred to her as ‘his most famous model’ and ‘his constant champion’. Their relationship ensued until 1928 when the couple had a dramatic break-up, resulting in Orpen giving Yvonne a generous settlement. This not only included his black Rolls Royce, but also his chauffeur, Charles Grover-Williams, a successful Grand-Prix racing driver for Bugatti. When Orpen’s relationship with Yvonne fell apart, Grover-Williams grew closer to the French model and they subsequently married in 1929. Together with her husband, Yvonne formed a small unit called ‘Chesnut’, which contributed to the resistance in Northern France.