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‘Titles Tell All,’ or do they? An exploration of Sir John Lavery's ‘The Green Coat' 1926

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I expressed my interest in Lavery’s work whilst volunteering at the Arts Archive in Cultra and was very happy to have been given the opportunity to primarily focus on cataloguing his donated collection. I was very excited to have the chance to work with Sir John Lavery files so closely because of my interest in History of Art. My experience volunteering at the museum has greatly influenced my decision to pursue History of Art at University.

A particular painting which never fails to capture my attention is Lavery's portrait of his second wife Hazel Martyn. In this painting, entitled, ‘The Green Coat,’1926, Hazel is standing in front of a low burning fire, wrapped in luxurious greens and golds.

Image: The Green Coat (1926) Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) oil on canvas BELUM.U68 © National Museums NI
The Green Coat (1926) Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) oil on canvas BELUM.U68 © National Museums NI

Whilst cataloguing his works, I came across the file for, ‘The Green Coat.’ I was initially confused by this, as the painting had existed under several different titles such as; ‘Lady Lavery in the Green coat,’ and as it is known today, ‘The Green Coat.’

Naturally, this had caused some confusion in the past, as those involved with enquiring about the painting were uncertain as to the title to which it was known and, therefore, what painting was being discussed. I became very curious and began to investigate this further, whereupon I discovered that the painting had been previously known by a different title again; ‘A portrait of Lady Lavery’. In this original version of the painting, Lady Lavery wears only the purple dress with bare shoulders. I was amazed when I found a black and white picture of the painting before Lavery had made the addition of the famous green coat.

The title of a work of art helps to navigate the viewers’ eye and reveal the artist’s intentions. Having seen the painting with and without the addition of the coat, I felt as though I had been transported back in time to see Sir John Lavery at his work. This experience encouraged me to think about what had led Lavery to re-assess his painting and paint the addition of the green coat, thus changing the title forever.

There is an undeniable effervescence and elegance that surrounds Lady Lavery in, ‘The Green Coat,’ and it is a true testament to her beauty. The full-length portrait, a common choice for Lavery, echoes Lady Laverys’ height and grace. When you walk into the gallery, it is as though she is present in the room. Lady Lavery was no stranger to acting as the model for Laverys’ paintings; she famously posed for Laverys’ personification of Ireland for the new Irish Bank note after the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1928, until it was later replaced in 1970.

I greatly admire Lavery’s skill in recognizing the importance of how his work would be presented to viewers as a whole. He was not only interested in creating for his own artistic expression, but also in the message that his work could put across to a greater audience. There is a strong sense of intimacy and warmth in this painting, as Lavery depicts Hazel as somewhat Goddess like and ethereal. It fascinates me that Hazel had not been wearing this green coat in the original painting. Lavery's choice of colour palette for Lady Lavery’s complexion and her attire, perfectly matches the later addition of the green coat and creates a distinct visual harmony for the viewer. The sheer height of the painting denotes his level of admiration for his wife.

Based on Lady Lavery's reputation for her efforts to facilitate peace, I believe Lavery is deliberately channeling Lady Lavery as a harmonious symbol and a reminder of the life and beauty within Ireland. It seems possible that, even before Lady Lavery's later appearance on the Irish bank notes, Lavery might already view her to a certain degree as the embodiment of Ireland. She stands so elegantly, wrapped in luscious greens and golds, just like the famous fields of Ireland.

Researching into this painting has unlocked a whole new world to me. Now, when I look at a piece of art, I wonder about its origins, the secrets and stories under its surface, and the first person who ever gazed upon this image; the artist. There are so many layers to Lavery’s work that could be further investigated. I feel I have only begun to delve into the true story of the green coat. I am left with an inspired mind, ready to pursue this field further, and eager to learn more.

My journey of investigation was facilitated by the kind encouragement from those working and volunteering in the Ulster Museum. Everyone I met was friendly and helped me in my search. I would recommend volunteering at Ulster Museum to anyone who is interested in exploring a gateway into the past. This experience gave me a deeper insight into the magic behind the Ulster Museum, and the journey it and its contents have been on.

Click here to learn more about Sir John Lavery.