Sketches for 'Their Majesties’ Court' by Sir John Lavery

Sketches for 'Their Majesties’ Court' by Sir John Lavery

Professor Kenneth McConkey discusses the six sketches for Their Majesties’ Court, Buckingham Palace, 1931 by Sir John Lavery featuring in our forthcoming flagship Scottish Paintings & Sculpture auction. 

In the summer of 1888, the thirty-two-year-old John Lavery was commissioned to paint the large commemorative canvas representing the State Visit of Queen Victoria to the International Exhibition in Glasgow (Glasgow Museums). The prospect was daunting, and it took two years to complete. The only way of tackling such a monumental task was to work from an ensemble sketch done on the spot, with special sittings arranged for the key performers after the event. The process was refined as it went along, and the 250 attendees were sketched separately on small canvases that were then stamped to indicate their presence in the overall scheme. The painter was, in some senses, in competition with the camera, and although Lavery was not averse to using photographs, as a former photographer’s assistant he knew their limitations. Even as technical proficiency in the medium was developed and celluloid film began to be used, the commemorative painting should carry a sense of the grandeur of the occasion and the immediacy of the encounter. In the summer of 1888, the thirty-two-year-old John Lavery was commissioned to paint the large commemorative canvas representing the State Visit of Queen Victoria to the International Exhibition in Glasgow (Glasgow Museums). The prospect was daunting, and it took two years to complete. The only way of tackling such a monumental task was to work from an ensemble sketch done on the spot, with special sittings arranged for the key performers after the event. The process was refined as it went along, and the 250 attendees were sketched separately on small canvases that were then stamped to indicate their presence in the overall scheme. The painter was, in some senses, in competition with the camera, and although Lavery was not averse to using photographs, as a former photographer’s assistant he knew their limitations. Even as technical proficiency in the medium was developed and celluloid film began to be used, the commemorative painting should carry a sense of the grandeur of the occasion and the immediacy of the encounter. 

 

SIR JOHN LAVERY R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A., P.R.P., H.R.O.I., L.L.B. (IRISH 1856-1941) LADY VERONICA HORNBY
LOT 126 | SIR JOHN LAVERY R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A., P.R.P., H.R.O.I., L.L.B. (IRISH 1856-1941)
LADY VERONICA HORNBY | £1,500 - £2,000 + fees

 

View Lot 126 ⇒


This early experience was character forming. In later years Lavery took on similar tasks, reporting on sporting occasions, parliamentary sessions and, at the end of the 1920s, on the crowded gaming rooms in the salles privées of the casino at Monte Carlo. As before, individual players were picked out in sketches and named, before being allocated their places at the tables in the composition. 

In May 1931, the seventy-five-year-old artist faced a more difficult challenge when his wife Hazel, and stepdaughter, Alice Trudeau (lot 129), along with their friends, Lady Elsie Duveen and her daughter, Dorothy Rose, aka ‘Dolly’, were summoned to attend court at Buckingham Palace - one of four such presentations of debutantes. Although Sir Joseph Duveen commissioned him to paint the scene, permission had to be sought from His Majesty, King George V. Lavery had of course, painted the King as part of the Royal Family, back in 1913 (National Portrait Gallery) and more recently, in 1929, to celebrate the King’s recovery from illness, had produced an up-to-date portrait sketch to be reproduced and distributed by The Illustrated London News. He then wrote to Sir Derrick Keppel, Master of the Household, on 16 May 1931 saying that he had 'long contemplated making a picture of a Court presentation' and asked that he might 'be able to see the possibility of painting such a Picture before asking Their Majesties permission to make the necessary studies'. His Majesty stipulated that he work ‘unsuspected’ on a small scale, in the gallery overlooking the ballroom surrounded by the band, and on 20 May, Lavery asked to survey the room between 3-6 o'clock, and then attend from 8 o'clock onwards to sketch the ensemble. He replied to Keppel the following day explaining that he was 'so tired last night after my effort to solve the problem of how to show Their Majesties through a dense screen of helmets.' However, as the ensemble sketch for the finished work indicates (Royal Collection Trust), the setting with the presentation of debutantes was well-mapped, even though the king and queen were effectively screened by Gentlemen-at-Arms in their scarlet uniforms and white-plumed helmets. This vital record of the event was then presented to His Majesty.

 

SIR JOHN LAVERY R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A., P.R.P., H.R.O.I., L.L.B. (IRISH 1856-1941) LADY VERONICA HORNBY
LOT 127 | SIR JOHN LAVERY R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A., P.R.P., H.R.O.I., L.L.B. (IRISH 1856-1941)
LADY VERONICA HORNBY | £1,500 - £2,000 + fees

 

View Lot 127 ⇒

 

Lavery then produced individual and group studies for the identifiable figures in the foreground, completing the larger work, (238.8 x 250.2 cms) for the Royal Academy of 1932. The painting (unlocated), essentially a painting of a ‘beauty pageant’, was, along with Sickert’s Raising of Lazarus (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), one of the sensations of the Royal Academy in 1932. The Manchester Guardian (20 October 1932, p. 8) for instance wrote that ‘although painted in his 77th year’, Lavery’s achievement was ‘remarkable’, and this large canvas, over seven feet high was better than the Glasgow International picture. 

 

SIR JOHN LAVERY R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A., P.R.P., H.R.O.I., L.L.B. (IRISH 1856-1941) MRS LEO D'ERLANGER
LOT 131 | SIR JOHN LAVERY R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A., P.R.P., H.R.O.I., L.L.B. (IRISH 1856-1941)
MRS LEO D'ERLANGER | £1,500 - £2,000 + fees

 

View Lot 131 ⇒


There is no doubt that its impact depended largely upon supporting sketches, 39 of which were offered in an exhibition in May 1932 at P&D Colnaghi, to be sold at 25 or 30 gns each, in aid of the Artists’ Benevolent Fund. The comparison between these and the sketches produced in 1889-90 is instructive. In the earlier works Lavery paints more thinly and draws the figure with tip of a sable brush, while here the handling is more smudgy and expressive – giving the effect of figures in motion, trailing long diaphanous headpieces. The revelation of the artist’s working method produced enthusiastic comments, for, ‘nobody excels him in the direct notation of effect’ – indeed ‘it will be surprising if they are not eagerly bought, for they combine wit and grace in catching a likeness with charming technical qualities (‘Sir John Lavery RA’, Truth, 1 June 1932, p. 862). The Studio likened the picture to ‘one of the religious compositions of Italian painters in its combination of individual portraits and a ceremonial unity, the debutantes fluttering in their white dresses like seraphim’ (Anon, ‘The Court at Buckingham Place painted by Sir John Lavery’, The Studio, vol CIV, November 1932, p. 269). 

 

View the full selection of sketches ⇒

 

We are grateful to Kenneth McConkey for the cataloguing of these artworks and accompanying essay.

 

Auction Information

 

SCOTTISH PAINTINGS & SCULPTURE

Day Sale - Lot 1 to 101 Thursday 08 December at 2pm

Evening Sale - Lot 102 to 186 Thursday 08 December at 6pm

Live Online | Edinburgh 

 

View the auction catalogue ⇒

 

 


 

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