When Sir John Lavery returned to Glasgow in 1885 after four years study at the Académie Julian and Atelier Colarossi in Paris, he was overwhelmed by the progress that the ‘Glasgow Boys,’ his fellow students at the Glasgow School of Art, had made. The extraordinary spectacle of their collected works that hung together at the 1885 Glasgow Institute, determined his decision to stay in Scotland (1). The exhibition confirmed his belief that the future for naturalist painting lay in Glasgow and not in Paris (2).
John Lavery became one of the leading members of the Glasgow School of Art. He was committed both to the plein air methods that remained at the heart of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ philosophy and to the tastes of fashionable Scottish society: the tennis parties and chic drawing rooms of his more important patrons. The tonal harmony in his Scottish work reflects both his French training and his appreciation of James McNeill Whistler. The Whistlerian aesthetic, however, was still largely unfamiliar in Scotland at this time.
Whistler’s tonal harmonies were a formative influence on the young ‘Glasgow Boys’ and from his example they formulated many of their ambitions for the future of modern painting. James Guthrie, in his portrait of Miss Helen Sowerby (1882), had been the first Glaswegian to echo Whistler’s compositions, specifically Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (1872-4). Even so, in 1885, the Glasgow Herald referred to Lavery’s curious liking for horizontal lines (3).
Described by the French critic, Camille Mauclair, as avant tout un féministe, Sir John Lavery later became one of the most sought after of the Edwardian society portrait painters and was instrumental in establishing the archetypal image of Edwardian female beauty. Lavery was appointed Official War Artist to the Royal Navy in 1917. Following the death of his wife in 1935, he set out for Hollywood to paint film stars, returning at the outbreak of the Second World War to his birthplace in Ireland.
(1) Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery, Edinburgh Canongate Press, 1993, page 26.
(2) Sir James Lewis Caw, Guthrie PRSA LLD: a biography, London, 1932, pages 30-31.
(3) The Glasgow Herald, 18 February 1885, describing Lavery’s painting, On the Loing: An Afternoon Chat (1885).