Tuesday, August 9, 2011

John Lavery - Miss Auras, the Red Book

signed l.r.: J Lavery
oil on canvas
76 by 63.5cm.; 30 by 25in.

ESTIMATE 80,000-120,000 GBP
Lot Sold: 204,500 GBP

Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery, Canongate 1993, p. 112, illustrated.

In 1892, taking his title from Tennyson's 'A Dream of Fair Women', the Glasgow dealer, Thomas Lawrie asked Lavery to stage an exhibition of women's portraits. Having completed Katherine and Esther, the Daughters of Lord McLaren,
(Coll. City Art Centre, Edinburgh) for the Royal Academy in that year, Lavery obliged. The title was revived in the early years of the century when under Lavery's management the International Society staged its own themed "Fair Women"
exhibitions amidst much speculation about the changes in fashion and physiognomy in modern and old master female portraits. Laurence Binyon, writing in 1908 on the exhibition that matched The Red Book with works by John Everett Millais and George Frederick Watts, mused upon the fact that 'the dead fair women who most bewitched their world and time perplex us often in their portraits' (Laurence Binyon, 'Fair Women and Other Pictures', The Saturday Review, 28 March 1908, p. 399). The beauty of the models of yesteryear had faded before the contemporary ideal - and this
was exemplified in Lavery's model, Mary Auras.

Lavery met the sixteen-year-old Mary in 1901 at Unter den Linden. At that time he had a number of important German clients and was planning an exhibition at Schulte's Gallery in Berlin the following year. Mary appeared in Lavery's work in 1902 in an important sequence of full-length portraits - Mary with Roses 1902 (Coll. Johannesburg Art Gallery), Mary in a Green Coat, 1903 (Coll. Bradford Art Gallery), Mary in Green, 1903 (Coll. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and the exceptional Printemps, 1904. When the latter was shown in the Paris Salon, it was regarded as the epitome of Englishness - French critics little realizing in the year of the Entente Cordiale, that the model was German. Arnold Bennett reflected this confusion, and wrote enthusiastically in his journal that while she apparently typified the French fascination for English girls, he had discovered that she was 'the rage of Berlin' and 'had received 5 proposals in three months' (Norman Flower ed., The Journals of Arnold Bennett, Cassell and Co, 1932, pp. 167, 170).

Travelling with Mary, Lavery was conscious of issues of propriety, sometimes taking with him a studio assistant named P Burrowes Shiel, or on other occasions enlisting the support of his teenage daughter, Eileen, who became Mary's close friend.

In addition to numerous sketches and head studies, Lavery produced a number of half-length profile portraits, of which the present example is the most important. When it appeared in the 'Fair Women' exhibition, The Red Book was praised by The Athenaeum for showing the painter 'to more advantage than has latterly been the case' (Anon, '"Fair Women" at the New Gallery', The Athenaeum, 7 March 1908, p. 296). The Studio critic T Martin Wood considered that while Lavery's canvas was placed among competitors as various as Auguste Renoir and GF Watts in the 'Fair
Women' exhibition, it was worth applauding the innocence of Lavery's young woman,
'But is not the destiny of all achievement reached by this incomplete but gracious presentment of girlhood - which in its incompleteness and its singular charm resembles Romney's Parson's Daughter? But The Red Book portrait ... represent[ed] moments of his success in painting women, and gave as distinct a character to the wall on which they hung as did the painting by Augustus John in another room ...(T. Martin Wood, 'The "Fair Women" Exhibition of the International Society', The Studio, vol. 43, 1908, p. 226-8)'.

The comparison with The Parson's Daughter (Tate Collection, London) is apposite. These years had seen a great revival of interest in late eighteenth century portraiture as great country house collections began to appear on the market. Confidence was assured by American money and by the business acumen of dealers like Joseph Duveen. However the affection for Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney and others, dubbed in France, le style anglais, had deeper roots. Lavery was as keen a student of grand manner portraiture as his sitters were, often responding with appropriate painterly flourish to eighteenth century echoes in coiffure, costume and pose.

Engrossed in a book, Miss Auras was the perfect model. Here, as in The Green Hammock, (Mannheim) she reveals a crisp profile. Two smaller seated profile studies, neither containing the book, are known (fig. 3). The motif returned to the painter's thoughts in the early 1920s when he produced a langorous portrait of Hazel Lavery holding a red book.

And as late as 1936 it remained in his mind when he persuaded his granddaughter Anne Forbes Sempill to pose reading a novel. Elsewhere throughout the oeuvre, in 'portrait-interiors' and garden scenes Lavery's female sitters are sometimes shown engrossed in books, yet only in the present work is the act of reading characterized by concentration of purpose. Freshness, vitality and visual drama made it memorable to those who first encountered it in 1907.

Kenneth McConkey

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