Brian Fallon, ‘The Woman on the Pound Note [Hazel, Lady Lavery], in The Irish Times (25 Sept. 1996)

Details: Brian Fallon, ‘The Woman on the Pound Note: Hazel, Lady Lavery, Hugh Lane Gallery’, in The Irish Times (25 Sept. 1996) - available online [orig. access date unknown].

This exhibition is subtitled “Society and Politics”, which is what it essentially is about its value as art qua art is secondary.

The private life of Sir John Lavery and his adored Hazel has been given considerable media attention of late, and this coincides with the Neil Jordan film on Michael Collins with whom Lady Lavery is conjectured to have had an affair (I don’t believe this myself, it would have frightened, the horses).

As a chapter in social history, it is all immensely intriguing and it has an extra dimension for this country in, that Hazel became the Woman on the Pound Note, virtually a personification of Kathleen Ni Houlihiln. She and Lavery, in fact, grew into key personalities in the social life of the early Irish Free State.

As is we’ll known by now, they met when Lavery was middle aged and a widower with a grown up daughter, while Hazel was a young, impressionable and very beautiful American girl (of Irish ancestry) with a yen to be a painter. A few of her pictures shown in the Hugh Lane do not suggest any depth of talent and when she married Lavery, she seems to have given up her ambition to paint. In between, she married a man called Trudeau, by whom she had a daughter, before finally settling with Lavery into London life. Here she really took off, blossomed out as a fashionable and influential hostess and discovered her own, inborn social gifts (being beautiful was no hindrance to success, either).

It suited Lavery too, of course, since his career as a portraitist and "official" painter correspondingly flourished. By the time of his second marriage, Lavery was already past his creative peak as an artist and had abandoned the delicate tonal idiom of his Grez-sur-Loing works for a coarser, more bravura technique close to Sargent’s. It led him to paint more quickly, and it enabled him to compete with men such as Orpen and Augustus John on something like their own terms.

There are flashes of the early, ultra-sensitive Lavery in certain pictures, such as one of a boating party on a river (he always liked to paint water) and the familiar Ulster Museum canvas of Hazel outlined against the studio window, during a daylight Zeppelin raid on London in 1917. And some of the portraits of her, particularly the Hugh Lane’s own full length depiction of Hazel at her easel, are also impressive on their own bravura terms they are genuinely labours of love. (Though in these she seems regally tall, she appears to have been only about five foot two in real life.)

The “official” works are like most official art, that is to say rather empty and impersonal. The much reproduced painting of Collins on his death bed is scarcely a masterpiece but it is invaluable as a documentary record and genuinely moving in its own right. The many portraits of de Valera, Carson, Redmond, Kevin O’Higgins, Lloyd George, Churchill et alii are, again, good public records though not especially good art. The Lavery of the 1880s had been a near genius but as the 20th century rolled on, he became little more than a good journeyman.

It is poignant to watch the pictorial record of Hazel’s physical decay (from myocarditis, it seems) and a 1934 picture called The Unfinished Harmony shows her on what was to prove her death bed. Some months later, as a requiem, Lavery painted It is Finished, 5th January 1934, showing her draped coffin by candlelight and the burial of all his dreams. That the old, bent, half bald, bespectacled painter should have outlived his beautiful Bird of Paradise is one of life’s many tragic ironies.

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