Portrait painter’s life story told at North Bute ‘Lit’

Rothesay Pavilion hosts the fortnightly meetings of the North Bute Literary Society.
Rothesay Pavilion hosts the fortnightly meetings of the North Bute Literary Society.

The fascinating life story of the renowned painter Sir John Lavery was told at the latest meeting of the North Bute Literary Society at Rothesay Pavilion.

The talk was given by Sir John’s great-grandson, Lord Jamie Sempill, who began by filling in some biographical details on his artistic ancestor, starting from Lavery’s extremely impoverished childhood in Belfast, where he was born in 1856, the son of a failing taverner, through his childhood, with an uncle who was a pawnbroker in Saltcoats, and on to his first ‘artistic’ job, aged 17, with the Glasgow photographer J.B. McNair.

After training at art school, Lavery set up a business in the city’s St Vincent Street, but it was a relief when the ailing enterprise went up in flames and he happily used the insurance pay out to fund further training at art school in London and in France.

By the early 1800s Lavery was part of the group of artists known as the Glasgow Boys, but his strong commercial instinct influenced the direction of his work. He had success with paintings such as The Tennis Party (1885) – combining the en plein style with movement and a new ‘in vogue’ subject.

Lord Sempill used slides of his great grandfather’s most iconic works to illustrate his talk. In 1889 Lavery married his first wife, Kathleen, who sadly died two years later, shortly after the birth of their daughter Eileen. It is through the latter’s second marriage, to William Sempill, that Lord Sempill inherited his title.

In Glasgow, at the Great Exhibition of 1888, Lavery produced a large number of paintings as a sort of ‘artist in residence’. One of his best known works was the huge canvas depicting Queen Victoria’s visit, which involved no fewer than 253 portraits of attending dignitaries. In effect, this gave Lavery an entrée into wealthy society to produce family portraits for them.

Continuing with family history, Lord Sempill related how his great grandfather met a very beautiful married American lady, Hazel Martyn, in 1903, and married her a few years later after her first husband’s death.

As a portrait painter, Lavery was much in demand - but he really wished to paint the Queen. When he eventually got his chance Her Majesty, after settling which profile he wished, spent the entire sitting discussing flannel underwear with her ladies in waiting. Lavery was known to flatter his sitters rather than for honesty in his depictions.

Hazel and John Lavery became a high society celebrity couple when they set up a home and studio in London. It was here during the negotiations of the first Anglo-Irish Treaty that the main participants from both sides found a safe, neutral place to meet. At the same time Lavery was painting and sketching as an official War Artist, for which he was later knighted.

Sir John was also invited to paint an archetypical Irish girl to adorn the banknotes of Ireland and used Hazel as the model. This meant an American woman, although painted by an Irishman, was on the notes from 1928 to 1975.

Lord Sempill’s talk was crammed with interesting facts and stories of his artistic ancestor - but he confessed to having inherited none of Sir John Lavery’s artistic talents.

At the next meeting of the ‘Lit’, on Tuesday, November 18, Alan Blackwood will relate the story of the Glenlee.