Sir John Lavery – The Belfast Painter of Peace and War

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John Lavery - Boating on the Thames
John Lavery – Boating on the Thames

Early Tragedy

John Lavery was born on 20th March 1856 at North Queen Street, Belfast. He was baptised on 26th at the nearby St Patrick’s Church. Lavery’s father was Henry Lavery whose family originally came from Ballymagin in County Armagh. His mother was Mary Donnelly from Lambeg.

Loss of his Father

Henry Lavery had a small wine and spirit business in the town. However, with the business struggling, Henry decided to try his luck in America, hoping to send for his family when he had established himself there. Accordingly on Wednesday 27th April 1859 he boarded the emigrant clipper Pomona in Liverpool. Sadly in the early hours of Thursday morning the ship struck the Blackwater sandbank off the coast of Wexford. Henry Lavery was among those who drowned.

“For fully twelve hours the ship held together, and the water by incessant pumping was partially kept down; but the gale, instead of subsiding, raged with increased fury; the boats (lifeboats?)were either lost or stove in, and at last, after all this agony, the ill-fated Pomona was swallowed by the waves with 386 of her passengers and crew”

Walter Shaw-Sparrow John Lavery and his Work 1911

Loss of his Mother

Mary Lavery was left a widow with three small children, Henry aged 5, John aged 3 and Jane nearly 2. The shock and grief overcame her and she died only 3 months later.


The boys were sent to live with their uncle Edward Lavery near Moira in County Down and little Jane stayed with her uncle Richard Lavery in Belfast. John remained on his uncle’s farm until the age of 10, attending the local Magheralin National School. At this point a cousin of his aunt Rose offered John the opportunity to study in Scotland, at Saltcoats in Ayrshire. The young John was unhappy there and ran away to Glasgow and then back to Ireland. However, he was to return aged 15 to take up employment.

His Interest in Art

After replying to an advert in the Glasgow Herald, John was apprenticed to the photographer J B McNair of 11 West Nile Street. In 1875 he began attending classes in the Haldane Academy of Arts. Although only in his twenties he was determined to be a portrait painter. Subsequently he studied for 6 months at London’s Heatherley School of Art.

In 1880 his first work to be exhibited Pious Reflection was hung at the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts. When this sold for 10guineas, he had the confidence to head to Paris and the Academie Julian, where he studied under Bouguereau. Here he developed his ‘pleinairiste’ style, as seen in the painting Under the Cherry Tree.

John Lavery - An Afternoon Chat Under the Cherry Tree
John Lavery – An Afternoon Chat Under the Cherry Tree

Returning to Glasgow after two years he obtained the commission to paint Queen Victoria’s visit to the International Exhibition in the city through a combination of good fortune and dogged persistence. This was to transform his career and open his way to becoming a society painter.

International Recognition for John Lavery

In London, Lavery attained the patronage of William Burrell, after being hired to paint the wealthy ship owner’s sister, Mary. He was also befriended by the established artist James McNeill Whistler. John Lavery quickly became famous, both in the United Kingdom and in Europe.

Lavery exhibited in Paris in 1889 and had a one-man show in London in the following year. He visited and displayed his work in Spain, Germany and Italy and became a Royal Scottish Academician. His paintings were commissioned by the French and Italian governments. He was also one of the four ‘Glasgow Boys’ invited to decorate the Glasgow City Chambers banqueting hall.

Lavery was fond of travelling and painting in foreign settings. He had a particular love for Tangier and bought a hillside house here in 1903. This residence was called Dar-el-Midfah. Lavery often spent the winters here. He captured the landscape and people in numerous paintings including A Street in Tangier, A Moorish Dance and The House Tops of Tangier.

Love and Marriage

In 1890 John married Kathleen McDermott, a flower seller. The couple had one daughter named Eileen Marion. Unfortunately Kathleen was to die of tuberculosis less than a year later.

In 1909 John married socialite Hazel Trudeau in the Brompton Oratory in London. Hazel was the daughter of Edward Jenner Martyn, a self-made businessman from Chicago. The Martyn family were originally from County Galway. Lavery was to paint over 400 portraits of his wife including Mrs Lavery Sketching, Rose Red and Hazel in Black and Gold. John and Hazel lived at 5 Cromwell Place in London.

John Lavery - Mrs Lavery Sketching
Mrs Lavery Sketching by John Lavery
John Lavery - Hazel in Black and Gold
Hazel in Black and Gold by John Lavery

War Art

In 1918 John Lavery was knighted in recognition of his work as a war artist. Having suffered severe injuries in a car crash during a Zeppelin raid, Lavery never went to the Front. His war paintings however capture scenes from Britain at the time.  These works include The First Wounded, The Fore Cabin HMS Queen Elizabeth (depicting Admiral Beatty reading the terms of surrender to the German navy), The German Delegates Arrival on Board and WW1 War Room.

