Born into a cultured and comfortable Dublin family Beatrice Elvery’s prodigious artistic talents brought her, aged just thirteen, to Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art and from there to some of the most prestigious art schools in Europe. Her subsequent work as an artist falls into two distinct periods. The first is dominated by a sweet, illustrative Arts and Crafts style deployed across a variety of media (painting, sculpture, book illustration, furniture decoration and stained glass). She was especially influenced by the work of her maternal aunt, the versatile Phoebe Traquair, who had once been a protégé of John Ruskin.
Following her marriage to Gordon Campbell in 1912, and the birth of her three children, Elvery ceased working so prodigiously. She became Lady Glenavy in 1931 when her husband succeeded his father’s title. About this time, she returned to painting almost exclusively and contributed, with a group of other distinguished women artists, to the introduction of modernism into Irish cultural life. Her first solo show, held in 1935, contained over fifty paintings. Critics agreed that ‘she worked like a daemon’ and that she was ‘an artist of undoubted originality–originality of conception and of treatment–and a wholly devastating cleverness’ (The Irish Independent, 26 February 1935, p. 11). The sculptor Albert Power (see lots 38 and 44) described Lady Glenavy's painting as '...romantic, absurd, theatrical and exhilarating...' (quoted in T. Snoddy, Dictionary of Irish Artists. 20th Century, 1996, p.143).
The Vain Suit belongs to this later period in which Glenavy’s enigmatic paintings of pastoral landscapes populated by symbolic figures and objects evoke a sort of Freudian dreamscape that are beguilingly beautiful if they sometimes proved shocking to the public in the conservative Irish Free State. One of four works that Glenavy’s showed at the annual Royal Hibernian Academy exhibition in Dublin in 1933 this painting (priced at £35) was subsequently exhibited in London at The Leicester Galleries. Influenced by the art of Venice, where Glenavy visited in August 1932, The Vain Suit is considered a sort of ‘sequel’ to Glenavy’s much larger painting, The Intruder, that stirred some controversy when first exhibited in Dublin and London. Even though Glenavy’s later paintings were rebuked as possessing an ‘outlook [that] is peculiarly feminine suggesting the naïve storytelling of mediaeval tapestry’ her male contemporaries, such as Seán Keating and Jack B. Yeats, kept a close, guarded eye on her work (The Irish Press, 25 April 1938, p. 5). Although little remembered today during the heyday of the Irish Revival and the foundation of the modern Irish nation Glenavy’s beauty and vitality, like that of her art, were legend.
Dr. Joseph McBrinn
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