William Orpen was an official war artist whose sympathy for the soldiers was not always appreciated by the establishment.
‘It was all over,’ concluded Orpen in his memoir full of calls to do justice to the fighting man, ‘The ‘frocks’ had won the war. The ‘frocks’ had signed the Peace! The Army was forgotten. Some dead and forgotten, others maimed and forgotten, others alive and well – but equally forgotten… The whole thing was finished. Why worry to honour the representatives of the dead, or the maimed, or the blind, or the living that remained. Why? In Heaven's name, why not?

Orpen’s third and final picture of the peace conference in 1921 was to have shown the delegates waiting to enter the signing chamber with Foch and Haig standing at the centre, with other delegates standing at the sides. Symbolism begun to creep in as could be seen from a pencil sketch in which the dead stand side by side with the living while a resting Sergeant represented ‘the fighting man’.

A photograph of the original remains

And then,’ wrote Orpen, ‘I couldn't go on. It all seemed so unimportant somehow. In spite of all these eminent men, I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France forever. So I rubbed out all the statesmen and commanders, and painted the picture with the unknown soldier guarded by his dead comrades.

Sent to the Royal Academy in 1923, To the Unknown British Soldier in France caused a sensation. It was voted Picture of the Year by the public, but also attracted vitriolic attention in the newspapers, who were unable to comprehend the subject or its treatment. Much criticism was directed at the pair of soldiers guarding the coffin, and Orpen had to explain that these were based on a previous drawing which recorded an actual man whose clothes had been ripped away by a bursting shell. The story made the front page of the Evening Standard and even The New York Times. Orpen had to issue a press release explaining the picture's 'meaning', explaining the cherubs represented love, the cross in the background sacrifice and salvation. Comfort came from supportive letters sent him by ex-servicemen and parents of the dead. But many critics persisted that his treatment amounted to sacrilege. The Imperial War Museum, who commissioned the painting, refused to pay for it.
In contrast Frank Salisbury's painting And they buried him among the Kings at the Royal Academy, a representation of the burial of the Unknown Soldier on 11 November 1920, was a solemn but highly conventional picture showing the King and the Chiefs of Staff standing around the flag-draped coffin. It attracted lavish and elaborate praise, not least from the King, and toured the provinces after its London showing. In the end Orpen offered to remove the cupids and naked soldiers and the Museum accepted it in its present form. The triptych that would have worked together to give an allegorical view of the Peace and its price was now forever compromised.