Sir John Lavery
In 1929 Sir John Lavery gave 34 of his paintings to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery (now the Ulster Museum) when it opened. The collection includes some of his finest portraits, as well as work painted during his time in Morocco, Switzerland and America. This web tour is a window into Lavery’s world.
The Bridge at Grès, 1901. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U60
Sir John Lavery
Born in Belfast, both of Lavery’s parents died when he was young. He was sent to Scotland in 1866 and began his career in Glasgow, working in a photography studio and making art in his spare time.
During the 1880s he visited Paris and the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, where he painted several important works.
In 1888 he painted The State Visit of Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition. This launched his career as a society portrait painter. By 1910 he had become an internationally famous artist, and by the 1930s he had gained many honours and titles.
In 1929 he gave the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery (now the Ulster Museum) 34 paintings. He donated these works for two reasons: “one that I was born in Belfast, and the other that they had built a gallery there, but had no pictures to put in it”.
Lavery painted a huge range of subject matter, from royal and society portraits to images of friends and family, as well as landscapes and seascapes. He perfected the oil sketch as a way to plan his paintings.
His use of colour during his travels to North Africa, Switzerland and France showed how he was influenced by Whistler.
The Ulster Museum would like to thank Dr Kenneth McConkey for his research on Sir John Lavery.
Sir John and Lady Lavery standing in front of display of Lavery paintings in the Ulster Museum, May 1929. BELUM.Y.W.10.79.67 © National Museums NI
Self Portrait, 1928. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U616 © National Museums NI
Early artistic education in France
Under the Cherry Tree was painted at Grez-sur-Loing, a small village on the river Loing. South of Fontainbleu, near Paris, artists had gathered here since the 1860s.
Lavery worked there in 1883 and 1884. He developed his new ‘plein-air’ style during that time, which means working outside straight from nature.
This painting was called On the Loing: An Afternoon Chat when it was first shown at the Glasgow Institute in 1885. Under the Cherry Tree shows the techniques Lavery learned during his time in France. It is larger and more ambitious than any work he had done by that date. It shows how he was heavily influenced by the painter Bastien-Lepage.
The composition of Under the Cherry Tree is divided into three areas. Lavery painted each area differently. The vegetation is highly detailed in the foreground while the bridge and foliage are almost misty in the background. Late in the 1890s, Lavery returned to France and revisited Grez-sur-Loing. In The Bridge at Gres he used almost the same view as Under the Cherry Tree.
The Bridge at Grès was painted quickly, almost in a single session. It is one of the best examples of Lavery’s sophisticated landscape paintings.
The horizon line is set high in the painting and the figures only faintly observed. The real subject of the painting is the river surface, which is similar to Monet’s fascination with the effects of light on water.
Under the Cherry Tree 1885
The Bridge at Grès 1901
The Influence of Whistler
Lavery often painted those he was closest to. These two works show his much-loved daughter Eileen in childhood, and with a child of her own.
Eileen was Lavery’s only child. She was the daughter of his first wife, Kathleen, who died shortly after her daughter’s birth. In this sketch for a larger painting, Lavery concentrates on the changes of tone between white and grey of her gown and veil.
Lavery was strongly influenced by fellow painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In particular his delicate and restrained use of colour.
He kept in regular contact with Whistler from the time they met in 1887. Assisting him when he formed the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1897-8. Lavery became the vice-president when Whistler was President.
Whistler was staying with Lavery when he painted Eileen, aged seven, on holiday from her convent boarding school. Lavery and Whistler remained close until Whistler’s death in 1903.
The influence of Whistler is also clear in the soft brushstrokes and qualities of grey and pink paint in The Mother.
This portrait began as a profile study of Lavery’s friend and model Mary Auras in 1909. It ended as a study of motherhood in 1924, showing his daughter Eileen with her child.
Eileen, her first communion, 1901. Oil on board. BELUM.U80 © National Museums NI
The Mother, 1909. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U72 © National Museums NI
Lavery visited Morocco for the first time in 1890. During the 1900s and 1910s he spent a lot of time in Tangier. He was attracted by the strong light and brilliant colours of the north African landscape.
During these years he painted many beach scenes and seascapes. He often used bands of delicately coloured paint to represent the seas of the southern Mediterranean.
In the far distance of this seascape, a small warship patrolling the straits of Gibraltar appears as a finely traced smoke-trail. This could be a reference to the growing international unease in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914.
He revisited the same bay ten years later to paint it in sunshine. Lavery had exhibited at the Venice Biennale exhibition in 1910. Venice probably inspired him to experiment more with seascape painting.
Tangier Bay sunshine, 1920. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U620 ©National Museums NI
Tangier Bay rain, 1910. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U621 ©National Museums NI
In 1912 Lavery painted the Royal Family for £2,000. Like he had done before for similar paintings he combined separate head studies with the setting. He produced two oil sketches of the group for the Queen to choose, one of which was given to the Ulster Museum.
