It is entirely characteristic of the gregarious John Lavery that on his visit to Venice in 1912, he should turn his back on the much-painted Doge’s Palace and head for the Lido where wealthy holiday-makers filled the hotels and bathing huts. There, positioned under an awning, he produced three remarkably spontaneous canvases of which Bathing, Lido, Venice is the most satisfactory (the other known Lido canvases are both in private collections).
The Lido, an island on the edge of the Lagoon, is little more than a sand bank. Used by Venetians as a bathing place since the sixteenth century, it was later connected to other sea-facing islands by a breakwater designed to protect Venice from the worst of the Adriatic storms (see Sylvia Sprigge, The Lagoon of Venice, Its Islands, Life and Communications, Max Parrish and Co Ltd., 1961. Although on one famous occasion Lord Byron swam from the island back to the city, beating local competitors, most visitors found it was accessible only by rowing-boat or gondola from St Mark’s Square. Within fifty years of Byron’s death, this situation had begun to change.
For all its picturesque decay, Venice at the time of Lavery’s visit was the haunt of the European aristocracy whose privately-owned motor-boats noisily churned the waters of the Grand Canal. By 1909 these had become a menace, leading one British artist-traveller to complain that they ‘… rush about the canals [and] do not help to take one’s mind back to the days of the Doges’ (Wilfrid Ball, ‘Venice’ in Charles Holme ed., Sketching Grounds, Offices of The Studio, 1909 , pp. 197-204). In this age of speed, such smaller craft, coupled with steam-boat omnibuses, reduced the journey time from San Marco to the Lido, facilitating its rapid development as a tourist resort. This began back in 1857 with the construction of the Grand Hotel des Bains - the setting of Visconti’s Death in Venice. Political stability following the risorgimento, and the removal of Austrian control in 1866, coupled with the popular belief in the efficacious quality of sea-bathing, led to rapid expansion which did not please every visitor. Looking back to his first visit in 1869 however, Henry James felt that,
'…the Lido has been spoiled. When I first saw it … it was a very natural place, and there was but a rough lane across the little island from the landing-place to the beach. There was a bathing-place … and a restaurant, which was very bad … Today the Lido is part of united Italy and has been made the victim of villainous improvements … The bathing-establishment is bigger than before, and the restaurant is as well; but it is compensation perhaps that the cuisine is no better. Such as it is, however, you won’t scorn occasionally to partake of it on the breezy platform under which bathers dart and splash, and which looks out to where fishing-boats, with sails of orange and crimson, wander along the darkening horizon. The beach at the Lido is still lonely and beautiful…’ (Henry James, ‘Venice’, quoted in Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler and Sargent, Walker Books, 1991, p. 111).
Nevertheless, the development of the Lido continued apace and by the time of Lavery’s visit, motor launches were taking sated sight-seers to the exclusive Moorish-style Excelsior Hotel which had opened in 1908 - or to the cluster of new villas, which James dubbed ‘a cockney village’. The winter season, normally January to May, now lasted throughout the year, making it possible for the weary painter and his family to go there for the first two weeks in September. Lavery who had been working feverishly on portrait commissions throughout the summer of 1912, had taken the decision to enlarge and re-paint The Artist’s Studio, (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), and was looking forward to the challenge of painting The King, The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Princess Mary, Buckingham Palace, (National Portrait Gallery, London), which had been commissioned by Hugh Spottiswoode. He confessed to his cousin that he was ‘feeling the strain’ just before the Venice holiday, but this did not prevent him from packing his painting materials.
When he arrived, accompanied by his wife, Hazel and her daughter, Alice, he discovered that the Lido was humming with visitors. Lady Cunard was expecting the Asquiths, while the Duchess of Rutland was holidaying with her daughter, Lady Diana Manners. Many parties were being arranged for the young Diana. Lord and Lady Anglesey, Lady Helen Vincent, Bernard Berenson, the connoisseur, Giovanni Boldini, the painter, Baroness Adolphe de Meyer – a ‘great expert at swimming as she is at fencing and dancing and punting’ - were there. So too was the Marchesa di Ruidini – ‘bathing every day and sat on the sands with her dark hair unbound, letting it dry in the breeze’. Moored close by was the ‘large yacht’ of Jefferson Cohn, ‘who had on board with him, the Crown Prince of Servia, Prince George of Greece, and one of the Infanta Eulalie’s sons, Prince Louis Ferdinand de Bourbon’ (Press cutting, unidentified source, Lady Lavery’s Scrapbook). All are likely to have assembled because the campanile of St Mark’s had just been reconstructed, was reopened and was receiving a royal visit from the King of Italy.
