A Gift to the City

The Ulster Museum raid their archive to celebrate the life and work of Sir John Lavery

Under the Cherry Tree

A self-portrait of Sir John Lavery presides over this exhibition dedicated to the Belfast-born artist in Gallery 3 of the Ulster Museum.

Dressed in studio overalls, and with palette in hand, Lavery resembles some kind of severe headmaster surveying his unruly pupils: stern, humourless, he keeps a watchful eye on us all.

It is fitting that he does. Aside from one recent acquisition, each of the paintings here was dedicated to the museum by Lavery himself in 1929, 12 years before his death, and for very specific reasons.

Lavery understood the impact these works might have on a Belfast audience – and on his legacy as an artist of some repute in the city, which claimed him as its own, although he is also known as a 'Scottish' artist – and there is, therefore, a clear order to the donations.

There are the early landscapes and African seascapes that Lavery painted in later life, which are entirely uncontentious; the society portraits and ethereal, allegorical works featuring Lavery’s second wife, the American Hazel Martyn, as model; the brief flirtations with impressionism that Lavery is perhaps best known for today (see 'Under the Cherry Tree' above).

And then there are the official civic portraits – the Catholic cardinal after Velázquez and the Orange Order grand masters draped in their sashes, of De Valera and of Carson – and nowhere does the balance tip on either side of the bitter political or religious divides.


The Bridge At Grez

Whilst Lavery most probably had romantic ambitions for a liberated Ireland (he was good friends with Michael Collins, after all, and offered his London studio as a base for discussions between Irish and English diplomats), he entered into the ranks of the British establishment freely.

Lavery was a shrewd career artist – revered as the greatest of his generation – who did not intend to ever rock the boat. Long after his death, he retains that control. You can imagine the museum staff bowing to his image as they slouch off on their lunch breaks, or lock up for the night, keen not to offend. Evidently, the curator(s) had very little work to do.

The society portraits stand out here for their lack of colour and personality. Dressed in black, and set against black backgrounds, the pale ladies appear to be in mourning, but they are not. This was merely the fashion of the time, and Lavery did not deviate: they wanted black, they got black, and Lavery received his commission.

The portrait of Hazel is much more sensual and emotive. Lavery used his second wife as a model for a version of Kathleen Ni Houlihan that he painted for the first Irish national currency, and this portrait is equally dramatic. Leanne stands tall, staring out from a huge canvas dressed in shimmering silks: the very symbol of feminine independence.

The images of Carson, De Valera and other civic leaders are much more restrained, of course. Yet they are not without subtext.

On viewing another portrait painted by Lavery, in which the famed Unionist firebrand appeared lifeless and boorish, Carson commented: ‘We know on which side your loyalties lie.’ Nevertheless, he came back for a second sitting. Such was Lavery’s popularity amongst the great and the good. If he was to Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill's taste, then he was good enough for Carson.

This exhibition features the vast majority of Lavery’s works held within the Ulster Museum’s archive. Individual pieces are occasionally hung in Gallery 1, alongside works by other renowned Irish artists, but Lavery enthusiasts – and anyone interested in Irish art in general – should not make do with the occasional glimpse. It is but a pity that this exhibition does not run permanently.

Incidentally, the Ulster Museum staff should be commended for their hands on and helpful approach towards visitors to the galleries. One such gallery attendant would have talked with me about Lavery until the lights went out, were it not his lunch break up next. It is also well worth spending the time to read the various text descriptions of the paintings to get the best out of this wonderful retrospective.