Initial sittings were nevertheless complete before the deadline for submission to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition where the picture went on display in its original form at the beginning of May 1925. Immediately it excited a great deal of interest. Critics were keen to observe the ‘Fabian cynicism’ in Shaw’s ‘blueish grey eyes’, and given the author’s reputation, found it ‘difficult to study’ Lavery’s faithful rendering of the subject, ‘unbiased’. Shaw was known for his controversial support of Mussolini. For The Manchester Guardian however, the harmonies of green in the coat and curtain deepened Shaw’s ruddy complexion, and ‘he glows like a winter sunset, with a perennial hint of spring in the periwinkle of his eyes’.
Fame in the last twenty years had meant that artists such as William Rothenstein, Augustus John and others had been enlisted to paint Shaw’s portrait. Lavery had arranged sittings with Shaw on behalf of his friend, the ‘Glasgow Boy’, Edward Arthur Walton, back in 1911, but these were abandoned when the author apparently requested a fee of £2000 and a 15% royalty on the proceeds of the exhibition of the picture.2 Although it was well-recognized that a widely-reproduced portrait of a famous sitter could make a painter’s reputation, such audacity was entirely typical of Shaw. Lavery, who had known of him in the halcyon days of the eighties when Shaw was writing art criticism for minor papers, had probably first met him in the company of RB Cunninghame Graham, the radical Socialist Member of Parliament. Significantly he recalled the cut of Shaw’s ill-fitting worsted jacket, designed by Dr Jaeger, more than the man himself. A legend, passed down through the Lavery family indicates that the idea of a flower-seller, plucked from the street and sent to elocution lessons by a wealthy professor, the story of Shaw’s Pygmalion (1914), was actually borrowed from the painter, whose first wife, the beautiful Kathleen McDermott (aka Annie Evans), was just such a character.
There is however, no record of a royalty agreement in 1925 when Shaw finally agreed to sit to Lavery.3 Credit on this occasion was given to Hazel Lavery, whose face was as familiar as Shaw’s in the popular press - and her husband generously claimed that he merely took advantage of the situation, saying that her head study, although rejected at the Academy, was the better of the two.4
While Lavery was unfailingly self-effacing, he may not be acquitted of calculation. By the summer of 1925 he was in conversation with Sir Joseph Duveen in order to take his current exhibition of ‘portrait-interiors’ to New York.5 This extremely successful Leicester Galleries show was a collection of through-the-keyhole portraits of famous society figures in their living rooms. It included the likes of the singer, John McCormack, the socialite, Emerald Cunard, and JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan. The portrait of Shaw would be inserted into this show when, in November 1925, it travelled to Duveen’s gallery on Fifth Avenue, followed by a tour to Boston, Harrisburgh and Pittsburgh. The Laverys accompanied the exhibition, returning in March 1926.6 When, in November, the delayed 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Shaw, the artist’s choice of the laureate seemed thoroughly appropriate.7
In the following year, the battle with his notorious sitter continued when Lavery painted a ‘portrait interior’ of the dramatist at 10 Adelphi Terrace, the apartment rented by his wife, Charlotte Payne Townsend (Collection Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin). This shows the famous writer wearing a brown suit and surrounded by books and papers. After the opening of Saint Joan in 1923, he had temporarily forsaken plays and was working on The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism at the time.
The renewal of friendship must have reminded Lavery that he remained dissatisfied with the sitter’s rather shapeless overcoat. Despite its extensive exposure in the eighteen months after it was painted, and in the light of this more recent encounter, he decided to repaint the present portrait, replacing the offending garment with the suit Shaw had worn in the portrait interior. This greatly clarified the pose by concentrating the attention on the sitter’s quizzical gaze, and, removing the element of ‘swagger’, brought the picture to its present satisfactory conclusion.
As this was going on The Northern Whig published an interesting note on Lavery and Shaw. They were, said the columnist, ‘good friends’, and it was ‘the natural sequel that the famous Irish portrait painter should execute a picture of the famous Irish author and dramatist’. The article continues: "A friend who had the privilege of seeing the painting, upon which Sir John has been working assiduously for some time past, tells me it is a very fine piece of work. It shows GBS in a sitting position, with his arms lightly resting on the arms of a chair, with one hand hanging down open and the other closed on his lap. It was the eyes that particularly attracted my friend’s notice. The artist, he said, has managed to catch that particular gleam and glint, half-humorous, half-cynical with which Shaw looks out on the world."
Thus, the reworked version of the Nobel laureate was triumphantly described and within a few months it seemed thoroughly appropriate that its first stop en route to the Far East, in an exhibition of British Art, should have been in Stockholm.8
1Close examination of the reverse of the present canvas reveals that the final numeral in the original autograph date has been changed from, ‘5’ to ‘9’. The overcoat in the Royal Academy Illustrated 1925 version differs from that seen in Fig 1.
2Unpublished ms, Diary, Private Collection.
3Lavery also indicates that when the sitter heard that it was not his intention to sell the Shaw portrait, but present it to the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, ‘he at once commissioned John Collier to paint him and have it presented instead’ (unpublished ms, Diary).
4Lavery 1940, p. 162. An apparently unfinished portrait of Shaw, possibly by both Hazel and John Lavery, was retained in the artist’s studio, and exhibited at Spink in 1971. It was subsequently relined (Phillips 14 November 1983 lot 18), obscuring the verso inscription. Hazel Lavery’s small ‘John-like’ portrait of Shaw, wearing a grey jacket, (Manchester City Art Gallery), shows the younger author, and may have been painted c. 1920. It may also be the picture rejected at the Royal Academy in 1925.
5Letters related to this proposal between Lavery, his secretary, CR Chisman, and John O’Connor and Homer Saint Gaudens of the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh are contained in the Archives of American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts.
6For a fuller account of this and Lavery’s subsequent exhibition in Florida over the following winter, see McConkey 2010, pp. 166-174.
8These exhibitions of modern British Art, held in Paris, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Stockholm, Tokyo and Rome were organized by the Duveen organization; see Meryle Secrest, Duveen, A Life in Art, 2004 (Alfred A Knopf, New York), p. 333. Lavery’s portrait of Lord Duveen at Home, 1936 is contained in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.
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