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John Lavery

No doubt a more approachable figure than his contemporary, Roderic O’Conor, Sir John Lavery (Belfast, 1856 – Kilkenny, 1941) had many dealings with the Roscommon man during his sojourn in and around Paris in the 1880s, but seems to have survived the experience intact.

In Life of an Artist (1940), his autobiography, Lavery tells of his first, eventful trip to Paris in November 1881. On his way to study at the Académie Julian, he was asked to accompany his increasingly unstable French teacher, a certain Gravet, from London back to Paris. But somehow Gravet got lost on the London underground, only to be “found asleep and partially clothed on the side of the road” outside Bromley, Kent. “How he had passed the ticket collector or where his luggage had gone remained a mystery. In the end, Lavery made it to Paris, where he met Gravet’s brother and brought the sick man to the mental asylum in Charenton (where Francis Xavier Whyte had been interned 90 years before). There, Gravet was to die some months later from “softening of the brain”.

Lavery 1 10 rue chaumiere
 The Académie Colarossi
Lavery was to spend three winters at the Académie Julian, in large part following courses given by the well-known French painter William Bougereau at 5, rue de Berri (8th arrondissement, building no longer exists). But the academism of Bouguereau pushed him also to study in the evenings, at the Académie Colarossi (10, rue de la Grande Chaumière, 6th arrondissement). Lavery paid the paltry sum of FF40 a month for board and lodgings at the Hôtel de Saxe at 12, rue Jacob (6th arrondissement), while enlightened art education policy in France at the time meant that his actual art courses cost him little at all. “We foreigners were getting our art training from what we believed to be the greatest French artists, and the nominal fees we paid only covered the cost of the rent of the studios and the cost of the models,” he wrote.
Lavery Hotel Chevillon
Lavery Jelka Rosen
 The Hôtel Chevillon
 Jelka Rosen
Lavery travelled to the artist colony at Grez-sur-Loing at least once in 1883 and spent nine months there in 1884, living cheaply and cheerily at the Hôtel Chevillon, where he became friendly with another Irish artist, Frank O’Meara, who had been living there for some time already. (Roderic O’Conor followed a couple of years later.) Laverty felt that his “happiest days in France were passed in the colony outside Paris at Gres-sur-Loinge” (sic.) While there, he also got to know a German artist Jelka Rosen, who caused quite a stir because of her “advanced ideas on life and art”. Rosen—who later married the English composer Frederick Deliusshacked up with her boyfriend of the moment in a house she bought by the river. The garden of this house proved an ideal open-air studio for models, but also for naturist pursuits, “making it a small and very select nudist camp which would have been a complete success had it not been for the mosquitoes”.
Lavery 4 Bridge at Grez
 The old bridge at Grez
It was also at Grez that, in the opinion of many modern critics, Lavery’s best work was done, including masterpieces in the style of the pleinairisme in vogue at the time. Many of the artists in the colony took stabs at painting the old stone bridge over the river at Grez. Lavery was no exception, selling one version of his Bridge at Grez to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. But Lavery's close association with the bridge could also breed confusion. In his autobiography, Lavery tells of how, many years later, an American art dealer complimented him for his world-famous picture of that lovely Irish colleen, “Miss Bridget Gray”.

In late 1884, Lavery went back to Glasgow, his adopted city, but in subsequent years made frequent visits to the French capital, and in the 1890s and early 1900s went to paint again in Grez and nearby Bourron-Marlotte, where Nathaniel Hone had lived. Lavery's last significant appearance on the Paris scene was probably when he sat on the panel of judges for the Concours d'Art section of the 1924 Olympic Games. During the Paris Olympics that year, Jack B. Yeats, brother of William Butler Yeats, won the silver medal in the painting competition for his composition The Liffey Swim.


Select Bibliography

The Life of a Painter (1940)

Sir John Lavery

Sir John Lavery (1993)

Kenneth McConkey

John Lavery and his work (1911).

Shaw Sparrow

Les colonies artistiques de Grez-sur-Loing (1910)