The decline of Sir John Lavery’s reputation was undeserved
In the National Gallery of Ireland, a palatial Georgian building in the historic heart of Dublin, two paintings hanging side by side sum up the timeless allure of Sir John Lavery. Both called The Bridge at Grez, they both depict the same bucolic, idyllic scene — two elegant young women in a rowing boat gliding along a peaceful rural river. It’s a scene of supreme happiness, with wealth, comfort and contentment. You could gaze at it for hours.
A century ago, John Lavery was Britain’s most celebrated painter. He painted monarchs and prime ministers; he painted great affairs of state. His portraits were highly prized; to be painted by him was a sign that you’d arrived. His glamorous American wife, Hazel, was as famous as he was: Posh to his Becks; Diana to his Charles. Stylish and vivacious, she was rarely off the front pages. Between the wars, they were the power couple of the art world.
How times change. Today, Lavery is almost forgotten by the trendy British art establishment — an obscure footnote in art history. His intimidating painting of King George V has pride of place in London’s National Portrait Gallery, but few visitors who admire it know anything about the man who painted it. This exhibition, “Lavery on Location”, aims to set the record straight.
Here in Ireland, Lavery is not a forgotten figure, as he is in Britain. His work is prominently displayed in the National Gallery’s permanent collection and in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin’s other major art museum. Belfast’s Ulster Museum also has a large collection of his work. This is ironic because, although Lavery was born in Belfast, he left Ireland when he was ten and spent most of his adult life in London. Yet Ireland, North and South, has preserved his legacy whilst Britain has neglected it. Nowadays, he’s widely regarded as an Irish painter rather than a British one.
In fact, Lavery’s life and work straddled both traditions, and his dual heritage is a big part of his appeal. After Dublin, Lavery on Location travels to Belfast in the spring and then to Edinburgh for the festival next summer. Will this absorbing, enchanting show put him back where he belongs?
Portraiture was his bread and butter, but landscape was his passion
Born in 1856, into a poor Catholic family in Belfast, the story of Lavery’s early life reads like a Victorian penny dreadful. Orphaned at the age of three, he was sent to live with an uncle on a farm in County Down, where he was content, only to be whisked away again, aged ten, to live with a pawnbroker in Ayrshire. Unhappy in his new home, he ran away to Glasgow. Apprenticed to a photographer, he learnt to paint at night school then travelled to France, where he painted the pastoral scenes which made his name.
“Lavery on Location” spans over half a century, from the 1880s to the 1930s. In all that time, whilst the world around him changed beyond all recognition, Lavery’s style scarcely changed. Essentially realistic, with discreet traces of impressionism, it emerged fully formed in his twenties and remained much the same throughout his long and lucrative career.
Why not? Critics and curators love to trace the development of an artist’s oeuvre, but as he had found a winning formula early on, it made sense for him to stick to it. Those two pictures of the Bridge at Grez were painted 18 years apart. They could almost have been done on the same day.
What saved Lavery from repetition was his insatiable pursuit of fresh subject matter. Portraiture was his bread and butter, but landscape painting was his passion. Although his society portraits are assured, his landscapes are far more powerful. He roamed far and wide in search of inspiration, from the Alps to America. His studies of Tangier are especially evocative, reminiscent of Whistler, Ferdinand Hodler and Max Liebermann.
Knighted for his work as a war artist during the First World War, showered with international honours, a freeman of both Dublin and Belfast (remarkably, during the turmoil and trauma of Irish partition, he retained the respect and admiration of Unionists and Nationalists alike), Lavery’s lasting reputation seemed assured. Why has he fallen out of favour?
After the Second World War his skillful figuration became unfashionable, but above all it is because of his affluent subjects. Painting the great and the good, Lavery was drawn into their orbit. Whilst his earlier depictions of tennis and croquet on the lawns of stately homes are charming, his later daubs of rich people’s drawing rooms feel like a waste of his time and talent. In old age, he admitted that he’d spent too much time “trying to please”. Many gifted artists are destroyed by poverty. Lavery was amongst the lucky few whose work was somewhat spoiled by success.
Indeed, it’s telling that the finest portrait in this show isn’t of a wealthy toff, but of his first wife, an enigmatic Irishwoman called Kathleen McDermott, who came from (very) humble stock. Lavery met her in Covent Garden, where she was working as a flower seller. Smitten by her beauty, he asked her to model for him and fell hopelessly in love with her. She bore him a daughter, then died a year later of tuberculosis. After she’d died, Lavery discovered her real name was Annie Evans, and that she wasn’t Irish but Welsh.
There’s a nice twist to this story. As an up-and-coming artist, Lavery gave an interview to a young journalist called George Bernard Shaw, who yearned to escape Fleet Street and become a playwright. Like all good reporters, Shaw was a nosy parker. He asked Lavery how he met his first wife. Lavery told him, and Shaw came away with an idea for a play.
Pygmalion became a huge hit; Shaw became rich and famous. When he died, he left a third of his estate (including the royalties from Pygmalion) to the National Gallery of Ireland, where he’d spent many happy hours as a child. The National Gallery bought many paintings with Shaw’s bequest, including a fair few by Lavery. There’s no moral to this story. I just thought you might like to know.
Lavery – On Location is at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (www.nationalgallery.ie) until 4th January 2024, and then at the Ulster Museum, Belfast (www.nmni.com) from 23rdFebruary to 9th June 2024, and the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh (www.nationalgalleries.org) fr
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