In the summer of 1887 John Lavery was recalled to Ulster to paint a large plein air group portrait of the Smiley family who lived at Drumalis, Larne, in county Antrim. Smiley was co-owner of The Northern Whig, and through his wife, his business interests extended to the Coats, Clark, Kerr thread making conglomerate that came together in Paisley in 1896.
Lavery’s grand project, however, did not go well, and from two other extant small oil sketches, we can infer that the skies were unpredictable and sometimes overcast. The painter, nevertheless, managed to complete a portrait of his patron’s four-year-old son (unlocated), which was shown in the winter exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1887. He and Hugh Houston Smiley remained in contact and the artist returned to Larne during August 1890, expressing his enthusiasm in an undated letter to his friend, Robert Macaulay Stevenson, and suggesting that he, James Guthrie and other Glasgow School painters might join him. Although this did not happen, Smiley enlisted George Walton, the architect brother of fellow ‘Glasgow Boy’, EA Walton, to redesign the interiors of the Larne house in 1893.
The present small sketch which dates from Lavery’s first sojourn, can nevertheless be placed securely on the rocky county Antrim shore because of the unique character of a coastline that features black volcanic basalt boulders. Thrown up over four hundred million years ago these relics of lava layers, broke through the limestone crust and can be seen in the cliffs and sands of the area. They proved exciting to geologists in the first post-Darwinian age, in indicating that the world was much older than the Biblical creationists of the day had calculated. Although he would return regularly to Ulster in later years, these tiny Larne beach scenes were among the first pictures painted of Lavery’s native province.
The Classic Tradition | Wednesday 20th May | Edinburgh