The Glasgow Boys
Jenny Cathcart is beguiled by 'effect not fact'
Sir John Lavery’s striking grand manner portrait of Mrs McEwen of Marchmont and Bardochat, the fashionable wife of a Scottish clan chief, and her daughters Katherine and Elizabeth, takes pride of place on the wall facing the entrance of the Ava Gallery. Commissioned by the lady’s husband, it was painted in Lavery’s London studio in 1907 and though it remained in the family until recently, the work is now for sale with a price tag of £380,000.
On either side hang two smaller paintings by the Belfast born artist. 'Night,Tangier' is a dusky rooftop view of the city, its white buildings empty of light, the only sign of life a few shadowy foreground figures. There is a morning haze over the bay at 'Beaulieu sur Mer' not far from fashionable Cap Ferrat where Lavery painted alongside his pupil Winston Churchill.
On a table in the centre of the gallery are copies of a newly published monograph entitled John Lavery – a Painter and His World (Atelier books £45) by Ulsterman Kenneth McConkey which was officially launched at the Ulster Museum, itself home to eight works by Lavery.
Son of a publican, Lavery was brought up on his uncle’s farm south of Belfast but spent his teenage years in Scotland before studying art in Glasgow and Paris. He and the group of painters who became known as The Glasgow Boys (they worked in Glasgow but none of them was born there) travelled frequently to France, Spain, North Africa and as far away as Bagdad.
Influenced in the 1880s and 1890s by the pleine air school of Jules Bastien-Lepage. they painted rural landscapes and mundane subjects - cows, horses, ducks. Though their work was different from that of their contemporaries, the French Impressionists, James L Caw, director of the Scottish National Gallery, said they painted 'effect not fact'.
While the most important repository of their paintings is the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, eight of the nine Glasgow Boys are represented in this exhibition; only Thomas Mille Dow is missing.
Under a shady tree, two young girls take tea with a soldier who, despite the obvious summer heat, is dressed in full uniform and overcoat. His stare is vacant. The setting for Sir James Guthrie’s 'The Garden Party' could be his home at Thornton Lodge in Helensburgh or the nearby Craiglockhart Hydropathic clinic, well known for treating shell shock patients after the Battle of the Somme.
Arthur Melville’s preferred medium was watercolours which he used to effect in 'Old Edinburgh by Night' to depict tall tenements and lamp lit streets. James Patterson’s cloud billowing, wave breaking seascape at 'Fencebay Fairlie' is typical of his work in Dumfriesshire.
Rose, Edith and Maud Poland, daughters of a gamekeeper, were painted by Edward Atkinson Hornel from photographs taken for him by Robert McConchie. Hornel uses impasto to create an impression of hide and seek as the children search the foliage for 'Easter Eggs'.
In his catalogue notes, Kenneth McConkey comments on the prevalence of children in paintings of the time: ‘Children occupied centre stage within the Edwardian world view in popular tales by Kipling, Jerome, Ransom and, literally, in plays such as Barrie’s Peter Pan.' Recently presented for sale in New York, 'Jenny' by Edward Arthur Walton is on view at Clandeboye.
Simon Edsor, of the Fine Art Society, claims that this exhibition, which runs until June 6, has drawn more daily visitors than their galleries in London and Edinburgh - proof if proof were needed that Lavery continues to capture the imagination of the Northern Irish public at large.