by Roderick Conway Morris

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Well Worth Putting Back in the Picture

By Roderick Conway Morris
DUBLIN 1 March 2024
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Père et Fille by John Lavery, 1897



The Irish painter Sir John Lavery was born in 1856, the same year as his friend John Singer Sargent. When Lavery died he was as much an international celebrity, becoming - especially after Sargent ceased painting portraits in 1907 - perhaps the most sought-after society portrait painter in Europe.

Lavery travelled extensively on the Continent and in America and made numerous landscapes, scenes of rural and urban life, state occasions, war pictures, paintings of amateur and professional sporting events, portrait interiors of the great and the good in their elegant homes and beach resorts, swimming pools and sunbathers.

Yet, while Sargent remains a familiar figure, Lavery, since his death in Kilkenny in 1941, has become comparatively little known - although he is better remembered in Eire, Ulster and Scotland, where many of his works are in public galleries.

Forty years on from the last major Lavery exhibition, the Irish artist is now the subject of a revealing and timely show, Lavery: On Location, at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, which will travel on this summer to the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Lavery was born into a Catholic family in Belfast, his father a failed publican. After he was orphaned at the age of three, he and his brother and sister were parcelled out to various relatives. John ended up on an uncle's farm, where, as 'the poor wee orphan' he was doted upon by the farm-hands but regularly beaten by his uncle. He attended a Protestant school and was 'subject to jibes about the Pope and Holy Water', as he later wrote in his disarmingly candid, self-deprecating and amusing autobiography, 'The Life of a Painter' (1940) .

At ten, he was shipped off to a pawnbroker relative at Saltcoats in Ayrshire, but he ran away, sleeping rough and in a squalid doss-house, surviving on discarded food and competing with the pigeons on Glasgow Green for crusts. After another spell in Ulster he returned to Scotland and became increasingly obsessed with drawing. He apprenticed himself to an artist-photographer, spending three years 'as a miniature painter over photographs on ivory'.

He managed to attend out-of-hours drawing classes and, having sold some work, tried to set himself up as an artist, but was soon deeply in debt. Miraculously, while he was out one day, his studio burned down and he received £300 in insurance. This windfall enabled him to go to London to attend Heatherley's Art School before continuing his education at the popular Atelier Julien in Paris.

Such was his progress that he sold an en plein air riverside scene that was shown at the Salon, where it was hung next to Manet's 'Bar at the Folies Bergères'. This helped him spend what he later described as his 'happiest days in France' at an international artists' colony on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, at Grèz-sur-Loing. His 'Bridge at Grèz' was bought by the Carnegie Institute at Pittsburg, the first of many pictures that were to make his name on the other side of the Atlantic.

Lavery's hero was the naturalist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884). He met him only once, on the Pont des Arts, but never forgot his advice on capturing figures in motion: 'Always carry a sketch-book. Select a person - watch him - then put down as much as you remember. Never look twice. At first you will remember very little, but continue and you will get complete action.'

On returning to Scotland in 1884 he put this into practice in 'The Tennis Party'. The craze for lawn tennis had swept the country since 1874 when boxed sets of racquets, nets and tennis balls first became available. The picture was accepted at the Royal Academy summer show and bought by the Alte Pinakotek in Munich. Lavery also did two close-ups - in oil and watercolour - of an athletic young woman, with a formidable hour-glass figure and deft back-hand, in action.

In 1888 Glasgow, which proudly styled itself 'The Second City of the Empire', staged the Glasgow International Exhibition. Lavery appointed himself its official artist, making 50 oils of the various themed pavilions, their interiors and crowds of visitors, for his first one-man show. But his greatest coup was securing the commission from the Glasgow Corporation to execute an enormous canvas, 13ft by 8ft, of 'The State Visit of Her Majesty Queen Victoria to the International Exhibition, Glasgow', for a fee of £600. Concealed behind a curtain with a small aperture, he made a frantic oil sketch of the occasion itself.

He requested an appointment with the Queen to do an oil sketch of her and was told it was pointless even to ask, but through determination and Irish charm he managed to secure a sitting. Over the next two years he travelled far and wide to do 253 such portraits of the other most prominent participants who had attended the event. When the canvas was completed, Lavery's career as a society portraitist was launched.

While engaged in this immense task, the artist encountered early one morning a lovely Irish girl, Kathleen MacDermott, selling flowers on Regent Street outside a shop for artists' materials. He recruited her as a model, soon married her but tragically she died at nineteen a year later of tuberculosis, having given birth to a daughter, Eileen. Only after the mother died did the artist discover that she was actually Welsh and her real name was Annie Evans.

