Lavery, Sir John (1856–1941), portrait painter, was born 20 March 1856 in Belfast, son of Henry Lavery, a poor wine-and-spirit merchant who embarked in Liverpool (1859) on the emigrant clipper Pomona with the object of establishing himself in the United States. The American vessel struck a sandbank in a gale off the coast of Wexford and Henry Lavery was among those drowned. His widow, Mary (née Donnelly), died heartbroken about three months later. She left two sons, Henry and John, and a daughter, Jane.
John was consigned to the farm of his uncle, Edward Lavery, near Moira, Co. Down. At about the age of 10 he moved on to a ‘rich’ relative at Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland, a pawnbroker. Unhappy, he ran away to Glasgow – and impoverishment. A return to the Ulster farm was considered desirable by his relatives. At the age of 15 he departed again for Glasgow, this time with £5 capital. After an uncongenial job and experiencing a dosshouse there, he returned to Saltcoats and a quiet place to renew his practice of drawing. Apprenticed for three years to a Glasgow photographer, J. B. McNair, he touched up negatives and coloured prints.
The Haldane Academy of Arts in Glasgow ran classes for young businessmen and in 1874 he enrolled for some months, becoming friendly with Alexander Roche (1861–1921). Lavery explained to the Haldane staff that he wanted to become a portrait painter. After his apprenticeship, he joined another photographer, but left that job too and rented a little room. A brass plate on the door gave his name and ‘Studio’. He was then little more than 21. He moved on to a second studio which was gutted by fire in 1879 and he could not remember ever feeling so happy; he was insured for £300. Encouraged by a friend, he set off for London and spent about six lonely months in 1879 studying at Heatherley School of Art.
In 1880 a work, ‘Pious reflections’, was hung at the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts and sold for ten guineas. Always ambitious, in 1881 he left for Paris and the Académie Julian, and two years later ‘Les deux pêcheurs’, painted en plein air, was hung at the Salon. Some of the happiest days of his life were passed in France at Grès-sur-Loing; he returned to the artist colony there in 1884. ‘Under the cherry tree’ (Ulster Museum) was painted at Grès. ‘Night after the battle of Langside’ was acquired by the Belgian government. In 1887 he had met the disputatious James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), a fellow exhibitor at the Society of British Artists.
Somewhat surprisingly, he received the commission in 1888 that transformed his career into a society painter: recording the visit of Queen Victoria to the International Exhibition, Glasgow. Not without persistence, he managed to obtain a sitting from the queen herself, and so he had no difficulty in persuading some 250 individuals to sit for him. The size of the finished work in 1890 was approximately 2.6 m x 4 m. A bold decision to give him this elaborate and important commission had been rewarded, and it rests in Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery.
The International Exhibition at Paris in 1889 awarded him a bronze medal for ‘The bridge at Grès’. In 1890 he married Kathleen MacDermott, a street flowerseller, who was to die within a year of the birth of their daughter Eileen. After finishing his commemoration picture (1890), a vacation was necessary and he joined some friends in Morocco. His first one-person show in London was at the Goupil Gallery (1891). He became an inveterate sightseer, and in 1892 with two of his Glasgow artist friends, Roche and James Guthrie (1859–1930), he made a European tour, and that year he was represented at the World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago. His name became widely known on the Continent; he visited Spain; he was represented by a portrait in the Berlin Art Exhibition (1895); and he had portrait sessions in Rome (1896).
In the year that he became a Royal Scottish Academician (1896) he moved to London, settling at 5 Cromwell Place, Kensington. When a portrait for the 1897 Royal Academy was rejected, years elapsed before he submitted again. He assisted Whistler to form the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers (1897–8). Whistler conveniently moved to Paris, and Lavery virtually acted as chairman. In 1899 he was one of the four members of the Glasgow School (or ‘Boys’) commissioned to decorate the Glasgow City Chambers banqueting hall; his subject was shipbuilding on the Clyde.
