By Ciara Kummert
It seems incredibly contradictory that an artist living in the nineteenth and twentieth century would have painted portraits for both the aristocracy while also being involved on the Republican side in the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. While this public display of two opposing viewpoints may confuse us, we ought to assess the artist’s situation in detail to get an understanding of what values such an artist held and what his true intentions were.
Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) lived through a time of great political upheaval. He was born in Belfast, at a time when the conflict between Catholics and Protestants was relatively fresh. Himself a Catholic, he moved to Scotland in the 1870s, a largely Presbyterian country. These religious differences did not seem to have an immense influence on his ability to work as an artist, as he moved back to Glasgow from a brief stint in Catholic France in the 1880s.
While in Glasgow he was commissioned to paint the state visit of Queen Victoria to the Glasgow international exhibition. It is commonly said that Queen Victoria had a ‘fondness’ for Ireland, reportedly having donated £2000 to the people of Ireland during the Great Famine. However, this ‘fondness’ is said to have changed following the Dublin Corporation’s decision not to congratulate Queen Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales on her son’s marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark and the birth of the Royal couple’s eldest son, Prince Albert Victor. A relatively trivial matter, one might argue.
It seems incredibly contradictory that an artist living in the nineteenth and twentieth century would have painted portraits for both the aristocracy while also being involved on the Republican side in the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War.
Despite the Queen’s altered perception of the country, she did not protest her portrait being painted by an Irish artist. This commission ended up a major success for Lavery, launching his career as a society painter. To fulfil this role Lavery moved to London in 1896 where he became acquainted with the artist James McNeill Whistler. He first established himself amongst fellow artists, but it was his political connections that would ultimately shape our current image of him.
Lavery met Michael Collins in 1913 and quickly became well acquainted, Michael Collins staying at his London home in the ironically titled 5 Cromwell Place during the Anglo-Irish Treaty Negotiations in 1921. Similar to Collins, Lavery and his wife Hazel hoped to bring reconciliation to both Protestants and Catholics, even though Hazel had changed her religion from Protestantism to Catholicism upon marriage. To further complicate matters, during this time period Lavery became an official painter for the British Government, was knighted, and then was elected to the Royal Academy. Despite his close proximity to the ruling classes he and his wife remained very much involved in the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. After Michael Collins was assassinated in 1922, Lavery painted Michael Collins, Love of Ireland, which is now in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery.
But in another flip-flop of political positioning seven years later, Lavery was commissioned to depict a court reception of King George & Queen Mary, with the rather lengthy title of: King George V, Accompanied by Queen Mary, at the Opening of the Modern Foreign and Sargent Galleries at the Tate Gallery, 26 June 1926 (1926) (pictured above).
Though Lavery painted a vast quantity of works for the British Royalty, he also gained a name for himself in Ireland, Germany and America. His free movement between such different groups in such a contentious period shows the level of privilege that Lavery must have had and utilised for his own advancement – which in turn raises the question of how strongly held his political beliefs actually were. His career appears to have been at the forefront of his ambitions, and while there is no question that he maintained his core belief that Catholics and Protestants should be entitled to equal rights, whether or not one should consider him to be a revolutionary or simply a mediator, is still up for debate.