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The two sides of John Lavery, an Irish artist with a magic touch

Lavery: On Location, at the National Gallery of Ireland, showcases the paintings the artist made from Glasgow to the Alps and, most importantly, in Morocco

If you see enough of John Lavery’s work you might begin to suspect that there are two John Laverys, and in a sense there are.

There is Sir John Lavery, to all intents a pillar of the British establishment, a gifted and extremely busy portrait painter of the aristocratic, professional and political elite, a friend of Churchill, a quiet presence at the centre of London social life (his wife, Hazel, playing the more active social role).

And, less conspicuously, and more subtly, there is John Lavery, one of the Glasgow Boys, a hard-working, French-influenced painter who has an absolutely magic touch with landscape and everyday life subjects, in a way that parallels and often overlaps with the impressionists. The landscapes and everyday life encompass not just France but also, most importantly, Morocco, plus Ireland, England and other parts of Europe.

The National Gallery of Ireland’s new exhibition, Lavery: On Location, its first survey of the artist’s work in more than three decades, highlights this aspect of his output. In the past Sir John Lavery the portraitist has tended to eclipse the painter of landscapes and leisure. That is largely because there is an interesting complication, from an Irish perspective, to a view of the artist as a British establishment figure. The complication is, in fact, his complex identity and his close relationship with Ireland through a crucial period of its history, as it emerged from British rule. But then, of course, Lavery was himself Irish, born in Belfast in 1856.


By 1916 and thereafter, his exceptional position in London gave him a lot of cultural capital, and he got away with things that others could not. Who else could tell Churchill to stop meddling in Ireland and leave the Irish to sort out their own affairs? Lavery’s portrait subjects encompass a who’s who of all sides of the War of Independence, as detailed in Sinéad McCoole’s terrific Hugh Lane Gallery exhibition in 2010. He even painted the trial of Roger Casement at the court of criminal appeal, with meticulous attention to detail. He and Hazel grew close to Michael Collins, who stayed with them in London during the Treaty negotiations. He painted Collins posthumously. So it’s clear that Lavery the portrait painter was an intriguingly complex man.

He was also very much a self-made man. He lost his parents when he was a child. He and his brother lived on their uncle’s farm near Moira, in Co Down, and then, when he was 10, with a relative in the evocatively named coastal town of Saltcoats, in Ayrshire. From there he apparently ran away to Glasgow, shortly returning to Moira. But he had it in mind to return to Glasgow and did, becoming an apprentice photograph retoucher, then a vital craft. He progressed to being a skilled, relatively highly paid retoucher. The need to make a living always loomed large in his mind, and he applied his talents to the task assiduously.

In Glasgow he also enrolled in classes at the Haldane Academy of the Fine Arts, later going on to the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London, and then to Paris, where he attended the Académie Julian, overseen by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a staunchly academic traditionalist known for his (sometimes rather salacious) religious allegories. Bouguereau did not rate Lavery’s drawing skills.

On the other hand, Paris was great, fantastically alive and teeming with ideas, with artists from all over the place, including Ireland. Like many of these artists, Lavery was drawn to the village of Grez-sur-Loing, about 65km south of the capital, and his time there was one of the happiest periods of his life. It also decisively shaped his painting. By his own account, he seems to have taken a lot from his one encounter with the then prominent painter Jules Bastien-Lapage: “Always carry a sketchbook ... Never look twice.” Whereas he could have gone in an academic direction, towards creating meticulous, seamlessly finished surfaces, he became increasingly free and confident in, as it is known, the premier-coup technique. In fact he became breathtakingly good at it, even as critics bemoaned the lack of detail and finish in his paintings. This applied equally to his big set-piece compositions and the less formal premier-coup work. He was drawn alternately to both.

As Kenneth McConkey wrote in 1984, “Lavery could paint anything, anywhere.” He had a level of facility most artists could only dream of. Technically brilliant, he was an instinctive painter. As he modestly put it, “I am not a man of theory and no one ever knew less why he did what he did than I.” He is generally and reasonably aligned with plein-air painters in the vein of Camille Corot, schooled in “tonal values”, rather than the impressionist colourists, but the distinction can become a bit art-historically pedantic and has more to do with stylistic camps and rivalries of the time than with the objective nature of the work.

In any case, back in Glasgow from France, he found himself in like-minded artistic company. He became friendly with and was influenced by Whistler. Velázquez became an important artistic model after some initial doubts, when Lavery realised, as he explained, that making things appear simple required immense skill. Later on, he put his careful study of Velázquez to good use in his epic homage to Las Meninas, The Artist’s Studio (surely familiar to regular visitors to the NGI) and then his group portrait of the British royal family at Buckingham Palace.

Back in 1888, his sound commercial instinct directed him towards involvement with the Glasgow International Exhibition, at Kelvingrove in 1888, where he was, as McConkey puts it, “a sort of artist in residence”, also noting that some of Lavery’s paintings were distinctly impressionistic. An exhibition of his work focusing on aspects of the event led to an invitation to document Queen Victoria’s visit. That was a two-year, multiple-subject project, but it put him on the map as a portrait painter. He went off to Morocco.

Eventually, in 1903, he bought a house there, in Tangiers, the White City. He was following in the footsteps of a number of orientalising European artists, and he could have gone in that direction, but throughout his many winter stays in Morocco something interesting happened in his painterly response to the light, the atmosphere, the heat and the colour. McConkey has noted that the place encouraged him in “the development of a spontaneous sense of abstract relationships”. As with Grez, it was tremendously stimulating for Lavery. One contemporary commentator rather patronisingly suggested that the Moroccan paintings were a relaxing antidote to the demands of portraiture. Actually, they are livelier, more challenging and timeless works than the portraits. The mastery of light and shade they display, their creamy whites, subtle tonalities, judicious sense of colour and intricate, architectonic design make them truly memorable. They convey a sense of a whole pictorial world in the way that Mondrian’s still lifes do.

The one real regret about this exhibition is that there are not more Moroccan paintings among the more than 70 works on show. They would make an extraordinary exhibition in themselves. Perhaps they are too widely dispersed. In any case, the trajectory of Lavery’s life was set on a different course to following up on his Moroccan discoveries. When he and Hazel married, in 1910, they had both been widowed. He had married Annie Evans in 1890; she died following the birth of their daughter, Eileen. He and Hazel first met in Brittany. She was 20 years his junior and engaged to a surgeon, whom she married on her return to Canada. He died almost immediately. Hazel, now with a young daughter, studied art – she was a capable painter – crossed the Atlantic and met Lavery again, and they married.

Lavery: On Location provides a thoroughly engaging account of his life through his work, his personal life and his working life, especially at the intersection of the two, from Grez to Glasgow, grand interiors to Tangiers, the Alps to his time as a war artist in 1917. (He was, thankfully, thwarted in his desire to experience the front lines but made some great paintings.) Latterly, ever enterprising, he went to the United States and had notions of painting portraits in Hollywood. But circumstances and time were against him. Hazel had died in 1935. He was staying with his stepdaughter in Co Kilkenny when he died, early in 1941.

Lavery: On Location, curated by Dr Brendan Rooney and Prof Kenneth McConkey, opens at the National Gallery of Ireland today and runs until January 14th, 2024; adult tickets cost €10.80-€16.20 plus booking fee; student tickets cost €7.20-€10.80 plus booking fee; senior and jobseeker tickets cost €9-€13.50 plus booking fee; child and carer tickets are free