An Appreciation: Sir John Lavery
John Lavery was an Irish artist in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Rising from humble beginnings, Lavery became quite successful and part of London's elite. However, he was also honored by the Irish government for his contribution to the Irish independence movement. Inspired by the Impressionists and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, his art is a unique style.
Lavery was born into a Catholic family in Belfast in 1856. His father was an unsuccessful publican who drowned when John was three. His mother died soon after. Orphaned, he spent his early years on his uncle's farm but moved to Glasgow when he was nine years old. Interested in art, he worked in a photographers studio tinting images in order to pay for his art classes at the Glasgow School of Art.
To continue his art education, Lavery traveled to London where he studied at Heatherly's School of Art for six months.
During this period, Paris was the art capital of the world and the ambition of many aspiring young artists was to go to Paris. This Lavery did in 1881, studying at the Academie Julian and in the Colorossi studio. In 1883, he became part of the artists colony at Grez-sur-Loing where he worked on landscapes, developing his plein air painting technique and incorporating Impressionist elements into his style.
Returning to Glasgow in 1885, Lavery became active in its vibrant artistic community. Young artists such as the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists, inspired by what was happening on the Continent, were developing their own forms of Post-Impressionism. Lavery turned his attention to scenes of middle-class urabn life.
Around 1887, Lavery met Whistler, who was already a well-known artist. Whistler had a strong influence on Lavery's style. The two artists became friends with Lavery helping out on some of Whistler's projects such as the creation of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1897.
The turning point in Lavery's career occurred in 1888 when he received a commission to create a work based on Queen Victoria's state visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition. This launched Lavery as a successful society portrait painter.
In 1889, Lavery married Kathleen MacDermott. Kathleen died of tuberculosis in 1891 but not before giving birth to a daughter. She would be a frequent subject in her father's work.
Although Glasgow was sometimes called “the second city in the British Empire” at the time, Lavery moved to London in 1896, establishing a studio in South Kensington.
Lavery's career continued to blossom. His portrait style brought him numerous commissions and he received international prizes and honors. For example, in 1907, he was elected a member of Dublin's Royal Hibernian Academy. A few years later, he received a commission to paint a portrait of the British Royal family. King George V and Queen Mary were so enthralled with the sittings that they asked whether they could participate in painting the picture. Lavery mixed up some paint and instructed the Royals where to place the color. The portrait was very well received by the critics.
At the same time, Lavery was exhibiting his work in Paris, Rome and other cities on the Continent. Again, it was well-received. Lavery also spent time working in the South of France and in Morocco.
In 1909, Lavery married the American-born painter Hazel Martyn. The two had met in 1903 on a beach in France. The then 17 year-old Hazel fell in love with Lavery but her mother disapproved on the grounds that Lavery was a “mere artist” and not suitable for a girl half his age from a wealthy Chicago family. Returning to the United States, Hazel married a doctor from a prominent family and had a daughter. However, the doctor died young leaving Hazel free to marry Lavery when they met again in 1908.
The two became a popular couple in London society. She was considered to be the most beautiful woman in London. They entertained the likes of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, Hazel is credited with introducing Winston Churchill to painting as a means of combating his periodic bouts of depression. Churchill would also paint with John.
John produced some 400 pictures in which Hazel appears. He also changed earlier completed works so that they depicted Hazel. Indeed, one of Lavery's best-known works “The Red Rose” was originally a portrait of someone else and was changed to become a portrait of Hazel.
When World War I began in 1914, Lavery volunteered to become a war artist. However, injuries sustained in a automobile accident that happened during a zeppelin raid prevented Lavery from going to the front. Instead, he produced a series of paintings of ships, planes, military camps, munitions factories and people on the Home Front.
Lavery was knighted in 1918. As a result, he became Sir John and Hazel became Lady Lavery. In 1921, he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy and could add the abbreviation “RA” after his name.
Despite such connections to British royalty, the Laverys were interested in Irish politics. They were shocked by the 1916 Easter Rising and by Britain's harsh reaction. During the negotiations that resulted in the Irish Free State (which later evolved into the Republic of Ireland), the Laverys gave over their London home to the Irish delegation. They also arranged dinners and lobbied their contacts to aid the Irish cause.
There is speculation that Hazel had an affair with the Irish leader Michael Collins. Hazel openly admired Collins and according to some sources, after his assassination, Collins was found to be wearing a portrait of Hazel around his neck. However, Collins, who denied such rumors during his lifetime, was engaged to and had an intense relationship with Kitty Kiernan at the time. Similarly, the relationship between John and Hazel was quite close although tumultuous. Also, it has been asserted that the IRA followed both Collins and Hazel throughout this period and would have assassinated her if there was any evidence of an affair as such an affair would have been contrary to the IRA's code of conduct at the time. In any event, John did a portrait of Collins during his lifetime as well as the posthumous “Michael Collins, Love of Ireland” following Collins' assassination.
After the founding of the Irish Free State, in gratitude for the Laverys assistance in the negotiations, the Irish government asked Lavery to paint an allegorical figure to represent Ireland on its currency. Not surprisingly, Lavery produced a portrait of Hazel as the legendary Kathleen ni Houlihan. The image remained on the Irish currency until the 1970s and then was used as a watermark on certain notes until Ireland adopted the Euro as its currency.in 2002.
Lavery also received honorary degrees from the Univeristy of Dublin and Queen's University in Belfast. Long interested in reconciling the Protestant and Catholic factions in Ireland, he donated a large number of paintings to museums in both the Irish Free State and in Northern Ireland.
After Hazel's death in 1935, Lavery traveled to Hollywood in order to paint portraits of the movie stars. However, nothing came of the plan except a self-portrait Lavery did with Shirley Temple.
When World War II broke out, the 80-year old artist moved to Ireland. He died in Kilkenny in 1941 of natural causes.
Although Lavery is chiefly remembered for his portrait work, he also produced landscapes, seascapes and pictures of people going about their daily lives.
Lavery produced more than 400 portraits of his second wife Lady Hazel Lavery including "The Red Rose" (above).
His portrait of Hazel as Kathleen Ni Houlihan was re-produced on Irish currency.
Lavery also found inspiration in his family. In "The Artist's Studio" he depicted Lady Lavery, his step-daughter and his own daughter on a visit to his studio (above). He painted his daughter as a young mother in "The Mother" (below).
Lavery painted portraits of the upper echelons of British society including a portrait of the Royal Family (above). However, both he and Lady Lavery were also involved in the negotiations that led to the creation of the Irish Free State. Lavery painted a posthumous portrait of Irish leader Michael Collins after his assassination (below).
In addition to portraits, Lavery painted landscapes and scenes of everyday life such as "Summer Afternoon" (above).
During World War I, Lavery was a war artist and painted scenes of the conflict such as "Convoy in the North Sea" (below).
Artist appreciation - Sir John Lavery