Lavery and the Glasgow Boys

Watch an online exhibition featuring art by Lavery and the lads at the Ava Gallery

Lavery and the Glasgow Boys is the second major 'selling exhibition' at the Ava Gallery in Bangor. A few of the pieces have been borrowed from museums or private collections but most, Patrick Bourne of the Fine Art Society points out, can be purchased. If you have a minimum of £3500 in your discretionary art fund, of course. More if you want a Lavery, whose work can command prices in the millions.

There is something heady about standing close enough to touch a picture worth that much money. Heady and a little scary. This must have been what that man who broke the vases at the Fitzwilliam Gallery felt like.

Bourne explains that it is rare to see pieces by the Glasgow Boys come onto the market. They were some of the most accomplished and innovative artists working in the UK during their period, between 1888 and 1900. Inspired by international aesthetics and commenting that 'Art was the only thing worth living for!', the Glasgow Boys were acclaimed for their use of colour and surface patterns.

Unusually, the quality of their work was recognized early on and many pieces were bought up by museums and private collections and retained. So this exhibition is a rare opportunity for collectors of art from this period.

Monetary value aside - easy enough when the only way you could afford a piece is with monopoly money - the paintings on display at the Ava are clearly the work of masters. Each artist has their own distinct aesthetic style, from the realistic society portraiture that was Lavery's bread and butter to the carefully chaotic tones of Edward Atkinson Hornel's visually challenging 'In Galloway'.

The latter painting was completed by Hornel after his return from Japan. While there he had escaped the European compound and ventured into the Japanese countryside to paint geishas. The Japanese influence is obvious in the sinuous lines of paint on canvas and the colours chosen. Hornel's skill, on the other hand, is demonstrated by the skillful construction and composition of the piece.

'There are seven girls on the hillside,' Bourne says, pointing them out. The shapes coalesce from the landscape - a roughly rendered gorse bush becomes a girl's wild hair, a hint of gorse and gravel turns into a dark, rosy cheeked girl in blue holding hands with her friends. It's like a magic eye picture without the tackiness or the eye-strain.

One of Bourne's favourite pieces is the powerfully implicative 'The Garden Party' by Sir James Guthrie. It's an English country garden, pastoral and idyllic. Guthrie's rendition of the scene is all soft edges and blurred pastels, the three women pictured with cushiony, upswept hair and flowing dresses.

The man, in sere military browns and hard blues, is the focal point of the picture. His face is only half-rendered, the beak-like line of his nose and the flush that hung over hollow cheeks, but the shadowed pits of his eyes stare out of the frame. Bourne's theory is that he was a soldier whose injuries had healed and was now contemplating a return to the front and the horrors of war.

Impressive though the Glasgow Boy's works is, returning to the works by Lavery it's obvious why his prices are the highest. Like most of the Glasgow Boys Lavery wasn't a native Glaswegian. He was born in Belfast and lived there until he was five, when the death of his parents led to him being sent to Scotland. A skilled portraitist, it was through this medium that he funded his lifestyle and developed a niche to take over from Sargent.

Lavery painted everyone from Shirley Temple to society dames such as Mrs McEwan and her daughters. His portrait of Mrs McEwan is on display at the gallery, a towering canvas from which the haughty woman holds court.

It's his non-commissioned pieces that most impress, however. In 'Night, Tangiers' the salt-white city where Lavery kept a second home and spent a lot of his time is laid out like a ghost. It looks almost unreal, lit here and there by thick touches of a brilliant orange paint that fool the eye into thinking it flickers.

'I'm told by the curatorial staff at the Ulster Museum that Lavery is the most popular artist, a Belfast artist,' Bourne says. 'He's the artist they get asked about most often.'

Looking at the art on display here, you can see why that is.

Lavery and the Glasgow Boys runs at the Ava Gallery in Clandeboye from May 19 to June 5. It will be displayed at The Fine Art Society in London from Oct 27 - Nov 18.

Tammy Moore