Lavery, a great organiser with formidable powers of concentrating when painting, exhibited with the Belfast Art Society (he was elected an honorary member, 1904), and he also showed at the Royal Hibernian Academy, becoming an academician in 1906. ‘Spring’ was purchased by the French government for the Luxembourg Gallery. Generously represented in the exhibition of Irish art by Hugh Lane (qv) at the Guildhall Galleries, London (1904), Lavery now purchased for his winter quarters a house outside Tangier, and built a studio. The Italian government invited him (1906) to paint his own portrait for the Uffizi Gallery, Florence; they received it four years later. His fashionable marriage to Mrs Hazel Trudeau, daughter of Edward Jenner Martyn of Chicago, took place at the Brompton Oratory, London (1909). The Venice Biennale held a retrospective in 1910. The pace of his career was fast and impressive. Londoners viewed with admiration many of his Morocco pictures, notably at the Goupil Gallery.
Hazel Lavery (qv), an artist herself with striking looks to match, became a popular figure in society, supporting her husband's career as a fashionable portrait painter, mainly of women. First president (1911) of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, he became an associate of the Royal Academy. He continued to exhibit abroad and in 1912 visited Chicago. By this time he was represented in a score of public galleries outside Britain and Ireland. His commission fee for painting the royal family (1913) was £2,000; this work is in the National Portrait Gallery. At this time the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery purchased ‘The lady in black’ for 500 guineas (£525), a reduced price for his native city. A unique exhibition of his work, ranging from 1880 to 1914, was presented by the Grosvenor Gallery.
In August 1917 he was commissioned to depict aspects of the war in Britain, but he hated war and regarded his efforts as totally uninspired. His most memorable painting depicts the forecabin of HMS Queen Elizabeth with Admiral Beatty reading the terms of the surrender of the German navy. He was knighted in 1918. He was elected president of the Belfast Art Society in 1919 and served for five years, exhibiting and attending exhibitions. On Easter day 1919 the artist presented a triptych or altarpiece to St Patrick's church, Belfast, where he had been baptised; Lady Lavery modelled for ‘The Madonna of the lakes’. The next year he and Hazel went off to Armagh, where he painted a magnificent portrait of Michael Logue (qv), primate of all Ireland.
In 1921, not before time, he was appointed an RA. The Laverys' home in London became a meeting-place for rebel and ruler. The artist was in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) at the time of the death of their friend Michael Collins (qv), shot in the head in an ambush in Co. Cork. He painted the victim in the mortuary chapel in Dublin, and this work is in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin. Several of the first ministers of the Irish Free State government sat for him. His wife posed for the figure shown on the new Irish banknotes. Portraits, interiors, and landscapes were exhibited at Duveen Galleries, New York (1925), which the Laverys visited.
On the occasion of the opening of the new Belfast Museum and Art Gallery at Stranmillis (1929), Sir John generously presented a collection of thirty-three works, including ‘Michael Cardinal Logue’ (lent to the Irish Exhibition at Brussels, 1930); ‘Hazel in green and gold’ (1926); and ‘The twelfth of July in Portadown’ (1928). When he received the freedom of Belfast (1930), he became the first artist to be so honoured. In that year he was one of the first twelve academicians of the Ulster Academy of Arts; appointed president, he retained office till his death.
Lady Lavery died in 1935, the same year as his only child, Eileen, Lady Sempill. In memory of his wife, he presented thirty-four pictures to Dublin, including portraits of Winston S. Churchill, Arthur Griffith (qv), Éamon de Valera (qv), Archbishop Daniel Mannix (qv), and George Bernard Shaw (qv). A self-portrait is at QUB. A portrait of Lavery by Harrington Mann (1864–1937) is in Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery. In 1935 he was made an honorary freeman of the city of Dublin and received an honorary LLD from QUB; he received one from TCD in 1936. A visit to Hollywood in 1936 allowed him to paint pictures of some of the movie stars, including Shirley Temple. In his ‘Homage to Velasquez’ (NGI) Hazel is presented with her daughter, Alice, and Lavery's daughter, Eileen.
During the second world war he left London to live in peaceful surroundings at the home of his stepdaughter, Mrs Alice McEnery, at Rosenarra, Kilmoganny, Co. Kilkenny, and died there on 10 January 1941. He was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin, but reinterred in 1947, beside his wife in Putney Vale cemetery, London. He was the only twentieth-century Irish artist with an international reputation to rise from abject poverty to affluence.