According to Lavery family tradition Eileen's mother and the story of her chance meeting with the artist was the inspiration for Shaw's Eliza Doolittle and 'Pygmalion', which is plausible given Shaw's great friendship with Lavery.

Lavery relates in his autobiography that he painted a self-portrait with Eileen, 'Père et Fille', in 1897 and Whistler later saved it from destruction: 'I had put it aside for re-painting, but catching sight of it in a dark corner of the studio he exclaimed, 'What's this? Why you have at last painted a picture.' I wheeled it out into the light and Whistler went over it very carefully, examining every inch - it was 7' x 4'. Then he said: 'At last, my dear Lavery, you have done it. It is beautiful. It is complete.' I was astonished: it was the first time he had ever shown any interest in my work.'

When it was displayed at the Salon in 1900, the French state snapped it up (it is now at the Musée d'Orsay). It took the RA over twenty more years to elect him.

Lavery first went to Morocco in 1891. Thereafter, he spent much of his life travelling all over Europe and America from his studio base at 5 Cromwell Place in London, painting portraits and a host of other subjects.

While in Germany in 1901 he made a stunning portrait, 'La dame aux perles', of the Hungarian-born Margit Höllrigl, the long-term mistress of Grand Duke Adolf Friedrich VI whose threats to expose their relationship were implicated in his suicide in 1918. The portrait was never collected and in 1904 the artist gave it to Hugh Lane (it is now at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin).

In the 1930s Lavery even made it to Hollywood, where he found film studios in action too chaotic and frenetic to document, but did a portrait of Shirley Temple.

In 1903, at the the seaside resort of Beg-Meil in Brittany he met the beautiful, red-haired, aspiring-artist Hazel Martyn, daughter of a Chicago industrialist. When Lavery married her in 1909 she already had an infant daughter, Alice, from a brief previous marriage, which had ended with the untimely death of her first husband. Hazel and Alice joined Lavery on his subsequent peregrinations around Europe and Morocco. While they were in Switzerland over the winter of 1912-13, having become chilled while posing for Lavery in the snow, the eight-year-old Alice was heard telling her mother: 'Isn't it a pity, Muffie, that we married an artist'.

Lavery painted Winston Churchill's portrait in 1915. It was at this time that the politician was first taking an interest in painting and he became Lavery's most famous pupil. Hazel, whose own career as an artist was advancing, also gave Churchill informal painting lessons.

Ever alert to new subject matter, on the outbreak of the First War, Lavery's attempts to go the Western Front were frustrated. However, his canvas of returning casualties, 'Wounded, London Hospital, 1915', was the outstanding contribution to the Royal Academy show of that year which, as many critics hastened to point out, contained hardly any other pictures acknowledging that the war was taking place.

When he became an official War Artist in 1917, he made up for lost time, covering a vast range of subjects, from a daylight raid to mine-laying submarines and shore batteries firing at night - at one point hanging perilously over the side of the gondola of an airship shadowing a North Sea convoy a thousand feet below. Lavery was knighted by Lloyd George in 1918 and elected an RA in 1921.

Lavery had always trodden a delicate path in Ireland between hostile factions, having both close Catholic and Protestant friends. On the one hand he donated an altar-piece, 'Our Lady of the Lakes', to St. Patrick's Catholic Cathedral in Belfast, and on the other, presented an oil sketch of 'King George V, Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales' to the Ulster Gallery.

When there was a truce in the bloody war for Irish Independence in 1921 and the rebel delegation arrived in London to negotiate a possible end to the conflict, Hazel urged her husband to do something for his country by inviting both sides to their home at 5 Cromwell Place. As someone 'whose head was never really out of a paint-pot', he was reluctant to become mixed up with religion and politics, but concluded, as he writes in his autobiography, 'I might be of some use in making my studio neutral ground where both sides might meet.' The presiding genius over this enterprise was Hazel, whose charm and tact above all succeeded in bringing together erstwhile bitter foes around her dinner table to discuss matters of great moment informally.

Meanwhile, Lavery began to paint a series of historic portraits of the delegates, including Lloyd George and Austen Chamberlain and the Republican revolutionaries Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins (these are now at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin). These culminated with a large canvas recording the ratification of the Irish Treaty in the House of Lords. As the Countess of Fingall later maintained: 'The Irish Treaty was framed and almost signed at 5 Cromwell Place.'

Lavery: On Location: National Gallery of Ireland, 7 October 2023 - 4 January 2024; Ulster Museum, Belfast, 23 February - 9 June 2024; at the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 20 July - 27 October 2024

First published: The Lady,

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024