In Ireland few painters are better known or more admired than Sir William Orpen (1878-1931), examples of whose work today fetch some of the highest prices for a picture at auction. Yet Orpen’s background is relatively little studied, and his links with County Kerry are accordingly overlooked. Like many families, the Orpens were inclined to give themselves a more distinguished pedigree that was actually the case. So in Burke’s Landed Gentry of 1847 it is claimed that ‘The family of Orpen is of remote antiquity, and is stated to trace its descent from Erpen, second son of Varnacker (maire of the palace to Clothaire I), who was the son of Meroveus, and grandson of Theodorick, son of Clovis, King of France.’ This places their origins back in the sixth century, so that by the time William, Duke of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he was of course accompanied by a knight called Robert d’Erpen who thereafter settled at Erpingham in Norfolk. According to this version of events, the family turns up in Ireland in the second half of the 17th century already long established as members of the landed gentry on the other side of the Irish Sea. Such would have been the story of his forebears likely known by William Orpen. However the year before his death a cousin, the historian Goddard Henry Orpen produced an alternative, and somewhat less distinguished narrative. From this it would appear that the first Orpen to come to Ireland, a descendant of humble English yeomen, did so some time in the 1650s/60s when he acquired land around the area of Killorglin, County Kerry and that by the mid-1670s his son, Richard Orpen was employed as a land agent by the region’s greatest landowner, Sir William Petty. All of which is not quite so splendid as the lineage proposed by Burke but, as Goddard Henry Orpen wrote, ‘it is the truth I seek and not a (faked) illustrious ancestry and, after all, is it not better to rise than to fall?’
So, the earliest Orpens to settle in Kerry did so in the second half of the 17th century and prospered thanks to their association with the Pettys, later Petty-Fitzmaurices and ultimately Marquesses of Lansdowne. As a result they were able to acquire their own substantial landholdings, including the area around Ardtully in South Kerry. Until the 17th century this property was under the control of the MacFineens, a branch of the powerful MacCarthy clan but according to the Books of Survey and Distribution (compiled c.1650-80) during the course of the Confederate Wars, Colonel Donough MacFineen forfeited Ardtully, on which then stood ‘two good slate houses, a corn-mill, a castle, malthouse, barn, and tuck mill, likewise there are iron-mines and a silver mine in the quarter of Ardtully.’ The lands here were granted by the crown to one John Dillon but subsequently acquired on a long lease by the descendants of the original Richard Orpen: following a marriage between the latter’s grandson and Anna Townsend of Bridgemount, County Cork in 1766 the family’s name became Orpen Townsend. Ultimately in the first half of the 19th century the Ardtully estate was first leased and then purchased through the Encumbered Estates Court by a cousin of Richard Orpen Townsend: this was the successful solicitor Richard John Theodore Orpen. Founder of a legal practice still in existence today (as Orpen Franks) he would act as President of the Law Society from 1860 until his death sixteen years later. Knighted in 1866, he was the grandfather of the artist William Orpen and builder of a house still just extant at Ardtully.
Sir Richard John Theodore Orpen was clearly very proud of his family, if somewhat deluded about its pedigree, and assembled whatever information he could about his ancestors. He also built up a considerable land holding in County Kerry, amounting to over 12,000 acres by the time of his death. A fine residence in the centre of this property was required, and duly built at Ardtully in 1847. Its architect unknown, the house is customarily summarised as being in the Scottish Baronial style but this seems more a flag of convenience than an accurate description. In truth Ardtully looks to have been a typically Victorian grab-bag of architectural elements, its most prominent feature being a castellated round tower and turret on the south-east corner. Looking towards the river Roughty, the entrance front features a porch topped by the Orpen coat of arms (now damaged), another attempt by Sir Richard to demonstrate his lineage. Inside the house looks to have contained the usual collection of reception and bedrooms ranged over two storeys, the roofline marked by a succession of stepped gables and dormers. A substantial range of service outbuildings lay to the north. A handsome coloured illustration of Ardtully appeared in County Seats of The Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland (published 1870): conveniently the author of this six-volume work was Sir Richard’s nephew, the Rev. Francis Orpen Morris. The estate was eventually inherited by another Anglican clergyman, Sir Richard’s second son, the Rev. Raymond Orpen, Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe. Uncle of the painter Sir William Orpen, he retired from office in 1921 and the same year Ardtully was burnt by the IRA. It has remained a ruin ever since, the link with one of this country’s greatest artists forgotten.