'I find her very fascinating ... She is the most marvellous peg for clothes. Everything looks superlatively chic on her – things that might appear dowdy on others.' (Lady Cynthia Asquith writing about the sitter, Diaries, 1915-1918, 1968, Hutchinson, p. 128, entry for 31 Jan 1916)
Lavery frequently exploited the compelling gaze of his female sitters. He noted that fine furs and broad-brimmed hats often enhanced their allure, casting eyes into shadow and softening jaw lines. It was a stratagem that emerged in the 1890s when his portrait practice was burgeoning in Glasgow. During the Edwardian years, as he commuted between London, Paris, Berlin and Tangier, Lavery noted the changes in women's fashions. The simple caps and bonnets of the fin-de-siècle gave way to extravagant millinery, often heaped, as Marcel Proust remarked, with 'the spoils of aviary or kitchen garden'(Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, 1913-14, Penguin Classics ed., trans CK Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, 1983, vol. p. 460.) Otter, seal, mink and other exotic furs came into vogue, expertly styled by the Paris couture houses. These trends persisted up to the Great War, only to be discarded in the twenties. For the painter, they were nevertheless, essential props, accentuating the faces of his sitters – he had after all something of a reputation, having been famously dubbed by the French critic, Camille Mauclair as, 'avant tout un femininste' (Camille Mauclair, 'John Lavery', L'Art et les Artistes, tome 2, 1905, p. 9).
His portraits were however much more than mere fashion plates. In 1892, pacing the long gallery of the Prado, he had greatly admired the full-length portraits by Velazquez, noting the drama implicit in a hand resting on a sword-hilt or clasping a cloak. The gloved fingers of the Lady with a Fan, unveiled when the Wallace Collection opened its doors in 1900, were a study in themselves, and the muted harmonies of brown and black, upon which so much of Velazquez' work depended, were a constant inspiration. It was an enthusiasm he shared with James McNeill Whistler when the two were drawn together as President and Vice-President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers between 1898 and 1903. He would for instance have studied Whistler's Grey and Silver: La Petite Souris, (1898, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow) shown at the first International exhibition. Such works merely confirmed the aesthetic path he had already taken. His first 'Lady in Brown', a portrait of Esther McLaren, had been shown at the Royal Academy four years before, in 1894, and during the decade reviewers frequently noted that while Sargent and Boldini indulged in painterly pyrotechnics, Lavery's handling and harmonies were restrained. One critic even contended that such was their subtlety they were impossible to reproduce. All of these issues come to the fore in the present picture, a work which at the threshold of the Jazz Age, revisits his essential concerns as a painter.
Between the Whistler years and the end of the war Lavery had produced a series of canvases that were essentially studies in brown. One such was the early portrait of Hazel Trudeau, the young widow who was to become his wife in 1909 (fig 1). Others are portraits of his daughter, Eileen Lavery, and the brilliant sketch of Lady Diana Manners, (c. 1912, whereabouts unknown) provides a further example.
Mystery however, surrounded the identity of the present Lady in Brown. By 1920, Lavery's models, retained for works that were not strictly portraits, had all been replaced by members of his family – most notably by Eileen and Hazel. Although they re-established contact with Mary Auras (she was one of Lavery's favourite models in the first decade of the twentieth century) in 1920, and travelled with her to Marrakesh, it seems most unlikely that Mary would have been wrapped in fur for the desert drive. Close visual comparisons have however established that Lavery's sitter on this occasion was Lady Gwendoline Churchill, a young woman whose portrait he painted for the Royal Academy of 1913 (fig 2). Within a short time of its completion, this canvas was reduced and repainted, darkening the background and replacing the sitter's gown with a fur-trimmed coat (fig 3).
Gwendoline Mary Theresa Mary Bertie (1885-1941), known as 'Goonie', was the daughter of the 7th Earl of Abingdon. She married John [Jack] Strange Spencer-Churchill, Winston Churchill's brother, in 1908. She was renowned for her looks, an elegance that Lady Cynthia Asquith, noted in her diary, 'I find her very fascinating ... She is the most marvellous peg for clothes. Everything looks superlatively chic on her – things that might appear dowdy on others' (Lady Cynthia Asquith, Diaries, 1915-1918, 1968, Hutchinson, p. 128, entry for 31 Jan 1916). The Prime Minister, HH Asquith warmed to her character when he confided to Venetia Stanley, 'she is a loyal & devoted & appreciating friend of yours' (Quoted in Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill, 1979, Cassell, p. 90). However, her closest confidante was Winston Churchill's wife, Clementine, known as Clemmie.
By the outbreak of war found Gwendoline with her two children and Clementine staying on the Norfolk coast and reviewing the troops stationed at Cromer. By the beginning of September she had returned to London and was living at 41 Cromwell Road, a stone's throw from the Lavery's studio at 5 Cromwell Place. In the summer of 1915, when her husband was posted to the staff of Sir John French, the 'Jacks' and the 'Winstons' joined households in Cromwell Road. In her biography of her mother, Mary Soames recalls the bond that was already established between the two Churchill sisters-in-law,
'Goonie Churchill's loveliness was of the sort that does not depend essentially on features or dramatic colouring - it was not easily definable. Lord David Cecil after her death recalled 'her subtle twilight beauty'. Cultivated and well-read, she had a puckish sense of humour which was devoid of any touch of malice, and she distilled a sense of enchantment. She had a rare power of sympathy, and in her Clementine found an affectionate, loyal and companionable sister-in-law.' (Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill, 1979 Cassell, p. 62)
That same summer, Winston rented Hoe Farm near Godalming for holidays and weekends and it was here that he observed Goonie painting a watercolour and was instantly fascinated by the process. He immediately graduated to oils and when he got into difficulty using them, Lavery was called for, and he and Hazel came, hot-foot from London, to give Churchill the first of his painting lessons. Over the summer, Clemmie and Goonie were frequent visitors to the studio and Lavery painted Clementine's portrait (National Trust, Chartwell). It is possible that the present canvas was also painted at this time.
During the war years Lavery competed for Goonie Churchill's face with the younger generation. William Orpen painted her in 1917 (Bleinham Palace) and she was portrayed by artist's such as Ambrose McEvoy, a painter from the same Slade cohort as Augustus John and Orpen, who was currently being lionized in social circles. Cynthia Asquith, who visited his studio in December 1916, described his portrait of Goonie (1916, present whereabouts unknown) as 'a really thrilling picture' (Cynthia Asquith, 1968, p. 243). McEvoy's chalky colours and serpentine curves portray a social butterfly, apparently oblivious to the grim reports of the Western Front, and quite different in feeling from Lavery's limpid elegiac sketch of 1917 (1917, Offered in these rooms, 26 November, 1997, lot 18) - a work that catches the mood so frequently expressed in her letters.
Lavery's model was undoubtedly one of the most admired women of her day, and it was he, rather than any of his young rivals who divined the 'subtle twilight beauty' that David Cecil found when in her company. Dining in Downing Street and Cromwell Place, the lady in brown was a sympathetic shade at a moment of national crisis. Indeed if a rival were to be found for the haunting presence of Hazel Lavery in the magisterial Gold Turban, 1929 (fig 4) then Hugh Stodart's acquisition back in 1921 must fulfil the role.
Stodart was a wealthy farmer who lived at Pencaitland, south of Edinburgh. He may have derived his interest in art from his sister, Grace, a talented painter who was friendly with the Scots artist, Robert Burns (1869-1941). After 1910 he amassed a notable collection of Scottish art.
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