By 1912, as can be seen from the present canvas, the Lido may, in James’s words be ‘beautiful’, but it was no longer ‘lonely’. Its beach spectacle was the perfect antidote for those who were sated by Tintoretto and Veronese. Cradle of the High Renaissance, goal of the Grand Tourist in the eighteenth century, from the 1850s Venice had supported a resident expatriate artist community and was visited by Turner, Ruskin, Whistler, Manet, Renoir, Sargent, Monet and numerous other painters from Europe and America (Julian Halsby, Venice, The Artist’s Vision, A Guide to British and American Painters, BT Batsford Ltd, 1990; see also Mark Evans, Impressions of Venice, exh. cat., National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 1992). Lavery’s precedents for the present canvas were however drawn from Impressionists and others who chose beach scenes as subject matter. He would for instance have been familiar with the work of Eugène Boudin (see fig.1), Jacques-Emile Blanche (see fig.2) and Joaquin Sorolla (see fig.3).
Lavery first visited Venice in 1892 in the company of James Guthrie and Alexander Roche. A small panel depicting the Piazza San Marco commemorates this encounter with one of the great centres of Western Art (fig.4). Its place in contemporary art was confirmed with the establishment in 1895 of Biennale exhibitions. These, like the expositions universelles, were centred upon a series of pavilions in which participating nations were invited to select and display their finest artists’ work. Shortly after his first visit, Lavery’s Mrs Lawrie and Edwin (1892) was acquired for the city’s permanent collection and having participated in the British Section of the Biennale of 1905, Lavery was given a retrospective show of 53 works at the 1910 exhibition. On this occasion he produced two small canvases, one of which depicts the scene from the steps of the Riva degli Schiavoni, looking beyond San Giorgio to the islands. Returning en famille in 1912, and perhaps guided by the recreational needs of his step-daughter, he rejected the familiar sights in favour of Bathing, Lido, Venice, placing himself in the shade with a good view of the rapidly changing scene. The purplish hue of the shadows, clearly observed in the present work had been noted by other artists, one of whom wrote in 1894, ‘under the awning the dark purple shadow is always very inviting – there one can sit and paint in the shade, sipping coffee, cognac or chianti … at one’s pleasure’ (Frank Richards, ‘Letters from Artists to Artists. No X. Venice as a Sketching Ground’, The Studio, vol III, 1894, pp. 170-9). Children who are no more than blobs of paint, sit on the sand and matrons, some carrying parasols, patrol the beach. A woman in bathing costume, sitting facing the painter, frames the scene.
Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice, published coincidentally in 1912, carries a rich description of the scene presented in Lavery’s canvas. His hero, the writer, Aschenbach, staying in the Hotel des Bains, notes that it was ‘the sight of sophisticated society giving itself over to a simple life at the edge of the elements. The shallow grey sea was already gay with children wading, with swimmers, with figures in bright colours lying on sand banks … A long row of capanne ran down the beach, with platforms, where people sat as on verandas, and there was social life, with bustle and with indolent repose …’ (Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, 1928 (trans HT Lowe-Porter, Penguin ed., 1971; first published as Der Tod in Venedig, 1912), p. 31). It is here that Aschenbach sees Tadzio, the glorious youth who fascinates him.
Lavery too delighted in such views in later years when the term ‘Lido’ was reduced to popular open-air public baths at British seaside resorts. At this point the original Lido was so popular it had become a curse for most Venetians – a sentiment which is captured in 1928 in Noel Coward’s celebrated quatrains,
That narrow strip of sand
Now reeks with asininity
Within the near vicinity
A syncopated band
That plays the blues – all day long –
And all the old Venetians say
They’d like a nice torpedo
To blow the Lido away.
(Quoted from James Laver, Between the Wars, Vista Books, 1961, p. 162)
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