John Lavery - The First Wounded
John Lavery – The First Wounded
The Fore Cabin of HMS Queen Elizabeth
The Fore Cabin of HMS Queen Elizabeth

Irish War of Independence

The Lavery’s were also to get involved with the treaty negotiations during the Irish War of Independence. It is suggested that Hazel, with her rather idealistic views of Celtic revival, prompted this move. Leaders from both sides attended their London home for portrait sittings including Eamonn de Valera, Arthur Griffiths and Winston Churchill. Both John and Hazel were friends of Michael Collins, the leader of the Irish delegation. Lavery’s painting of the dead Collins, after his assassination on 22nd August 1922, reflects a true depth of feeling. The work entitled Love of Ireland hangs in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

John Lavery - Winston Churchill
John Lavery – Winston Churchill
John Lavery - Michael Collins Love of Ireland
John Lavery – Michael Collins

Recognition at Home

Sir John Lavery was also an honorary member of the Belfast Art Society and was elected its president in 1919. He exhibited frequently in his native city as well as the Royal Hibernian Academy. In 1930 John Lavery was awarded the ‘freedom of Belfast’ the first artist to be so recognised. In 1935 he was made an honorary freeman of Dublin. Hazel was to gain lasting fame, as her portrait dressed as an Irish colleen was printed on Irish banknotes.

The Madonna of the Lakes

On Easter Sunday 20th April 1919 a triptych The Madonna of the Lakes, painted by Lavery was unveiled in St Patrick’s Church in Belfast. This city centre church was where he had been baptized. His wife Hazel was the model for the Madonna and his daughter Eileen and stepdaughter Alice posed for the young St Patrick and St Brigid.

John Lavery - The Madonna of the Lakes
John Lavery – The Madonna of the Lakes

Sir John Lavery Reflections

In 1935, both Lady Hazel Lavery and John’s daughter Eileen, now Lady Sempill, died. Lavery continued to paint, but with the outbreak of WW2, moved to live with his stepdaughter in County Kilkenny. In 1940 he published his autobiography The Life of a Painter.

On 1st January 1941 aged 85, John Lavery passed away. He was buried in Dublin in Mount Jerome but several years later was reinterred beside Hazel in London.

Northern Whig Jan 1941 - Tribute to John Lavery
Northern Whig Jan 1941 – Tribute to John Lavery
Northern Whig Jan 1941 - His Wife's Portrait
Northern Whig Jan 1941 – His Wife’s Portrait
Northern Whig Jan 1941 - Extract of John Lavery article
Northern Whig Jan 1941 – Extract of John Lavery article

The Legacy of Sir John Lavery

It is a tribute to John Lavery’s talent that he was to rise from the humblest of beginnings to become a world famous artist. His works adorn galleries, museums, churches and private collections throughout Europe and America. A collection of 34 of Lavery’s paintings, donated by the artist himself in 1929, hang in the Ulster Museum, Belfast.

Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, Belfast BT9 5AB   Tel 028 90440000 Ulster Museum Website

St Patrick’s Church, 199 Donegall Street, Belfast BT1 2FL   Tel 028 90324597 – Story of Lavery’s Triptych Altarpiece

Northern Whig Jan 1941 - Death of John Lavery
Northern Whig Jan 1941 – Death of John Lavery

Gallery of John Lavery Paintings

A small selection of Sir John Lavery’s paintings are shown below. These serve to demonstrate the enormous variety of his works

John Lavery - The Green Sofa
John Lavery – The Green Sofa
John Lavery - A Summer Afternoon
John Lavery – A Summer Afternoon
John Lavery - Red Cross Hostel Rouen 1919
John Lavery – Red Cross Hostel Rouen 1919
The Tennis Party - John Lavery
The Tennis Party – John Lavery
John Lavery - The Red Rose
John Lavery – The Red Rose
John Lavery - A Coast Defence Tyneside 1917
John Lavery – A Coast Defence Tyneside 1917
John Lavery - A Windy Day
John Lavery – A Windy Day

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Eileen Jordan · 14 June 2021 at 8:07 am

Really enjoyed learning of this artist’s background. I’m very proud of his determination and hard work, and especially of his notoriety!

    P&P · 14 June 2021 at 8:29 am

    We love the variety of his work from those gentle boating scenes to the almost photographic war paintings and those portraits…

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