Belfast-born painter, Sir John Lavery, was one of the most prominent painters of Edwardian British aristocracy despite a beginning which was anything but auspicious. Orphaned by the age of three, Lavery and his brother and sister were scattered amongst his father's relatives in Ireland. John spent the next several years of his life in Moira before being dispatched by his aunt to Ayrshire, Scotland, where he worked in another relative's pawnshop. It was there in the town of Saltcoats that Lavery first became interested in art when he saw the drawings done by a commercial traveller visiting the local grocery. In his later years, Lavery recollected that this gentleman made "pencil sketches that thrilled me beyond words... in time I got to be able to copy them first by placing them against the the light on a window and tracing them... later on I was able to make freehand copies. That traveller in groceries was my first master and perhaps the most vital one."¹
For the next several years, the restless young man bounced between Ireland and Scotland, trying and failing at several different jobs, and even spent a period living homeless, sleeping in a public park, before he was able to secure an apprenticeship to a photographer named MacNair in the burgeoning industrial city of Glasgow. Assisting MacNair as a retoucher, Lavery became skilled at hand-finishing portrait photographs, but this, however, only intensified his interest in art.² After simultaneously studying at the Glasgow School of Art and Haldane Academy while working at MacNair's, Lavery decided not to renew his photography contract in 1878, but instead left to pursue a professional career in painting.
Within a year, his studio had burned down, but undaunted, Lavery used the insurance money to move to London and to study at Heatherly's School of Art. The lack of camaraderie at the school discouraged him, and his study there lasted only a year, but growing success exhibiting in Glasgow brought Lavery local recognition and presented him with new opportunities. By the end of 1881, he was in Paris, studying under William Adolphe Bouguereau whose painting, Vièrge Consolatrix, was the favorite of the young artist³ and which had drawn him to the Académie Julian to seek out study with this French master.
If he expected to earn praise from his idol Bouguereau, Lavery was, unfortunately, quite mistaken.
Though I worked as hard as any of the others, my drawing was poor and neither Bouguereau nor Fleury ever gave me much praise. Pas mal or pas trop mal was about the most I got for encouragement. I discovered that what I thought were my strong points counted for little and that I had yet to understand what drawing really meant.⁴
Despite the lack of encouragement in Bouguereau's atelier, Lavery enjoyed Paris, finding much stimulation and inspiration in the city's artistic offerings.
Living in the 'capital of the art world,' Lavery was able to experience the latest trends in art firsthand. The much-anticipated Salon of 1882, for example, gave Lavery the opportunity to see in person the works of not only the French Naturalists- with Jules Bastien-Lepage chief among them- but also the works of the plein air painters including fellow Irishman Frank O'Meara. With these strong influences now upon him, Lavery pulled farther away from Bouguereau, and dedicated more of his time to outdoor painting. By the summer of 1883, he was living in the art colony founded by students of Carolus-Duran at Grez-sur-Long, creating significant works while working alongside O'Meara.
Returning to Scotland at the end of 1884, Lavery joined with a group of fellow artists painting in the Naturalist manner. This group, known as the Glasgow Boys, had formed around the artist James Guthrie, and although their importance to Scottish art history cannot be overemphasized, the group's goals were less ambitious than were Lavery's. Whereas the Glasgow Boys wanted to be accepted into the Royal Scottish Academy and thereby be secure in making a living, Lavery was not content in just painting the same, safe paintings of peasant life that the French had popularized and that his peers were then executing. It was not that Lavery wanted to be avant garde nor was he seeking to make political statements with his art; it was just that as a businessman, he knew serious art collectors would sooner buy Naturalist paintings from the French than from the Scots, and if he were to succeed, he would need to cater to the leisured bourgeoise.⁵ Focussing on the persons and activities of the middle-class, Lavery's social status grew as quickly as did his artistic reputation.
