SIR JOHN LAVERY, R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A.
A SOUTHERN SEA
signed l.r.: J Lavery; titled, inscribed, signed and dated on the reverse: A SOUTHERN SEA/ JOHN LAVERY/ 5 CROMWELL PL/ LONDON/ S.W./ 1910
oil on canvas
63.5 by 76cm., 25 by 30in.
Original canvas. The work appears in very good overall condition. Some faint traces of craquelure in the lower right corner and near lower left edge corresponding to the stretcher; only visible upon close inspection.
Ultraviolet light reveals areas of retouching to each edge and in the beach lower right corner. Some further small isolated spots of retouching in the sky.
Held in a gilt composite frame.
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Private collection, Austria
Venice, IX Biennale, Monstra Individuale di John Lavery RSA, RHA,1910, no.51 (as Mare Meridionale);
Aberdeen, Aberdeen Artists’ Society, 1910, no.343;
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, 16th International Exhibition, 1912, no.183;
Chicago, Chicago Art Institute, Paintings by John Lavery, 1912, no.13
Although he painted views of the Clyde estuary and the Antrim coast in his youth, it was only in the early years of the twentieth century when he was returning regularly to his house at Tangier that Lavery became captivated by the ever-changing moods of sea and sky. As A.C.R. Carter was quick to point out, the earliest of these pre-dates the emergence, after fifty years in storage, of Turner’s Evening Star which had recently been placed on display at the National Gallery (The Art Journal, 1908, p. 234). Lavery, he maintained, had captured the ‘eulogistic view’ of such works, in picture like The Sea Shore, Moonlight (c.1906-7, unlocated) before they entered public consciousness.
If Morocco rather than Margate, supplied this inspiration, it was a source that would be stilled during the years between 1907 and 1921. Eventually this marine corpus emerges in three distinct groups of pictures in both 10 x 14 inch canvas-boards, and more elaborate, larger format 25 x 30 inch canvases. The three types are distinguished as those with high horizons, taking in the Spanish coast to the north, and viewed from the artist’s house on Mount Washington; those painted in the bay area, probably from the tower of the Villa Harris, looking westwards towards the city; and those painted on the shore, also to the west of the Medina, looking due east towards Cape Matabala (see Kenneth McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010, pp. 111-116).
In these latter works, the sandy shore was often busy with traders making their way to Grand Socco, the market-place of the luminous ‘La Blanca’, while the magnificent bay, often dotted with Arabs dhows, reached out to the calm ‘southern sea’ where passing steamers would find safe anchorage. Placing one or two Arab characters at the water’s edge, gave a sense of scale in these canvases – and here Lavery was taking his cue from favoured predecessors such as James McNeill Whistler and Gustave Courbet in works such as Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, 1865 (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) and The Beach at Palavas, 1853 (Musée Fabre, Montpellier).
The Southern Sea however is one of a relatively few instances in which the painter dispenses with all such eye traps and addresses the vacant immensity of space. While the city slept and within walking distance of Walter Harris’s house, Lavery could savour the morning light as the sun rose over the foothills of the Rif mountains, at the far end of the bay. At other times ships and figures would be recorded, but neither appears in this moment of sepulchral calm. Instead, the concentration is focused on essentials – the disposition of elements - the line of the horizon and the lapping waters of the incoming tide. Above all, and swiftly noted, are static cumulus clusters. On other days, according to R.B. Cunninghame Graham, a ‘ceaseless wind’ rushed through the Straits, clearing the sky of fleecy clouds, but not here. A painter might stare at these masses, as the Romantics did, and find them ineffable. In such a sky there are no convenient perspectives to take the eye into limitless space, nor are there cues to cut the surface of the sea, in this most reductive of Lavery’s seascapes. Only slow, sparkling ripples divide the elements – and all is abstraction.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for kindly preparing this catalogue entry.