The finished work, now in the National Portrait Gallery, was popular when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1913.
King George V and Queen Mary visited Lavery’s London studio for the full-sized picture to be painted. They were both so impressed that the King asked if he could add to the painting. Lavery mixed some royal blue on a brush, and the King added it to the blue ribbon of the Order of the Garter. Queen Mary, not wishing to be outdone, followed his example.
The Times called the painting a ‘considerable success’ by and praised for its ‘subtle blending of colour in the atmosphere’.
Second Study for the King, the Queen, the Prince of Wales, the Princess Mary, Buckingham Palace, 1913. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U615 ©National Museums NI
Lavery was a famous artist at the time of the First World War.
He was unable to join the Army because of his health, but in 1914 he painted the treatment of the first wounded soldiers at the London Hospital. His plans to go to the Western Front to paint were discouraged by his wife Hazel, and he continued to paint in London.
Daylight Raid from my Studio Window records the afternoon of 7 July 1917, when twenty-one German biplanes appeared in the skies above London and were shot at by British aircraft. The battle could be seen from the large window of Lavery’s studio in Cromwell Place, London.
Hazel, her head outlined against a blackout curtain, is watching the scene. Her worry can be seen by the tension of her body.
Lavery seems to have originally painted a statue of the Virgin Mary, in front of which Hazel kneeled. Before he donated the painting to Belfast, he painted it out, possibly to erase the memory of his wife’s worry.
Lavery was talented at recording moments like this in rapid oil sketches. Here he uses quick, fluid brushstrokes to describe both the clutter of his studio and the threatening presence of the tiny planes in the clear sky beyond.
Daylight raid from my studio window, 1917. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U71 ©National Museums NI
Lavery became very famous for his portraits of well-known people.
Although born in Belfast, Lavery had very little contact with the city until he became friends with Sir Hugh Lane, the founder of Dublin Municipal Museum of Modern Art. This drew him back into Irish artistic life and politics. He then painted a series of portraits of important figures.
Michael Logue, was born in Carrigart, County Donegal in 1840 and became Archbishop of Armagh in 1888. He was an Irish speaker and supporter of the Gaelic League. Cardinal Logue was eighty-years old when he sat for this portrait. It shows Lavery using the stronger style, vivid colours and looser painting of his later portraits.
The second painting is of James Craig, who was born in Belfast into a distilling family. He rallied the opposition to Irish Home Rule in Ulster before 1914. He also organised the paramilitary Ulster Volunteers which became the 36th (Ulster) Division during the First World War.
In 1921, Craig succeeded Edward Carson as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Later that year became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. This portrait was painted in 1923, and he was created the 1st Viscount Craigavon in 1927.
His Eminence Cardinal Logue, 1920. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U64 ©National Museums NI
Viscount Craigavon, 1923. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U617 ©National Museums NI
His Eminence Cardinal Logue, 1920. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U64 ©National Museums NI
Viscount Craigavon, 1923. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U617 ©National Museums N
Lady Hazel Lavery
Lavery married his second wife, Hazel Martyn, in 1909. She was a beautiful and artistic young American.
This painting was one of several portraits he painted of her. In 1917 Lavery painted her as The Madonna of the Lakes for St Patrick’s, the church in Belfast where he was christened. In 1927 he painted her as Kathleen niHoulihan, the personification of Ireland, for the currency of the new Irish State.
Originally Hazel’s arms and shoulders were bare without the coat. This version was used to advertise Pond’s Cream, which Lady Lavery herself endorsed.
She was very happy for the finished painting to be given to the Belfast Art Gallery, saying ‘it is to my thinking the best one of me he has ever painted’.
The Green Coat, 1926. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U68 © National Museums NI
Lavery painted this large-scale work when he was eighty-years old.
He had painted many sketches at Ranelagh, Dublin for ‘hammock’ pictures, showing a young woman reading under the trees on a summer’s day. Now a new model, Lillian Millar, began posing for a series based on this theme.
Lavery had donated a painting of The Red Hammock to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery in 1930. He asked for its return in 1936 to restore it. He decided instead to produce a new version rather than attempt a repair of the original.
The dreamy celebration of youth was slightly at odds with a more modern time, and painted only a short time before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland.
While not thought of as one of his finest works, it shows the artist still trying to produce an attractive and sensitive large-scale painting, even in his advanced age.
The Red Hammock, 1936. Oil on canvas. BELUM.U66 © National Museums NI
Lavery was 72 when he painted this self-portrait.
He wears a white painting coat and includes one of his most recent themes, swimmers at the Chiswick Baths in London.
The painting also shows humour, as the artist appears in an oval frame associated with more traditional forms of portraiture. He looks like he has been caught in the process of painting his own portrait. Lavery was a very well-known and respected artist at the time he painted this portrait.
He became the first artist to receive the Freedom of Belfast in 1930. In that year he was one of the first twelve academicians of the Ulster Academy of Arts. He was later appointed President until his death.
Sir John Lavery died in County Kilkenny, aged 84.