To celebrate its power as an industrial and commercial trade center, the city of Glasgow made plans to hold the International Exhibition of 1888, and Lavery, who by that time had already had some international success, was established as visual documentarian of this exposition. Lavery created over fifty painted sketches between May and October, a risky venture on his part, as the time he spent recording the Exhibition meant time not spent working on pieces for the large annual competitions. As the structures for the event were being dismantled, Glasgow's city fathers approached Lavery and commissioned him to turn his impression of Queen Victoria's visit to the International Exhibition into a commemorative group painting.⁶ His picture, completed in 1890, featured over 250 portraits, and though many of the likenesses were recreated from photographs, a large number were painted from life, including the Queen's portrait. The social connections he made in the execution of this work gained for him commissions which were to last him for the next fifty years; his gamble had certainly paid off.
In 1905, when the Honourable John Collier, Vice-President of England's Society of Portrait Painters, wrote his book The Art of Portrait Painting, he chose three successful, contemporary portraitists whom to profile- Lavery was one of the three. Collier contacted a fellow artist who had sat for Lavery several times, and she provided to Collier an accounting of Lavery's procedure.
He has great consideration for the sitter- he arranges a large mirror which reflects him at work on the canvas so that the sitter may be interested. He spends a great deal of time and trouble to find a pose that in its simplicity is dignified, and in its originality surprises and refreshes the eye. Two days I spent in his studio trying to take an unaffected pose. Mr. Lavery did sketch after sketch of me, till once he found what he wanted.
Then discarding the sketches he takes a canvas the size he requires, and within two hours he has the entire canvas covered- the texture of the frock and the drawing of the features and pose of the figure almost complete; the following day the greater part of this paint is removed from the canvas and the picture again gone over from head to toe. This was repeated every day for almost two weeks, each afternoon the picture looking more complete, till finally he decides that he has reached his limit.
Nearly all his drawing is done with the brush. He uses charcoal merely to map out or space his composition. His palette is very simple, the primaries, black, white, and burnt sienna- in all, six pigments.⁷
Collier then went on to offer his own comments on Lavery's work:
It will be noted that Mr. Lavery's procedure is much akin to Whistler's, although his was never a pupil of the latter and never even saw him paint.✝ But there is one important difference. Whistler entirely repainted his picture every time, making no use of the previous work, so that at the fiftieth sitting it was no further advanced than at the first. But Mr. Lavery, although he goes all over the work, makes use of the previous painting, so that there is a gradual progress towards completion. This to me is a mch sounder method.
It will be noted what great trouble is taken with the arrangement. And this trouble is certainly not thrown away. I know of no one who arranges a portrait better, both in colour and form. As a colourist, Mr. Lavery is distinctly ahead of any portrait painter of the day.⁸
After the conclusion of World War I, in which Lavery acted as an Official War Artist to the British Royal Navy- and as such had painted the surrender of the German Fleet at Rosyth - a knighthood was bestowed upon him. In 1921, he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy; later he also became a member of the Royal Scottish Academy, as well as the academies of Rome, Antwerp, Milan, Brussels, and Stockholm.⁹ Queens University in Belfast, and Trinity College Dublin, both gave him honorary degrees, the city of Dublin honored him with the title of 'freeman,' and he was the first Catholic and the first artist to be awarded the Freedom of Belfast.¹⁰ In 1928, in acknowledgement of the service of providing his London home to he the Irish delegates during the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, he was commissioned to design the Irish Free State Government's bank notes; an engraving of a portrait of Lavery's wife, Hazel, graced the Irish pound until 1977.¹¹
✝ Lavery may not have studied with Whistler, but he was definitely influenced by the elder painter. The two met in 1887, and became fast friends; eventually, Lavery moved to London and served as Vice-President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers under Whistler.
¹ Kenneth McConkey, John Lavery: A Painter and His World, (Atelier Books Limited, Edinburgh, 2010), p. 12.
³ McConkey, p. 16.
⁵ McConkey, p. 30.
⁶ McConkey, p. 45.
⁷ The Honourable John Collier, The Art of Portrait Painting, (Cassell and Company, Limited, New York, 1905), pp. 75 & 76.
⁸ Collier, p. 76.
⁹ Henry Boylan, editor, Sir John Lavery, retrieved September 25, 2010 from [http://jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/John_Lavery.htm].
¹⁰ Sir John Lavery: Passion and Politics, retrieved September 25, 2010 from [http://www.hughlane.ie/media/5570_SirJohnLaveryPassionandPoliticsintroforSchools.pdf]